ISIS Invades Midterms
Just two months before midterm elections, President Obama’s announcement that the U.S. will pursue a military campaign in Iraq and Syria has lawmakers rethinking their midterm election efforts.
Since he took office in 2008, the Obama administration has wrestled with a number of foreign policy conundrums , some of which spilled over from the Bush administrations, some of which are of its own doing. A few — e.g., the so-called Russian “reset,” immigration and border security, Israel-Palestine peace talks and the administration’s “red line” in Syria — have provided ready cannon fodder for bipartisan bickering. One issue, however, could free the administration from partisan deadlock: Defeating ISIS.
In President Obama’s speech on Sept. 10, he asserted his “administration has also secured bipartisan support for this approach here at home.” Indeed, an article in The New York Times shortly thereafter announced that “in a rare show of unity with President Obama, House Republican leaders will summon their fractious members back to the Capitol a day early next week to push through legislation to authorize the military to train Syrian rebels for the fight against Islamist militants.”
The debate, the article noted, had shifted from whether to support the president to whether his strategy would be effective.
Much of Congress’ willingness to cooperate is derived from an electoral incentive. In the past few years, Congress has garnished a reputation as being less popular than cockroaches, Brussels sprouts, and NFL replacement referees. More recently, a poll conducted by Gallup just days before the president’s speech found that trust in the federal government on international issues had reached a “record-low” of 43 percent. Gallup’s press release stated that it “has never measured lower levels of trust in the federal government to handle pressing issues than now,” even during the Watergate era. And Americans, once disinterested in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, have signaled they’re ready for a change.
In ISIS, Congress has found an issue it where it can act on swiftly and without much controversy. ISIS’ fondness for publicizing its atrocities has riled up constituencies and lawmakers, including Obama himself, once wary of re-engaging in Iraq thanks to what Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf called “a kind of national PTSD.”
“The bloody beheadings of two American journalists have galvanized American support for military action against ISIS and it is after all just two months to the mid-term election,” said Sarwar Kashmeri, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and adjunct professor at Norwich University. “Both sides see an ISIS bump for their side.”
For Republicans, support for an intervention in Iraq and Syria has the benefit of bolstering the party’s case against the Obama administration and Democratic leadership while retarding the rise of its anti-interventionist wing. Lawmakers can — as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has done — accuse President Obama of weakening American leadership abroad by failing to take a stand earlier while coming out in support of most of the policies he outlined in his speech Wednesday. ISIS’ rise is a byproduct of poor leadership on the world stage, Republican leadership argues, but the administration is taking a step in the right direction.
But for anti-interventionists in the GOP, ISIS has become a liability. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), the posterchild of the anti-interventionist movement who argued in 2013 that the U.S. should stay out of Syria because the U.S. “should never get involved where we have no clear national interest,” came out in support of the president’s plan. Paul, reported The Daily Beast, stated: “This is an intervention, and I don’t always support intervention — but this one I support.” The driving force behind Paul’s change of heart, said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), is clear. “It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing…. He’s saying this because he’s running for president. That’s why he’s saying it,” the senator told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic.
For Democrats, reactions have been mixed. Incumbents in Minnesota, Arkansas, North Carolina, Louisiana and New Hampshire have come out in support of the president’s plan, while others have criticized the administration’s plan as “open-ended” and at risk of backfiring. Progressive Democrats have found themselves in a quagmire as well. In July, the Congressional Progressive Caucus thanked the president for avoiding a “‘quick’ and ‘easy’ military intervention.” Months later, with some of its members saying they stand behind the president’s decision, including the caucus’ only senator, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the progressive lawmakers are split.
Still, some powerful Democrats believe these fractures will be swept under the rug in favor of a message of unity.
“It’ll help the president attract support of Arab and Muslim countries if they see strength and unity here, and not partisan and political division in the Congress,” said Levin, according to Slate. “[ISIS] should help unify the world, for God’s sake, and unify the Muslim world to take on this poison in their body. This is an opportunity, where you’ve got a vicious, poisonous environment, to unify the world against them.”
The ultimate question, though, is will that unity last?