Islamic State strategy: Divisions in Congress surface ahead of Obama’s speech

Much of the dissonance comes from real clashes over policy, but some of it also reflects the politics of the midterm elections. Congress’s two top politicians spoke about the Islamic State Wednesday.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. (l.) talks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, as Congress honored victims of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, during a 'Fallen Heroes of 9/11 Gold Medal Ceremony.'

A chief goal of President Obama’s in his speech Wednesday night is to unify the nation and Congress around his plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militant Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

But divisions in Congress have already surfaced, most prominently in back-to-back speeches in the Senate Wednesday morning from its two top politicians: majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada and minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky.

Much of the dissonance comes from real clashes over policy. But some of it also reflects the politics of the midterm elections, now two months away.

On the policy front, Senator Reid stood firmly by Mr. Obama’s approach of strategic airstrikes, no boots on the ground, and international coalitions to destroy the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL. “Let’s be cautious. Let’s be deliberate,” he said. That fits Obama’s attitude to a T.

Senator McConnell, while not contradicting the need to build coalitions or strike at the militant Islamists from the air, urged Obama to pivot to a more militarily robust and forward-leaning stance. IS has grown in an American context of military drawdown and lack of leadership, he suggested. “The president is a rather reluctant commander in chief."

On the politics front, Reid was ready with the rhetoric, stoked by Tuesday’s meeting of former Vice President Dick Cheney with House Republicans. “Now that the Republicans are taking advice from Dick Cheney on foreign policy, I’m concerned that they once again will rush to commit US troops to a ground war in the Middle East,” he said. Reid said he was “amazed” that “some members of Congress want to rush to war.”

McConnell batted that away as a “straw man” argument “that anyone who disagrees with [the president’s] failed approach is bent on serial occupations or bent on invasions.” Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, agreed with McConnell, saying, “I don’t know anyone on our side who is advocating ‘an invasion.’ ”

For the public, rhetoric that basically accuses the GOP of wanting to start a ground war can obscure a complex debate. Lawmakers may not be pushing invasion, but there is concern that airstrikes alone won’t do the job, especially in Syria.

“We do not need American infantry and tanks rolling back into Anbar Province in Iraq or into northern Syria,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote in a commentary piece in Time last week. “But it is not enough simply to send a few hundred troops to defend American diplomatic compounds.”

Still, warning against a ground war makes for good politics in an election year.

It can be argued that McConnell, too, was not immune from politicking. He warned Obama not to simply “manage” the threat and “pass it off to his successor.”

But no president, Democrat or Republican, has yet been able to shut down Islamic terrorism for good. While Obama seeks to destroy IS, Islamic extremism depends on a host of factors, some of them out of US control, and is not easily defeated, analysts say.

Obama “has to prepare the country for the idea that no one is going to eliminate the problem of Islamic extremism in this presidency or probably the next," Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for International and Strategic Studies, told the Los Angeles Times this week.

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