- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Obama administration struggled Sunday to define its strategy for beating back the Islamic State in Iraq and particularly in Syria, where its plan to rely on moderate fighters at this stage is complicating President Obama’s sales pitch to Congress and his legacy of winding down wars in the Middle East.

While Secretary of State John F. Kerry said it is a “waste of time” to focus on the semantics of whether America is at war or not with the extremists — also known as ISIS or ISIL — White House chief of staff Denis McDonough answered that irrelevant question after being asked it at the start of several Sunday political shows.

“In as much as we’ve been at war with al Qaeda since we got here, we’re at war with ISIS,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” On the CBS show “Face the Nation,” Mr. Kerry spoke similarly about the irrelevant question, saying the U.S. is “at war with ISIL.”

Yet by any name, Republican lawmakers said they’re not convinced the president is taking the threat seriously enough, as the group of Sunni extremists has grown to tens of thousands strong in a bid to establish a caliphate — a Muslim theocracy with strict adherence to Islamic law.

Mr. Obama announced a new strategy last week that combines U.S. air power with foreign partners on the ground. That includes arming and training Iraqi and Kurdish security forces while relying on moderate forces in Syria — even as the country contends with a civil war. But the White House has denigrated the Syrian fighters’ capabilities before, and renewed efforts to fight terrorism in the Middle East do not comport with Mr. Obama’s legacy of bringing troops home from yearslong engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“ISIS does not fit in this president’s narrative,” Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, told “Face the Nation.”

SEE ALSO: Arab coalition behind Obama not quite clear

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, was more direct.

“This is a turning point in the war on terror. Our strategy will fail yet again,” he told “Fox News Sunday.” “This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back home.”

Their concerns took on new urgency over the weekend as the Islamic State released yet another video showing one of their fighters beheading a Western civilian.

British Prime Minister David Cameron called the murder of David Haines, a 44-year-old aid worker, a “despicable and appalling” act. Earlier, the Islamic State released videos showing the beheadings of Americans journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

“We will work with the United Kingdom and a broad coalition of nations from the region and around the world to bring the perpetrators of this outrageous act to justice, and to degrade and destroy this threat to the people of our countries, the region and the world,” Mr. Obama vowed late Saturday.

The shocking footage has rallied Western allies to confront the Islamic State — an effort that’s been complicated by U.S. opposition to the Assad regime in Syria — while it tries to confront the extremists in a swath of that country and Iraq.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, has said Congress should support the president’s request for money to equip and train Syrian rebels, stating it is “important we give the president what he’s asking for.”

Even so, Congress will have to come to terms with the White House’s approach this month as it looks to the midterm elections. Skeptical Republicans wondered Sunday if Mr. Obama is using all the tools at his disposal.

Mr. McCaul said the prince of Jordan personally told him he would put his own troops into Syria, while Mr. Graham complained that Mr. Obama should have trained and armed the Free Syrian Army a long time ago.

“I want a regional coalition. I want the Free Syrian Army in the fight. I want Arab countries in the fight,” Mr. Graham said. “But here is what I’m tired of hearing from this administration and my friends on the other side and within my party: that this is somehow easy and really not our fight. Name one Arab army you could put together any time soon to deal with a terrorist army of over 30,000 without a substantial American commitment.”

Despite the challenges before him, Mr. Obama said Friday that there is actually a “silver lining” to the Islamic State’s rise.

“What gives me confidence is that we’re on the right side of history here,” Mr. Obama said at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Baltimore. “What also is a silver lining in the terrible mayhem that ISIL has brought throughout the region is it has focused attention, I think for the first time in a long time in the Muslim world, on the need to distance from and ultimately snuff out this brand of Islamic extremism.”

Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.

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