- By Nicole Duran
Attention nations of the world: If you want to fight ISIS, or are considering fighting ISIS, Sen. Ron Johnson wants to talk to you.
The Wisconsin Republican, joined by Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, is one of two senators heading to New York to serve as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. Johnson voted last week to approve funding for the Obama administration’s plan to train Syrian rebels to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which controls large portions of Syria and Iraq. And now he wants to meet as many representatives of the 36-nation coalition that have promised to join the U.S.-led fight against the group as possible. He also wants to meet with officials from any country that may be willing to join the coalition, with a special focus on Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
"I want to speak to every potential or stated Arab state coalition partner," Johnson said in an interview on Friday, though he acknowledged that it may not be possible to set up so many meetings during so short a conference.
"I’m looking for vocal, visible, overt commitments" from Muslim-majority countries, Johnson said. "That’s what the world, what ISIS, needs to see: that this branch of Islam, this extreme version, is repudiated, is rejected, and [that] they’re willing to fight to make sure that it doesn’t spread."
Johnson, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he’d like to see a coalition built along the lines of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which 39 countries joined President George H.W. Bush’s effort to boot Iraq out of Kuwait, as opposed to the Iraq War, which the administration of President George W. Bush largely fought on its own.
The first-term lawmaker is taking an interesting line politically. A Tea Party favorite in his first run for public office in 2010, he has spoken harshly about the administration’s health care reforms and filed a lawsuit against the Office of Personnel Management over a provision of the law, yet he doesn’t hesitate to support President Barack Obama in his efforts, or potential efforts, to fight the Islamic State.
Calling himself a member of "the loyal opposition," Johnson said Republicans told Obama to be "resolute" in his actions against the Islamic State and that Congress should follow suit. He said he would use his office "to get public support to do what needs to be done.
"I have no fear on taking a vote on this and my colleagues shouldn’t either," he said before Congress returned from the August recess, when the possibility that Obama would ask Congress to authorize him to use force in Syria before the midterm elections was still out there.
In the 1991 war, Washington’s large coalition of partners collectively spent $61 billion on the war effort, with wealthy Gulf States like Saudi Arabia picking up the bulk of the tab. The United States’ share was just 15 percent. Likewise, many of the 39 nations contributed sizeable numbers of ground troops and equipment.
"That’s really more the type of commitment I’m looking at," Johnson said. "If that’s possible, I don’t know."
Johnson said that ISIS, which he described as really just al Qaeda in Iraq "under new management," is a far more dangerous adversary than the remnants of Osama bin Laden’s original al Qaeda. He said the Sunni militant group must be countered and defeated in the Middle East so that it won’t be able to hit the homeland, which the militants explicitly threatened on Monday. Thousands of foreign fighters have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside ISIS, many with Western passports that would make it easy for them to return to Europe or the United States to mount new attacks.
Obama’s plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels fighting ISIS — and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — will not destroy the terrorist group, Johnson said. Only ground troops can root out Islamic State fighters, and Johnson would like a sizeable chunk of these ground troops to hail from the region.
The only way the public and the world will sign on for destroying ISIS is if its Muslim neighbors commit soldiers, he said. As for convincing Americans that ISIS is a real threat to them, and one that must be countered and eradicated wherever it exists, Johnson said that Obama needs to build a better public case. He said that the Islamic State’s brutality has been "sanitized" so far and that Americans have been shielded from the horror it is unleashing on civilians. It’s the president’s job to spell out the group’s atrocities and the danger it poses to Americans at home and abroad, he said.
Johnson said he and Obama — who appointed him a U.N. General Assembly delegate — spoke for about 20 minutes last week. The former business owner, who made his fortune founding and running a polyester and plastics manufacturer, told Obama that he needs to provide Congress with the "kind of information that we’re going to need to support the actions that I believe we’re going to need to take" against the Islamic State.
When the administration considered airstrikes in Syria after Assad unleashed chemical weapons on his opponents and civilians alike last year, it failed to build the case for action, Johnson said. Obama cannot make that mistake again.
"He has to explain to Americans why ISIS is a threat," Johnson said. If Obama does so, the public, and likely Congress, will follow suit, he predicted.