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 Barack 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.
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.