Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va, talks with media before entering a classified members-only briefing on Syria by senior administration officials on Capitol Hill, Sept. 1, 2013. Little of the impassioned debate that fractured lawmakers last year over possible military intervention in Syria is happening now as American war planes strike extremist targets in Iraq. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)
WASHINGTON — For all its horror, the beheading of an American journalist in Syria appears unlikely to change lawmakers’ minds about military intervention against Islamic State extremists. It’s equally unclear whether the Obama administration will be asking them to back a new U.S. approach.
President Obama said the United States wouldn’t scale back its military posture in Iraq in response to James Foley’s killing. But he offered no specifics Wednesday about what new steps he might take to protect additional captives and other Americans, and ward off what he described as the al-Qaida offshoot’s genocidal ambitions.
The initial response from members of Congress was mixed, reflecting the divide of the American people. While all decried Foley’s death, hawks, particularly Republicans, continued to assail the Obama administration’s limited airstrikes in Iraq and its refusal to target Islamic State bases in neighboring Syria. The president’s supporters voiced support for the current, cautious intervention in Iraq. No tea partiers or dovish Democrats who have cautioned against military action publicly changed position.
“The president’s rhetoric was excellent, but he didn’t outline steps to stop the slaughter,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of Obama’s harshest foreign policy critics, said in a telephone interview. “The strategy should be to launch all-out air attacks in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIL,” he said, using an alternative acronym for the Sunni militants.
A U.S. official said Thursday the Islamic State militants had demanded $132.5 million, or €100 million, in ransom for Foley’s release.
A second U.S. official said the demands were sent in emails to Foley’s family in New Hampshire. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the ransom demands by name.
Philip Balboni, CEO of the Boston-based GlobalPost, told reporters Wednesday the company had spent millions on efforts to bring Foley home, including hiring an international security firm. Foley was doing freelance reporting for GlobalPost.
When asked at a news conference about a ransom purportedly demanded by the kidnappers, Balboni said the price tag involved both financial and political demands, and that it was “substantial” and always remained the same.
He declined to elaborate.
Balboni did say that he understood there were “good reasons” why the U.S. government does not acquiesce to kidnappers’ ransom demands, but said the policy should be revisited. He also said the family had received a “direct contact” from Foley passed through a recently released European hostage. But he declined to say what the message said.
The militants first demanded the money late last year, Balboni said.
Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that the Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the matter.
“Those who would perpetrate such acts need to understand something,” Holder said. “We have long memories and our reach is very wide and we will not forget what happened. People will be held accountable one way or another.”
Interrupting his family vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, Obama denounced the Islamic State as a “cancer” threatening the entire Middle East. And military planners weighed the possibility of sending a small number of additional U.S. troops to Baghdad. Still, Obama was vague about what more his administration would do, saying the U.S. will stand with others to “act against” the extremists.
“We will be vigilant and we will be relentless,” he said. “When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.”
That message was clearly inadequate for McCain, the Republican candidate Obama defeated for the presidency in 2008. The Arizona senator, who has clamored for years for U.S. action against government forces and extremists in Syria, said the Islamic State has “erased the boundaries between Syria and Iraq, and we must treat it the same way.” Otherwise, he said, the militants will enjoy a sanctuary in Syria where they can regroup and create more chaos.
Other Republicans echoed that message. “The Iraqis have already demonstrated that they cannot stop them on their own,” said Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., a House Intelligence Committee member and former Army officer. “The president’s current path of action has been far too limited to make a difference.”
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, said the U.S. must aggressively arm the Islamic State’s opponents. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called Obama’s approach “piecemeal.”
Some Democrats, too, pushed for expanding U.S. military action into Syria. “Otherwise, they will continue to threaten Americans and the interests of our country,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
Others, however, expressed caution and said the president was reacting appropriately.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and House Intelligence Committee member, said the administration has to be on guard against mission creep after launching operations to protect Americans and provide humanitarian relief. The reasons have since expanded to guarding Iraqi infrastructure and solidifying Iraq’s new government, he said.
“The mission already crept a bit,” Schiff said in a telephone interview. “The administration would be wise to not get sucked in. That’s going to be very hard.”
He said Foley’s death “brings home in the most horrifically graphic terms what a scourge” the Islamic State is, but it doesn’t provide a broader lesson for U.S. policy.
“If they have time to consolidate their gains, they will attack us. If we take the fight to them, they will attack us,” Schiff said.