White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said U.S. leaders "weren't surprised" by the collapse of the government in Yemen but argued that it will not hinder efforts to fight al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
"Important counter-terrorism efforts continue," McDonough said on CBS' "Face the Nation," Sunday. "There is no doubt about that and we will continue to press that. We will also continue to see that we have the intelligence we need to see threats as they manifest, that's the second point. The third point is we will continue to work on the political situation because we know that al Qaeda hides in these dark, tumultuous situations to ply their trade. We will continue to do that. And ultimately we are going to need partners in the region to help us clean those spaces out. The best way to do that is strong leadership and we will look, strong transparent leadership, and we will continue to look for that."
The resignation of pro-American President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his government last week threatened to complicate American efforts to fight AQAP. President Obama had held up Yemen as a model of American counterterrorism efforts, with a light footprint focused on eliminating threats to the homeland.
"Yemen has never been a perfect democracy or an island of stability," he said Sunday in New Delhi during a trip to India. "The alternative would be for us to play whack-a-mole every time there is a terrorist actor inside of any given country to deploy U.S. troops and that is not a sustainable strategy."
McDonough echoed Mr. Obama's argument Sunday, saying that the U.S. still has the correct strategy there and should stay the course. At this point, he argued, the U.S. should press for a political resolution in Yemen, help make security forces in the region more effective with training and equipping programs, and have good intelligence about when a threat is manifesting.
"I think it's very important to recognize that governance in Yemen has always been difficult," he said. "We will continue to press actors on the ground including today to make decisions transparently pursuant to a political agreement so we can work with them to keep on the offensive against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But we can't be responsible for every government in the region; we have to make sure that they're doing that themselves."
But some of the president's critics argue that the administration is failing to recognize a growing threat in the region.
In a separate interview on "Face the Nation," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Arizona, said that McDonough and the president "have lost touch with reality." He said that Iran poses a major threat, in part because they back the Houthi rebels in Yemen that have destabilized the government there.
"I did not hear Mr. McDonough articulate a strategy except that we will fight against these people which is nice to know but when you look at the map the Iranians are on the march, AQAP and the ISIS in both Iraq and Syria are doing quite well. There is no strategy to defeat them," McCain said.
He went even further, saying it is "delusional" for the White House to think their method is successful, and said that the U.S. needs to put boots on the ground in the region.
"I know that's a tough thing to say and a tough thing for Americans to swallow but it doesn't mean the 82nd airborne, it means forward air controllers, it means special forces, it means intelligence and it means other capabilities and for them to say we expect them to do it on their own. They're not doing it on their own and they are losing," McCain said.
His concerns were echoed in part by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"My concern is where is Iran going," Feinstein said. "Iran has been supporting the Houthis. Is Iran trying to begin the development of an Iranian crescent? I don't know, but I think we have to think long term and we have to...develop the human side of intelligence rather than the technical side of intelligence."
She said she agreed with McCain that the U.S. needs more special operations forces on the ground in the Middle East and needs to protect allies in the region like Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
The president "is in a difficult position," Feinstein admitted. "The American people don't want another war. There's been two Iraq wars, there's been one Afghan war, they don't see it, it's in a foreign land, it's far and apart from them, so this is very difficult."
McDonough also sought to dispute critics who said the U.S. has been continually taken by surprise by crises abroad.
"We have obviously been investing enormous effort in Yemen as we have in Iraq against ISIL, in Syria as well," McDonough said, using an alternative acronym for ISIS. "We ought to make sure we're pressing on the leaders in those countries to resolve them transparently and pursuant to their constitutional processes. We'll continue to do that. We'll also continue to help them prepare, train and equip their security forces so they can take the fight to these forces in their own countries. After all, they're the biggest victims of their perfidy and of their hateful actions and the third thing we'll continue to do is where we need to act to protect our own interests we'll do that. This president's proven he'll do it; he'll do it when he needs to."