WASHINGTON — In a prime-time televised address Wednesday night, President Obama said he will authorize the use of air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq.
“Our objective is clear: We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy,” Obama said, referring to a multinational coalition of European and some Middle-Eastern allies. "That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven."
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers condemned the Islamic State at a forum Wednesday. In Defense of Christians, a non-profit organization, brought hundreds of religious leaders to Washington this week and staged a forum for them to hear from human-rights advocates and a dozen lawmakers at an auditorium underneath the Capitol Wednesday morning and afternoon.
Sen. Deborah Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, said members of the militant group are "worshippers not of faith but violence." Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, compared the Islamic State to the Nazis of the 1930s and ’40s. "This reminds us of the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust," he said in a speech.
The Islamic State swept into power in cities in northern and central Iraq over the spring and summer. The militants’ rough tactics, such as the beheading of two American journalists, as well as its forcing local Christians to leave their ancestral homelands, has earned condemnation worldwide.
Lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill on Monday and Tuesday. They could not escape the headlines about the Islamic State during their five-week break in August, but taking steps to thwart the militant Islamists might prove difficult.
Several lawmakers said that besides providing funding to train and equip military opponents of the Islamic State, Congress was unlikely to approve new bills to send to the president’s desk for his signature. (The Washington Post reported that Senate leaders have inserted language into a continuing resolution to fund the federal government that would authorize the use of $500 million to train and equip Iraqi security forces and Kurdish fighters to strike ISIS or ISIL).
Lawmakers have limited time. Both chambers are expected to break again for the congressional mid-term elections in the next two weeks.
There is evidence Americans support air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria. According to a Washington-Post ABC poll, 65 percent said they back the use of military strikes in Syria. And Rep. Buck McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Washington Examiner it would be “misleading to suggest that the use of any American forces on the ground is akin to ‘serial occupation.’” But few lawmakers have followed his lead.
With an apparent lack of public support for using American ground forces, Republicans have criticized Obama for being too cautious and his comment of August 28 that the administration doesn’t “have a strategy yet” to counter the threat of ISIS. Sen. Portman took a swipe at a comment from an Obama administration official that the president sought to “lead from behind” when working with other nations on military matters.
“We can’t lead from behind,” Portman said to applause from members of the audience that lasted five seconds. “We can’t be the world’s policeman, but we have to lead. We have to lead, not just in Iraq but around the world … No other country has the resources, the will, or the clarity to stand up to the evil of ISIL.”
Rep. James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the criticism was unlikely to result in formulating a strong policy response and was little more than saber rattling. “It’s rhetoric and it’s not helpful,” McGovern said.
McGovern said he did not support legislation from Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, that would allow broader military airstrikes against the Islamic State. “My problem with Frank’s bill is that it’s too broad. My gosh, we had a war in Iraq that killed 100,000 Iraqis and lots of Americans ten years ago and now ISIL is sweeping through Iraq. We ended up in a lousy position,” McGovern said.
Mark Stricherz is based in Washington. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.