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Washington • While President Barack Obama is asking Congress for authorization to train and arm rebels in Syria some Utah members fear giving Obama open-ended power to handle the terrorist threat and want a detailed, and limited, proposal.
"I'm still not clear as to what he's going to ask us to do," Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said in a video town hall following Obama's Wednesday night address on the group that calls itself the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant.
"I had probably had more questions than I had answers by the time I got to the end of his speech," Lee added. "I want to see what that proposal is."
Lee and fellow Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch say that the terrorist group must be dealt with, and both blame Obama for inaction.
"The threat from [ISIL] in the Middle East has surged over the past year," Hatch said this week. "The terrorist group has murdered countless numbers of civilians – including two American journalists – along the way to developing a regional stronghold."
But Hatch, too, wants to hear more of Obama's plans before committing to any congressionally approved action, according to his office.
Obama outlined a general strategy against the group, including airstrikes both in northern Iraq, where the terrorists have taken ground, and in Syria, as well as arming and training rebel groups to take on the terrorists. That's where Congress comes in.
Obama has asked for about a year for approval to partner with other countries to equip rebels, like the Syrian Opposition, to combat extremists. He also wants Congress to approve what's called Title 10 authority allowing the Defense Department to engage in such activity.
"It should be a broader part of our counter-terrorism strategy, and it has been, to build up forces on the ground to take the fight to extremist forces in their own country," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told a group of regional reporters this week. "Somebody needs to take the fight on the ground in Syria to ISIL."
Regional governments are ready to partner with the United States to take on the terrorist group, and that requires urgency from Congress to pass approval, Earnest said. Saudia Arabia has offered to host a training camp for the effort.
"We need to be prepared to move on this and waiting around and telling the Saudis, who have finally engaged in what could potentially be a very helpful way, 'Well hold on, we need to spend some time working with Congress to get a majority' it's not really an option," Earnest said.
So far, many in Congress have offered support for Obama's plans. House Speaker John Boehner, who met with Obama and other congressional leaders this week, told the president that radicalized Islamists pose a "global epidemic" and the United States must defeat and destroy ISIL, according to a Boehner aide.
"The speaker expressed support for certain options that have been proposed by the president, such as increasing the effectiveness of the Iraqi Security Forces and training and equipping the Syrian opposition," the aide added.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said that he's inclined to support Obama's proposal as long as the president adequately addresses what success in this mission would look like.
"I think it is important for the nation to be united behind the president as he takes foreign action," Chaffetz said this week. "I don't think inaction is the right solution."
Chaffetz says without ground troops, airstrikes won't push back the terrorist group and it'll take an international coalition, as well as trained rebel fighters, to halt the threat. "I'm not saying we should put mass American troops into Syria or Iraq, not at all," Chaffetz said, "but if [Obama] doesn't truly come forward with an international coalition of people who are willing to fight on the ground we are going to be limited in our ability to succeed."
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, says he would support the president if he follows through on plans for more airstrikes, training fighters against the terrorist group and work to cut off black market oil sales that have helped fund its operations.
"The administration has kind of slowly come to the realization that this is a real threat to the region, a real threat to our allies and by extension it's a real threat to the United States," Stewart said.
The White House, meanwhile, stressed this week that the president's plan avoids getting the United States locked into a full, boots-on-the-ground military mission while employing resources from neighboring countries to help the cause. Cautious of entering a drawn-out, land war like Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama's goal is to limit the American fighting while empowering affected locals.
"The president does believe that we can pursue this strategy in a way that doesn't require the United States to be on a continuous, perpetual wartime footing," Earnest said. "It does mean a willingness by the commander in chief to use all elements of American influence, and power to mitigate these threats. That means using intelligence tools, diplomatic tools and, yes, it includes using our military might. If we do so successfully, it won't require a perpetual wartime footing."