Obama Beats War Drums on the Potomac for Islamic State

The president’s proposal for war against the Islamic State faces criticism for going too far and not far enough, but caught in the middle are victims of the fundamentalist group.

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — Talk of war has gripped the halls of the U.S. Capitol now that President Barack Obama is calling upon Congress to give him the authority to fight the Islamic State group (ISIS or ISIL) anywhere in the world.

Meanwhile, a leading Iraqi-Catholic leader is warning that without a “decisive response” from the U.S. the “clock is ticking” on Christianity’s survival in Iraq, and the terror group may soon become unstoppable.

“If left unchecked, ISIL will pose a threat beyond the Middle East, including to the United States' homeland,” the president said in a Feb. 11 letter to Congress, specifying the need to end its horrific acts of barbarism, including the religious cleansing against Assyrian Christians, Yazidis and Muslims. The president’s warning was underscored over the weekend, as the self-declared caliphate released a video showing its fighters decapitating 21 Coptic Christians on the shores of Libya.

The draft Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against the Islamic State the White House sent to Congress Feb. 11 would authorize the president to use the armed forces to go after ISIS, allied groups and individuals all over the world, citing the atrocities the militants have carried out in Syria and Iraq and the threats they pose to the U.S. homeland.

The requested AUMF would be limited to three years unless reauthorized by Congress, repeals the 2002 AUMF for Iraq and excludes the president from conducting “enduring offensive ground-combat operations.” The resolution indicates the president envisions the U.S. military’s role to consist mainly in deploying its “unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground” and would rule out U.S. ground troops being involved in nation-building roles that it undertook in both Afghanistan and Iraq.


Congress Debates

An NBC News/Marist poll shows 54% of Americans, including majorities of Republican, Democratic and Independent voters, support the president’s AUMF proposal for war on ISIS. Thirty-eight percent said they oppose the AUMF. However, the public is divided when it comes to confidence in Obama’s ability to prosecute the war against ISIS: 45% reported a “great deal” or “good amount” of confidence, while 48% said they had little to no confidence in the president’s strategy.

Bipartisan support in Congress has not yet emerged for the president’s plan. Voices among Democrats have expressed concern that the restrictions are too vague and that the proposal lacks geographic limits, while voices among Republicans have objected to any language suggesting restrictions on the president’s ability to authorize ground operations.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told the Register that he is glad the president is coming to Congress for authorization “to take the fight to ISIS.”

“This will allow us to develop a comprehensive strategy for defeating ISIS, something we’ve yet to see from the president,” the Catholic congressman said. “I have some concerns with the details of his proposal, but I hope that we can work with the president to find a solution that allows our military to move forward.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest admitted at last Wednesday’s White House press briefing that the restrictions were intentionally open to some degree of interpretation.

“We believe it’s important that there aren’t overly burdensome constraints that are placed on the commander in chief, who needs the flexibility to be able to respond to contingencies that emerge in a chaotic military conflict like this,” he said.


Clock Ticking on Christianity

Chaldean-Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil told the Register he was encouraged that Obama understands that the “evilness of these fanatic groups” requires a “decisive response.”

“There is every reason for urgent action to be taken to step up the fight against Daesh [the Arabic name for ISIS] before its power base internationally becomes insuperable,” he said. “But as a Christian leader I have a particular reason to call for such steps to be taken as quickly as possible: Christianity in Iraq is in decline, and the clock is ticking against us.”

Archbishop Warda said the U.S. has a “moral responsibility” toward Iraq, due to the U.S.’s 2003 invasion, which unleashed sectarian forces in the country that have devastated Iraq’s Christian community. Iraq’s Christian population is estimated at close to 300,000, down 1.4 million recorded in the 1987 census. More than 125,000 Christians, he said, have fled to Kurdistan for refuge, while 20,000 to 40,000 have left Iraq for good, making Erbil “Christianity’s last stand in the country.”

