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Obama's Plan To Confront Islamic State Wins Cautious Support

(WhiteHouse.gov video screen capture)
(WhiteHouse.gov video screen capture)

On the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11, and after the gruesome beheadings of two American journalists, President Barack Obama told the American people in a televised address that the United States would "degrade, and ultimately destroy" the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, "through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy."

Obama said that U.S. forces would conduct air strikes and "provide support to the forces fighting these terrorists on the ground, but he was also emphatic that "American forces will not have a combat mission."

The reaction to the president's address split somewhat predictably along partisan lines although both Republican and Democratic members of the local delegation generally agree that the Islamic State, or ISIL or ISIS, presents a threat to this country.

U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said that “ISIL poses a very real threat to our homeland and to free people everywhere.  The strategy that the president outlined tonight is strong, strategic and worthy of bipartisan support.”

For her part, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she was glad to hear that the president is assembling a strong, international coalition against ISIS.  “But it is critical that we aim before we shoot, and so I was pleased tonight to hear the president’s strategy to confront the threat of ISIS today and in the future,” she said.

Like McCaskill, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., focused on building an international coalition. "I am heartened that the president is building a strong coalition of partner nations to joint us in this fight and that we will count on Iraqi and other ground forces which will confront ISIL with our direction, equipment and air support."  

While some area Republicans supported air strikes and assistance to Iraqi and Kurdish opponents of the Islamic State, they still expressed little confidence in the president.

U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, was particularly critical of Obama.

“Let’s be clear, the Islamic State would not exist today if President Obama had listened to our military commanders on the ground who warned against his hasty, politically-motivated withdrawal from Iraq," said Shimkus. "I support expanding U.S. airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria to take out ISIS leadership and to provide support for Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground.  I also support arming and training trustworthy elements of the Syrian resistance to leave no place for ISIS fighters to retreat as Iraqi government forces reclaim territory.”

Credit St. Louis Public Radio
Roy Blunt

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said, "Like the rest of the nation, I will be watching closely for what actions the president ultimately takes. If left unchecked, the danger posed by ISIL could easily produce a significant threat to the United States. This group is not a 'manageable problem,' as the president described it last week. But instead, it matches his description today of a group that must be defeated. I hope the president's plan and his resolve can meet the goal of defeating this enemy."

While Blunt maintains that Obama "has the authority to respond to this threat under congressional action from 2001," he said that Obama has mishandled his relationship with Congress on this matter. He believes that Obama "could have benefited from coming to Congress with a more specific plan and asking Congress to reaffirm that authority."

While some lawmakers may want to avoid confronting a vote to authorize the use of force against ISIL, Durbin suggests the issue remains open.  "There are still questions to be answered in the days ahead as Congress reviews the president's strategy and considers its constitutional responsibility when our nation faces this type of military decision."    

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, said he could support a number of actions outlined by the president, “including increasing the number of air strikes on ISIL in both Iraq and Syria, ensuring the Iraqi government is stabilized and building a coalition of nations to unite against an enemy of freedom and in the name of humanity.

Deja vu all over again?

One year ago, Congress handed Obama a political defeat when it rejected his request for authorization to launch missile strikes against Syria over that country’s chemical weapons. Since last week, Republicans have been chiding the president for saying “we don’t have a strategy yet,” on how the United States would deal with the Islamic State.

At the time, the president said, “There’s no point in me asking for action on the part of Congress before I know exactly what it is that is going to be required for us to get the job done.”

While Obama is not formally asking Congress to authorize the use of force in his proposal, he is asking for congressional support and money.       

What remains to be seen is whether lawmakers will demand a say in what the president has outlined and will they vote to support his plan?

In this case, Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that many Republicans and some Democrats are dealing with “cross currents” in that they want to show their constituents that they have acted on this issue, “but they also want to make sure that their constituents know that they continue to resist President Obama on most issue and that they can be counted on to do that,” he said.

Robertson said this is a problem particularly for Republicans:

“They want to keep together the coalition of those Republicans who want to see action on foreign policy, very full-throated and aggressive foreign policy, but also those Republicans who have been trending in a more isolationist direction, who don’t want to see the United States replay the early 2000s and get heavily involved in a conflict, that in the end, from their point of view boosted the strength of the national government, which in many cases is what they didn’t want to see.”

Robertson says Republicans may also be concerned that Obama could see a boost in public opinion polls just weeks before an election. He says if a boost does materialize and persists into early November, “it could have some political consequences in a few closely fought races.”

Changing the narrative in the Middle East

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said that when the United States pulled out of Iraq much of the world, including countries in the Middle East, tended to see Obama “as an American president who no longer really wanted to be that active, who didn’t want to take political risks at home and who was increasingly inclined toward disengagement.”   

If Congress does go along with the president’s request to help the Syrian opposition, O'Hanlon said it will help to change the perception of the United States in the Middle East. 

The United States is at a turning point because of the president’s strategy to prod the Iraqis to “form a government of national unity with a new prime minister," said O'Hanlon. "Certainly that was noticed in the Middle East, and it was noticed that Washington had its own strong views, and to some extent got its way, so far.”

Now that we’re seeing the Iraqi government come together, there is a question of how the United States will help to reconstitute the Iraqi army. This is the same army that fled attacks by ISIS earlier this year. “It may not be enough for us to simply give them a few more weapons or to cheer from the sidelines or drop a few bombs on their enemies. We may have to get in there with them in the form of mentoring teams,” he said.

Syria presents a much more intractable set of issues because "there is no ground force we have to work with as our close ally and the Assad regime is not acceptable as such an ally,” said O’Hanlon.  “We’re going to have to really get serious about creating this moderate Syrian opposition.  And there are ways to try to do this with a truly vigorous U.S. training program and then a promise of affiliation and linkage to American government capabilities afterward as they ultimately go to battle in defense of their country.” 

He says U.S. support will have to be “fairly compelling” by providing air power, logistics, weaponry and intelligence over the long term.  “If we’re not prepared to do that, then I don’t believe that we’ll be successful,” he said.

As for Congress considering the president’s request to fund the arming and training of moderate Syrian rebels, O’Hanlon says, “passing a $500 million appropriation, that nice but that just begins the process, it doesn’t end it.”