By Jordain Carney - 03/22/16 09:13 PM EDT
President Obama’s strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is coming under heavy criticism following Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels.
Republicans in Congress said the coordinated bombings in Belgium — which hit an airport and subway station, killing more than 30 people — show the president’s approach to ISIS is dangerously out of step with the threat.
“After allowing the ISIL threat to grow and strengthen for years, the administration still has no plausible strategy to destroy ISIL on anything close to an acceptable timeline,” they added, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.
The attacks in Brussels come on the heels of a similar assault last November in Paris, when terrorists detonated suicide bombs outside a soccer stadium and sprayed bullets into a crowded theater, killing 130 people. ISIS has claimed responsibility for both attacks.
Republican senators said the bloodshed in the two European capitals should amplify fears of ISIS carrying out a similar attack in the United States.
“Today’s terrorist attack is another stark reminder that ISIS poses a direct and very dangerous threat to the American people and to our allies in Europe so long as ISIS has safe havens to operate from in Syria, Iraq, and Libya,” Sen. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsGOP lawmaker: 'Republicans were wrong’ to block Garland Senate passes broad spending bill with .1B in Zika funds Senators unveil bill to overhaul apprenticeship programs MORE (R-Maine) said in a statement.
The GOP has long been critical of Obama’s approach to ISIS, arguing the president’s early assessment of the group as terrorism’s “JV team” reflects a larger failure to come to terms with the threat to the nation.
The latest criticism came while Obama was in Cuba, where he had hoped to bolster his legacy by ushering in a new era of improved relations with the former Cold War foe.
Instead, his speech to the Cuban people was overshadowed by Brussels, and he faced calls from the Republican presidential candidates to cancel the rest of his trip in Latin America and return to Washington.
While taking in a baseball game Tuesday with Cuban President Raúl Castro, Obama defended sticking to his schedule.
“It’s always a challenge when you have a terrorist attack anywhere in the world, especially in this world of 24/7 news coverage,” he told ESPN. “But the whole premise of terrorism is to try to disrupt people’s ordinary lives.”
The attacks quickly became fodder for the presidential field, with GOP front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump encourages Rubio to reclaim senate seat Embattled pharma CEO endorses Trump RNC launches ad against 'Crooked Hillary' MORE calling on the U.S. to “close up” its borders.
Some criticism also came from the president’s own party.
Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders wins over W.Va. superdelegate Boxer: Sanders appeals to young voters with grandpa effect The Trail 2016: Interleague play MORE, who is battling Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonEmbattled pharma CEO endorses Trump RNC launches ad against 'Crooked Hillary' Sanders wins over W.Va. superdelegate MORE for the Democratic nomination, told reporters in Arizona that while ISIS was losing territory in Iraq, “clearly we have got to do more,” including working with countries in the region.
Lawmakers have been increasingly critical of the administration’s strategy against ISIS in recent weeks. When hearing testimony from top military officials, lawmakers have repeatedly suggested the administration hasn’t done enough to counter ISIS.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, pressed Pentagon officials Tuesday about when the administration would provide Congress a strategy to defeat ISIS after missing a deadline to do so last month.
The Pentagon has been looking at ways to accelerate the military campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, with Defense Secretary Ash Carter this week saying the president wants the group defeated before he leaves office.
Part of that strategy includes sending about 200 U.S. Marines to Iraq to help defend local forces as they prepare to retake Mosul from ISIS. The Pentagon also wants to restart its program to train and equip Syrian rebels, despite skepticism from lawmakers after the initiative was shut down last year.
Any shift in strategy, however, is unlikely to go far enough to satisfy Republicans such as Graham, who argue U.S. ground troops are needed.
Graham, who has repeatedly warned about a forthcoming attack from Syria, said Tuesday the United States has “to go in there on the ground and destroy the caliphate before it comes here.”
The Obama administration, wary of being dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, has been reluctant to make a large-scale troop deployment.
The Brussels attacks have also reignited the debate over accepting refugees from Syria and Iraq into the United States.
Lawmakers fear ISIS members could exploit the resettlement program — which on average has a two-year vetting process — to sneak into the country and carry out attacks.
“These senseless terror attacks only reaffirm the urgent need to reverse our country’s lax policies so that we prevent dangerous terrorists from stepping onto U.S. soil under the guise of seeking refuge,” Sen. David VitterDavid VitterOvernight Energy: Trump outlines 'America First' energy plan in North Dakota Paul blocks chemical safety bill in Senate House Republican pushes bill to 'curb regulatory overreach' MORE (R-La.) said.
But any push to pass legislation limiting refugee acceptance would need Democratic support to pass the Senate, where a small number of GOP senators have also voiced skepticism.
Democrats, however, gave no early indication that the Brussels attacks lessened their opposition to a House-passed refugee bill they blocked earlier this year. The House legislation would effectively pause the acceptance of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
Instead, Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerOvernight Healthcare: House, Senate on collision course over Zika funding Ryan goes all-in on Puerto Rico Cruz's dad: Trump 'would be worse than Hillary Clinton' MORE (D-N.Y.), expected to be the next Senate Democratic leader, suggested that Congress should focus on increasing airport security as part of a reauthorization bill for Federal Aviation Administration.
He told reporters Democrats would advocate for Transportation Security Administration officer screening, tightening vetting for aviation workers and improving security of airport perimeters.
“We know ISIS is an evil operation. We know that they would like to do something here in the United States,” he added. “You can never be too careful. We have to look at what happened in Brussels, and in Europe, and, you know, tighten up even more.”