However, he said the country needs “international military support” to roll back ISIS and added that the scope of U.S. involvement should “take the form of intelligence support, strategy-building and, above all, military training,” with a particular focus on uncovering and disrupting ISIS’ supply network.

“Only through these means can we seek to identify the potency of the Daesh threat and thereby eliminate this scourge of barbarism from our land.” 


‘We’re Not Winning’

Former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia said the U.S. needs a better strategy and should change its position that all military supplies be sent to Iraq’s central government in Baghdad.

“We’re not winning, and ISIS has more than 20,000 [foreign fighters] from outside Iraq and Syria fighting with them,” he said.

Wolf was part of a delegation from the 21st-Century Wilberforce Initiative, a Christian human-rights group, which went on a fact-finding mission to Iraqi Kurdistan that resulted in the “Edge of Extinction” report warning that Iraq’s religious minorities face catastrophe.  

He added that the Peshmerga, the Kurdish security forces, complained repeatedly to him that Baghdad has not sent them the heavy weapons and tanks they need to combat the IS group, which is equipped with “modern and sophisticated” U.S. weaponry plundered from the Iraqi army’s collapse at Mosul in June. As a result, the Peshmerga have suffered heavy casualties against superior weaponry while trying to push back ISIS and hold on to critical sites such as Kirkuk and the Mosul dam.

“You have to do whatever it takes to destroy [ISIS],” he said, adding that ISIS will eventually turn its fighters loose in the West unless stopped.

Wolf added that the U.S. should not only be aiding the Peshmerga, but also train and heavily arm the Assyrian Christians and Yezidis into “Ninevah Plains Protection Units” that could guarantee the security of their peoples in northern Iraq and safeguard them from the atrocities ISIS has in store.

“What you are seeing now [from ISIS] is genocide,” he said.

“It’s genocide against Christians, it’s genocide against the Yazidis, and we believe the president and Samantha Powers, the secretary of state, have to look at this, because the world cannot be silent.”

Archbishop Warda said he would support the arming of the Assyrians, but only within a structure “recognized by the Iraqi Defense Ministry.”


Humanitarian Framework Needed

The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops is currently in the midst of studying the president’s AUMF request, according to Stephen Colecchi, the USCCB’s director of the Office of International Justice and Peace.

Colecchi said the Holy See has provided a framework of principles for confronting ISIS, which the USCCB has reiterated to the federal government.

“It is certainly licit to use force to confront an unjust aggressor, especially in a situation such as this,” he said.

“The Holy See has been really clear that any use of force to protect [people] ought to be proportionate, ought to be discriminate and ought to take place within a framework of humanitarian and international law,” he said.

Pope Francis, in a response to reporters' questions about the U.S.-bombing campaign against the Islamic State group, said it would be “licit” for nations to use military force to stop an “unjust aggressor” such as the Islamic State group.

“In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” the Holy Father said. “I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I’m not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war’; just ‘stop.’ And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated.” 

But Colecchi added that the Holy See and the U.S. bishops have also stressed that ISIS cannot be defeated by “the use of military force alone.” The military response also needs to take place within a humanitarian and development framework that addresses the “causes of disaffection” in the Sunni world that ISIS and other extremists can exploit, including the establishment of inclusive governments and healthy economies.

Staunch allies, such as Jordan, whose King Abdullah II is a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammed and one of the strongest voices of moderate Islam in the Middle East, face high rates of unemployment and poverty that make them vulnerable to ISIS’ appeal. Among Jordanian youth, 35.4% of 15- to 19-year-olds, and 29.3% of 20- to 24-year-olds, have no work.

Both Jordan and Lebanon are also overwhelmed with refugees, whose presence has strained those countries' infrastructures and labor markets even further. Colecchi said U.S. development and humanitarian support is critical more than ever to these countries’ stability in the face of ISIS.

“In the long run, as long as there are high levels of unemployment and disaffection among young men in particular, who are not able to support their families, you have the conditions that are ripe for an appeal to extremism.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.