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Congressional Leaders React To President Obama's Address

In a televised address last night, President Barack Obama laid out U.S. plans to combat terrorist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.In a strongly worded primetime address, President Obama insisted that anyone who threatens America will find no safe haven. The president laid out a strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group known as the Islamic State. The strategy includes expanding ongoing U.S. military airstrikes in Iraq into neighboring war-torn Syria and sending 475 military advisors to Iraq. That would mean there would be more than 1,600 American troops assisting Iraqi Security Forces.

Congressman Bill Owens represents New York’s sprawling 21st district. The Democrat says he is reasonably comfortable with the airstrikes, but is concerned about the increasing number of U.S. military personnel on the ground. He says Congress needs to vote on that, which he believes, at the current number, would pass.

“That would be something that would be troubling to me,” Owens said. “But I suspect at this juncture, given unfortunately what’s happened in terms of the two murders that have occurred, the threat of more and the humanitarian issues that exist in that region I think that many, many people in Congress would probably support that.”

Western Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Richard Neal says President Obama offered clarity on what the White House sees as a serious threat and need to act.

“I think he should seek Congressional approval, but I don’t think he should wait for it,” Neal said. “I think that he made that clear last night. The Congressional leadership on both sides I believe is supportive of the president’s position and I think that we ought to engage the debate here in Congress. But, I also think the president made the argument last night for presidential, decisive leadership.”

Neal says the president’s calls for diplomacy, international support and no American boots on the ground are important considerations.

“It’s more along the lines of training,” Neal said when asked about the 475 U.S. troops that may be sent. “He [President Obama] made that clear last night as well. Four-hundred seventy troops is not going to change the outcome here and I think everyone is aware of that. I don’t think the President was arguing for a unilateral effort by the United States. I think he was arguing for a multi-lateral effort that would largely come from NATO and the Arab nations.”

Following the beheadings of two kidnapped American journalists, Owens, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee Defense and Homeland Security Subcommittees, says President Obama is trying to deliver a clear message that this type of action will not be tolerated.

“I would suspect that you will see surgical strikes against individuals and certainly groups of individuals belonging to ISIS,” Owens said. “In particular the person who committed the two murders may well have a visit from some special forces folks which I would support.”

Congressman Paul Tonko, a Democrat representing New York’s 20th District, says the president kept politics out his speech.

“I also sensed, just from his presentation, the awkwardness he felt,” Tonko said. “I think he was delivering a message he himself wished he didn’t have to. But, sometimes the fate of a presidency is just that circumstances beyond your control dictate the next move.”

Tonko says airstrikes and no combat troops is the strongest form of involvement the U.S. can offer without getting further entrenched. He insists the U.S. cannot go at this effort alone, saying the military and taxpayers are exhausted. Tonko says Congress needs to approve the actions so the international community sees America as united.

“To do that buy-in, I think the hand of the president is strengthened when he can speak with one united voice for our country,” said Tonko.

Although Britain has ruled out aiding airstrikes in Syria, Neal says Britain and NATO allies realize the threat.

“Recall that one of the individuals who participated in the beheading spoke with a British affectation that means likely it was a British citizen,” Neal said. “I think that those are issues that we need to be mindful of. This radicalism is now recruiting actively.”

Owens says the Senate is putting forward a bill that would approve the action in Syria and suspects Congress will act on the president’s funding request next week, as airstrikes continue in Iraq.

“Clearly I think Congress is going to take some action,” Owens said. “I think the president will continue with the airstrikes in the interim and I’m perfectly fine with that.”

Asked if President Obama’s strong message and strategy could spur retaliation from the Islamic State, Tonko acknowledged there’s always that risk.

“But, doing nothing means that they’re going to continue to go forward with their acts of violence,” said Tonko.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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