Senate candidates wage foreign policy battles

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and state House Speaker Thom Tillis have attacked one another on foreign policy in the two weeks leading up to their second debate. But dealing with ISIS and other threats abroad aren't issues that lead themselves to quick soundbites and easy answers.

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Tillis and Paul speak at Big Ed's
Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Thom Tillis ripped a loud whistle to attract the attention of supporters Wednesday as short-order cooks at Big Ed's City Market Restaurant continued to churn out pancakes and eggs for a hungry mid-morning crowd. 
The Republican U.S. Senate candidate was about to introduce U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, after shaking hands with a friendly crowd of volunteers and well-wishers but gave what amounts to a two-minute stump speech that criticized Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and President Barack Obama on a number for fronts, including foreign policy.

"The Middle East situation is unacceptable. We have to destroy ISIS and figure out how to do that. We need a president who (has) a plan, not call the greatest threat of terror the JV team just a few months ago," Tillis said before moving on to introduce Paul.

A line of attack tying Hagan to Obama and criticizing her for not keeping the president in check is familiar territory for Tillis, who has taken similar tacks on health care, immigration and other policy issues. For her part, Hagan says that it is Tillis who does not have a plan to confront foreign threats, while she has served in high-profile committees in the U.S. Senate.

"I've been clear about the decisive action we must take to destroy ISIS. This includes targeted air strikes to take out their munitions stockpiles, training camps and command centers," Hagan said this week, adding that Tillis had refused to outline a plan and calling the Republican "spineless."

Although ISIS, or the Islamic State, is currently the most prominent actor in civil war-ridden Iraq and Syria, foreign policy experts say eliminating the group and separating it from the web of Middle East actors is not as simple, or even as pressing an issue, as campaign rhetoric might make it seem. Voters, and consequently political candidates, are reacting in part to graphic videos of beheadings, they say.

"Had that not happened, would the American public have suddenly been so supportive of going after ISIS?" asked Robert Moog, an international studies professor at North Carolina State University.

The Islamic State, Moog said, has show little ability to act beyond its home region, while a lesser-known player is more of a threat, he said.

More broadly, with the United States bombing targets in Syrian and Iraq, the first case of the Ebola virus making its way to the United States, tensions in Ukraine, Hong Kong and elsewhere, U.S. foreign policy has a position of prominence as the North Carolina U.S. Senate campaign enters its last month. Most polls show Hagan and Tillis separated by only 3 to 5 percentage points, with Libertarian challenger Sean Haugh trailing far behind but in a position to play spoiler in the race.

Hagan and Tillis will meet for a debate on Tuesday, and all three candidates will clash during a final televised debate on Thursday.

Foreign policy rarely defines a congressional campaign, in which pocketbook issues tend to dominate. While the Senate plays a role in overseeing military action and approving treaties, individual senators are not empowered to set the United States' diplomatic direction. That leaves both Hagan and Tillis picking carefully through their answers as they are confronted with topics that typically resist being defined with pithy retorts and soundbites. 

Foreign policy experience limited

Neither Hagan nor Tillis had a strong foreign policy resume before running for U.S. Senate. Hagan, a lawyer and former banker, comes from a family in which many have served in the armed forces, but neither she nor Tillis served in uniform. Members of the General Assembly, where Tillis has been state House speaker for the past four years and Hagan served as a state senator senior budget writer, are rarely confronted with foreign policy questions beyond responding to U.S. immigration policy, maintaining relationships with the state's military bases and playing host to the occasional diplomat.

"It's not what they're known for. You get very few domestic politicians that go out with a real focus on foreign policy," said Michael Bitzer, provost and professor of political science at Catawba College.

Exceptions like Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and John Kerry, a former Democratic senator who is now secretary of state, typically cultivated that interest over many years that include both military service and several terms in Congress.

One place where all senators do play a role, as defined by the Constitution, is through declaring war. Although the United States has not formally declared war since 1941, it has given the president authorization to take military action roughly a dozen times since then. However, the last times Congress gave "authorization for the use of military force," or AUMF, was following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and again in 2003 prior to the Iraq invasion.

There is some debate as to whether Obama is stretching the limits of those authorizations to fit the current crisis in Iraq and Syria, and both Hagan and Tillis say the president should seek a new authorization in this case, although they frame this desire quite differently.

"While I believe the current air strikes are within the administration's legal authority, Congress has a critical role to play in addressing the threat posed by ISIS," Hagan said. "We should have a full debate in Congress and ultimately vote on an updated AUMF."

For his part, Tillis said that it "is incredibly disappointing that the president did not seek a war authorization vote in Congress. It was a chance to unite the country and make a bold statement to the Islamic State."

He said that Democratic Senate leadership, which is actively backing Hagan, should have held a vote on military force before, not after the election.

The "decision to push back debate until after the election is an example of politics at its worst and why we need a new majority in the Senate that won’t play those kinds of political games with our national security," Tillis said.

Both Hagan and Tillis answered questions via email for this report after declining to be interviewed by phone this week.

