As President Obama prepares to rally the nation behind his plan for battling the ISIS threat in a nationally televised speech Wednesday night, Republicans are walking a fine line between having to back up their commander-in-chief and exploiting the president’s foreign policy mistakes in the run-up to the Nov. 4 midterm election.
Congressional Republican leaders and rank and file members have signaled a willingness to line up behind a solid and well-articulated plan for crushing the ISIS threat, although there is sharp division over whether Obama needs new authority to expand the current U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq into Syria.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other Republicans facing reelection have begun airing campaign ads taking Obama to task for inadequate leadership and allowing ISIS to grow into a formidable force before finally sounding the alarm.
Until recently, the mounting crisis in Iraq and Syria got scant attention on the campaign trail, as lawmakers and their challengers focused more on bread and butter issues, including the economy and jobs, and the controversy over immigration reform. But Americans were shocked into awareness of the growing strength of the militant Islamic group and became far more supportive of tough action after ISIS released videotapes of the beheading of two American journalists.
“This is the first time anything outside the borders of the United States has come up in my campaign,” McConnell told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday. His campaign has a new TV ad with a brief clip of an ISIS militant firing a weapon while the narrator says “these are serious times,” according to Politico. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, Senate Republican challenger Scott Brown has posted an ad mocking Obama’s ill-spoken “We don’t have a strategy yet” line and denouncing the president’s foreign policy as a “failure.”
“A large majority of GOP members of Congress will back Obama on air strikes, while wrapping their support in a package of criticism,” University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato said today. "They will be saying things like, Obama should have acted sooner, he should have gone into Syria last year, he must send some ground troops too, etc."
Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN), a veteran GOP lawmaker, cautioned his party against heavy-handed efforts to exploit the president’s foreign policy dilemma for political gain. He said that while it was unfortunate the Obama administration is so badly “behind the curve” on ISIS, “We have to put that aside and say this is a defining moment and this is a threat that goes to all Americans and people around the world that believe in a civilized orderly rule of law world instead of this barbarism that’s taking place through ISIS,” Coats said during an interview with CNN today.
A new Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll released yesterday found that nearly two-thirds of those interviewed believe it is in the country’s interest to confront ISIS with stepped up air strikes. Moreover, about 40 percent said that any U.S. military action against the terrorist group should be limited to air strikes in northern Iraq and parts of Syria, while 34 percent said they would support both air strikes and committing U.S. ground troop to the battle.
Those findings mark “a remarkable mood swing for an electorate that just a year ago recoiled at Mr. Obama’s proposal to launch airstrikes against Syria” in support of a rebellion against the government of President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, The Wall Street Journal noted.
The president’s eagerly anticipated speech tonight will be a pivotal moment in Obama’s presidency, as he attempts to articulate a long-term strategy in concert with NATO allies for “degrading and ultimately destroying the terrorist group,” and alleviating potential terrorist threats against Europe and the United States.
For the past several years, Obama has opposed military action in Syria, in part out of concern that efforts to arm rebels opposing the Assad regime could backfire or strengthen the hand of more extreme militants. Even when he threatened to launch missile strikes against Syria a year ago after Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, strong congressional opposition prompted the president to back down and seek a diplomatic solution.
Obama is now prepared to authorize airstrikes in Syria, The New York Times reported yesterday. “But Mr. Obama is still wrestling with a series of challenges,” The Times reported, “including how to train and equip a viable ground force to fight ISIS inside Syria, how to intervene without aiding . . . Assad, and how to enlist potentially reluctant partners like Turkey and Saudi Arabia.”
It’s possible, of course, that Obama can galvanize the nation with a strong speech tonight that might help to alter the public’s perception of him as a weak or feckless leader. Although it’s far from a parallel situation, former President George W. Bush’s flagging approval ratings shot up after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Obama’s job approval rating has been hovering at historic lows in the 40 percent range for months. Many political analysts attribute the Republicans’ strong prospects for winning back control of the Senate to widespread disenchantment with Obama and his policies.
Indeed, the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found that public approval of his handling foreign policy hit a new low of 32 percent. And by a wide margin, respondents to the survey viewed Republicans as better able than Democrats “to ensure a strong national defense and conduct foreign policy.”
“Obama's ratings on foreign policy will improve, but for how long?” said Sabato. “This is very different than 9-11. I don't see it having any dramatic effects on the election.”
In a speech this morning at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, former Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a lengthy criticism of Obama’s foreign policy, blaming “five and a half years of an Administration sending regular messages of retreat, withdrawal and indifference” for most of the crises currently roiling the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Cheney called for a build-up of the American military and a more aggressive posture overseas.
With regard to ISIS, he called for a large-scale military response. “A realistic strategy has to recognize that ISIS is a grave, strategic threat to the United States. The situation is dire and defeating these terrorists will require immediate, sustained, simultaneous action across multiple fronts. Phasing in our actions will not suffice. Such a strategy will only prolong the conflict and increase the casualties.”
Summing up the Republicans’ distain for Obama and his leadership overseas, Sen. John McCain of Arizona told reporters yesterday that: “The American people are figuring it out that this is the most ineffective president in the 21st century. You would have to go back to Jimmy Carter” to find a more incompetent president.
The Fiscal Times’ Rob Garver contributed to this article
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