A day after President Obama laid out his case for why U.S. military efforts against Islamic State militants are succeeding, senators tore into Pentagon officials for what they see as an ineffective, aimless Middle East strategy that has produced few positive results.
"There is no compelling reason to believe that anything we are currently doing will be sufficient to achieve the president's stated goal of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, using another name for the Islamic State group.
"Our means and our current level of effort are not aligned with our ends," McCain said. "That suggests we are not winning, and when you are not winning in war, you are losing."
Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee questioned fundamental aspects of the Middle East plan — using U.S. airstrikes and small numbers of American trainers to bolster Iraqi security forces fighting against the advancing enemy.
On Monday, in a rare visit to the Pentagon, Obama said the fight will be a lengthy campaign but insisted U.S. forces have seen positive signs already, noting that about 5,000 airstrikes have been conducted over the last 11 months and a quarter of the area seized by ISIL fighters in Iraq has been reclaimed by friendly forces.
But McCain laughed off those successes as "a disturbing degree of self-delusion" by Obama. He pushed defense officials on putting combat controllers on the ground closer to the fighting, allowing more airstrikes against ISIL positions.
"The president is fond of the truism that there is no military solution to ISIL or any other problem," he said. "What he has so often failed to realize is that there is sometimes a major military dimension to achieving a political solution."
That would require a reversal of Obama's promises not to put "boots on the ground" in the fight, but the move wasn't completely ruled out by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
But Dempsey emphasized that while additional American military power might produce some short-term success, "the silver bullet is to get the Iraqis to fight."
That means building up more Iraqi security forces, a move administration officials hope will accelerate with the addition of 450 more U.S. trainers and the opening of several more training sites last month.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said about 8,800 Iraqi army soldiers and another 2,000 counterterrorism personnel have been trained so far, well below the pace U.S. military officials had hoped for. Another 4,000 soldiers and 600 counterterrorism specialists are in training now.
Carter also added that 7,000 moderate Syrian rebels are being vetted for entry into the fight, but so far only 60 have begun training.
That low number drew the ire of several lawmakers, who said the White House's decision to treat the Syria and Iraq situations separately has led to a muddled mess that benefits America's enemies.
Dempsey said the campaign to push back the Islamic State in Iraq likely will take three years, and reiterated Obama's call for patience a day earlier. But he also acknowledged it will take "a generation" to influence the cultural changes needed to make the region a permanently stable, thriving democracy.
Those timelines did little to calm lawmakers' concerns. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., questioned whether the military was already losing control of the situation in Iraq, and may be forced into self-defense before Iraqi allies can be adequately stood up.
Several Democrats on the committee, including ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, R-R.I., voiced concerns about the military "being drawn deeper into a seemingly intractable Middle East conflict."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Obama's strategy "doesn't have sufficient respect for the use of military force to be a success," blasting the president for being more interested in ending wars than winning them.
Complicating the Iraq effort has been the inability of lawmakers to pass a new military force authorization for the campaign, despite repeated White House requests for such campaign parameters.
Lawmakers in both parties criticized language sent over by the White House in February, but progress on drawing up the new legal engagement rules has been stalled since then.
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials have committed about 3,500 troops and 1,600 pilots to the fight under authorizations approved in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, arguing ISIL presents an immediate threat to the homeland.
On Monday, Obama said he has no plans to increase the U.S. military footprint in the region for now, but left open the possibility if the situation continues to deteriorate.