President Obama announced Wednesday evening his strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), laying out how the United States will lead a “broad coalition” to confront the brutal, extremist movement that has taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
The strategy, announced during a primetime address on the eve of the thirteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, focuses heavily on airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, arming and training opposition forces fighting ISIS on the ground—something the president has asked for Congressional approval—and sending 475 service members would head to the region to assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces with “training, intelligence and equipment.”
Between the limited details—the president didn’t name any of the allies participating in the coalition or offer many details on the scope or parameters of the operation—and the optics of a president who promised to pull the country out of Middle East now leading the way into a third war, critics from both sides of the aisle have been left sputtering.
Republicans eviscerated the speech from the right—it was “fundamentally unserious,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz—but even his own party was skeptical about getting into yet another conflict in the region.
On the right, Republicans who support intervening in the country were dismayed at the limits of the operation.
“The President's plan will likely be insufficient to destroy ISIS, which is the world's largest, richest terrorist army,” Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham from Arizona and South Carolina, respectively, argued in a joint statement. They called for special forces on the ground, regional forces from U.S. allies to make up the ‘boots on the ground’ portion of the coalition, a stronger residual American force in Iraq, and the deposing of Syria’s president. “Assad still must go,” they said.
House Speaker John Boehner lauded the president for moving forward with an intervention, but criticized the limits he set.
"A speech is not the same thing as a strategy," Boehner said in a statement immediately after the speech. "While the president presented a compelling case for action, many questions remain about the way in which the president intends to act.”
The partisan divide when it comes to handling ISIS is huge. Republicans are seen as far more capable of handling the crisis -- 18% more believe the GOP is best at handling foreign policy, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll earlier this week -- and their base is far more fearful, with 82% of Republicans “very concerned” about Islamic extremism globally, compared to just five in ten Democrats. It’s a cocktail that is undoubtedly ramping up the right's criticism of the president.
On the left, meanwhile, many Democrats responded with frustration to the undefined limits of the military strategy Obama outlined in his speech.
“The American people must be assured that we are not pursuing another open-ended conflict in the Middle East, and I will not give this president -- or any other president -- a blank check to begin another land war in Iraq,” Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall said in a statement. "I will continue to demand that the administration provide a very clear picture of its goals and objectives.”
Senator Harry Reid said Thursday that the president has requested $500 million for the campaign as part of the continuing resolution that Congress must pass by September 30 to avoid another government shutdown. But not all Democrats are lining up behind the Majority Leader.
The country "can't continue to foot the bill of Middle East conflicts, and the nations in the region need to step up in a meaningful way. After over a decade of costly war, many Alaskans are rightfully wary of putting combat troops on the ground,” Alaska’s Sen. Mark Begich said in a statement.
Both Sens. Udall and Begich are facing tough reelection battles in November.
Despite their criticism, Reid was optimistic Thursday that the two parties could come together to authorize the training of moderate Syrian rebels, adding that he was waiting for Boehner to take up the bill and had spoken to his Republican counterpart twice since the president's address.
“Now it’s up to Congress to rally behind President Obama. I’m confident we’ll put our political differences aside,” Reid said Thursday afternoon. He dodged particularly partisan questions, sounding confident that the two parties could rise above all the other issues they have warred over the last six years.
“If we can't come together to keep us safe from terrorism, don't know what can [bring us together],” Reid continued.
Many anti-war Democrats joined Republicans to demand that the president get congressional approval.
“I was insulted by [the president’s suggestion that Congress should support him.]” California Rep. Jim McDermott said, calling it “reckless” and “condescending.”
“The facts are clear. We are no longer talking about limited strikes to prevent genocide and protect U.S. personnel. We are talking about sustained bombing and the use of military force,” the former co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee said in a statement. “The threat from ISIS is serious. But before we take any further military action, Congress must debate the threats to our national security, the risks to American servicemen and women and the financial costs of waging another war in the Middle East.”
Not everyone was as frustrated by the speech: Some, like Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota—one of the Senate’s more liberal senators—showed cautious support.
“I agree with the President that we need to degrade and ultimately destroy them," he said in a statement, but promised that he’d ask a lot of questions about the details of the plan.
Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine and Diane Feinstein, of Virginia and California, respectively, both issued statements of support.
"I fully support President Obama's decision to utilize his authority to begin a counterterrorism effort against the terrorist army [ISIS],” said Feinstein, the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I applaud him for recognizing the seriousness of the threat and for going on the offense against this threat."