National Security

Obama goes on the offensive after taking heat for ISIS strategy

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The White House on Monday sought to go on offense against Republicans over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) after coming under sharp criticism for its initial response to the Paris terrorist attacks.

The Obama administration said it plans to tighten the rules for entering the United States without visas, heeding warnings that an ISIS fighter could use the program to slip into the country undetected.

{mosads}White House press secretary Josh Earnest, meanwhile, challenged Congress to approve a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIS, something lawmakers have for months declined to do.

“For more than a year, Congress has been AWOL on their responsibility to pass an Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which would demonstrate to our allies and to our enemies that the U.S. is united in its efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL,” Earnest told reporters, using an alternative acronym for the terror group.

“This effort is serious and should be the focus of serious debate,” he added.

Earnest made the call to action from Paris, where President Obama juggled talks on an international climate change agreement with meetings about the threat from ISIS, which claimed responsibility for the terrorist assault on the French capital.

The proactive approach appeared to be a shift from before the Thanksgiving holiday, when the White House was largely in a defensive crouch as Republicans forged ahead with legislation to toughen the vetting standards for refugees from Iraq and Syria.

Obama denounced the GOP’s legislative push, calling it contrary to American values, but his opposition failed to sway House Democrats; nearly 50 of them broke ranks to vote for the refugee bill.

The rebuke from the House came at a time when Obama’s strategy against ISIS was under heavy fire, with critics alleging that the White House seriously underestimated the group’s power.

Last year, Obama famously referred to ISIS as the “jayvee team” even as it was expanding its territorial hold. This month, just a day before the Paris attacks, Obama said that ISIS had been “contained” in the Middle East. After the carnage, he derisively referred to ISIS as “killers with good social media.” 

But the president took a different tack during a press conference last week with French President François Hollande, delivering a lengthy statement where he called ISIS a “scourge” that threatens all of humanity and “must be destroyed.”

The White House on Monday sought to show that it is taking the ISIS threat seriously, announcing it would appoint a new senior adviser focused solely on the terrorist group.

It also promised to unveil a package of reforms to the visa waiver program, which now allows people from 38 countries to enter the United States with an abbreviated review process and no advance notice.

Administration officials argue refugees face a far stricter test for entering the United States than individuals on travel visas. They challenged lawmakers to approve the new visa rules before leaving town December for the holidays, something House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) suggested Republicans intend to do. 

Earnest said Congress needs to implement a series or proposals rather than engage in “politically-motivation posturing” that is “wrong, dangerous and falls far short of what the American people deserve.”

Republicans have panned Obama’s handling of ISIS, arguing the campaign of airstrikes being waged in Iraq and Syria is inadequate to combat the group’s growing reach.

“It’s proven that ISIS is in 30 different countries … they’ve got a reach that goes throughout Europe and North America,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on “Fox News Sunday.”

“So to talk about containment is really a joke,” he added.

“We’ve got to stop talking about containment. We’ve got to talk about elimination of the terrorist threat.”

Some Republicans have called for Obama to send thousands of ground troops in to the ISIS fight, while others have urged a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians fleeing civil war. Obama has ruled out both those ideas.

Beyond an AUMF and visa waiver changes, Earnest pushed Congress to consider fully funding an aviation security proposal in a budget deal, confirming a counter-terrorism financing chief for the Treasury Department and instituting a law banning people on the no-fly list from buying guns.

“There are some specific things that Congress can do to make the country safer, and we’re hopeful that over the next three weeks, they’ll at least consider taking action,” he said.

Timothy Cama and Jonathan Swan contributed to this report.

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