Foreign policy experts say determine who is a potential ally and whom the U.S. might use force against is one of the most challenging parts of taking any action in the Middle East.

Authorizing force

The group now calling itself Islamic State incubated in the sectarian violence between adherents of the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam that was allowed to foment when the United States withdrew the majority of its forces from Iraq. Anchored by the remnants of what had been al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS' ranks have attracted disaffected Sunnis at odds with the Shia-dominated government.

In the chaos of the Syrian civil war, that Iraqi-formed group joins with those battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who is a member of the Alawite sect, members of which identify themselves as Shiite, although with their own set of traditions.

In 2012 and 2013, the group that would become ISIS was one of many armed organizations battling the Syrian regime. Hagan says that the United States should have moved more quickly in those earlier days of the war to arm and train the more moderate of those groups.

"I've also voted with a strong bipartisan majority to begin training and equipping the moderate Syrian rebels, something I brought up last spring," Hagan said. "Had we done that earlier, we may not have seen the power vacuum that allowed ISIS to rise up and consolidate power and territory."

Tillis has been critical of the Obama administration for taking "options off the table," but he said he has reservations about Hagan's suggestion of arming rebels.

"The question is whether the groups we are arming are friendly to the United States and our ideals," Tillis said. "Will the same groups we arm today become our enemies of tomorrow? Islamic State terrorists have hijacked weapons from other groups in the past. Now that the decision has been made, the administration has a responsibility to ensure the arms stay in the hands of rebel groups."

That stance puts Tillis at odds with some prominent Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, with whom Tillis recently campaigned and who has frequently called for arming some moderate Syrian rebel groups.

David Schanzer, a Duke University professor and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, said it can be difficult to identify moderate groups out of the many factions at war in the area and that even current attempts to support supposed allies in the region show how difficult the shifting alliances make the landscape.

"Even right now, we're engaged in air strikes, and the people we're trying to support are angry at us for not using out air power against the Assad regime," Schanzer said.

Hagan said that question had been addressed in Senate Armed Services Committee hearings.

"I questioned Secretary Hagel and General Dempsey about how we plan to determine which rebel groups to engage with, and they have indicated that, after years of American involvement in the region, we have developed sound vetting processes through the Department of Defense," Hagan said. "In that same hearing, I was also the only senator to press top officials on the threat of the Khorasan group, which our air strikes have targeted."

Moog said U.S. action on the Khorasan group, a part of the core al-Qaeda organization that affiliated with another faction of Syrian rebels, shows how difficult picking sides is. What U.S. policy makers are calling Khorasan has battled ISIS. Moog said that the United States is, in essence, bombing someone who has worked with groups we consider our allies against ISIS. And both ISIS and Khorasan are fighting the Syrian regime, which the U.S. has tried to help topple.  

Although they are the lesser-known of the two, Moog said, it is Khorasan group that has shown the capability to actually carry out an attack on the United States.

Foreign policy marches onto the campaign trail

Amid these complicated questions and shifting alliances, both candidates are trying to score political points. Hagan has tried to show she is engaged in overseeing the United States' combat efforts, while Tillis has attacked Hagan and the president as too lackadaisical on maters of foreign policy.

"The President failed to take the threat of the Islamic State seriously," Tillis said. "President Obama and Sen. Hagan were quiet as our intelligence community was sounding the alarm that the Islamic State was growing in strength."

In a recent Tillis television ad, a former service member who is also the mother of a Marine says the president's "weakness has allowed the Islamic State to grow."

Both Moog and Schanzer said the United States misread the situation in Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi Army, which the U.S. armed and trained and which enjoyed a massive numerical advantage over ISIS, simply broke down in the face of the group.

When what is now Islamic State started taking control of major Iraqi cities, such as Fallujah, was "a warning sign that something was deeply amiss," Schanzer said.

Tillis has sought to capitalize on this state of affairs by criticizing Hagan for missing meetings of the Armed Services Committee.

"Sen. Hagan still hasn’t explained why she missed Armed Services Committee hearings where our nation’s top intelligence officials warned about the Islamic State and their rapidly gaining strength in Iraq and Syria," Tillis said. "She missed over half of her Armed Services Committee hearings over the last two years, which is simply unacceptable."

Hagan and her staff have answered by saying that Hagan was taken away by other Senate business and point to a quote by a committee spokeswoman in the Charlotte Observer that said she had "one of the best attendance records on the committee." A fact check by the nonpartisan Politifact website contradicted that, saying that Hagan had one of the worst records, at least at public meetings.

A spokesman of the committee told WRAL News that Hagan chaired a meeting in 2013 and two meetings in early 2014 during which the ISIS threat was discussed.

In her own television ads, Hagan has pointed to her work on behalf of soldiers and families, particularly those made ill by water contamination at Camp Lejeune. Hagan has also struck back at Tillis, saying that he has failed to take a firm position on the ISIS threat.

"Speaker Tillis has wavered on this issue and been spineless in his refusal to say what he thinks ought to be done, and I don't think it serves our state or our safety to put political talking points ahead of national security," Hagan said.

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