Politics & Government

Crises push foreign policy up Senate agenda

The front lines in a new war in the Middle East have become the latest battle lines in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race.

Republican Thom Tillis accuses Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan of not doing enough to stem the rise of the militant group Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Hagan’s campaign says Tillis offers little more than “talking points and political posturing.”

The charges come as Congress prepares to vote on President Barack Obama’s request to train and equip Syrian rebels as part of a broader plan to “destroy” the Islamic State.

They also come as foreign policy, often an afterthought in congressional races, has risen to the forefront for many voters. Crises in Iraq, Ukraine and Gaza, not to mention a lingering war in Afghanistan, are reminders of a dangerous world.

When Elon University asked N.C. voters to name the most important issue facing the country, nothing ranked higher than defense and foreign affairs. The poll was released Monday.

“It doesn’t seem to be an issue that’s going to disappear,” said Elon Poll director Kenneth Fernandez.

On Tuesday, the Islamic State was the subject of a Senate hearing where Hagan and other lawmakers questioned Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Arming Syrian rebels

The Islamic State had swept through much of Iraq and beheaded a second American journalist when Tillis and Hagan met for their first debate two weeks ago. Hagan called the killings “a direct attack on the United States.”

“One of the issues here is that the president should have weaponized the moderate Syrian rebels earlier,” she told moderator Norah O’Donnell. “Without doing that, that has allowed ISIS to grow.”

Rebel groups in Syria have been fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s forces since 2011. The Islamic State grew from al-Qaida in Iraq, which spread into Syria. It now controls areas from outside Bahgdad to near the Turkish border in northern Syria.

Speaking of arming rebels at Tuesday’s hearing, Hagan said, “This is something I have pushed for for over a year, in part to prevent a power vacuum among the rebels that would allow a group like ISIS to gain strength.”

But Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin accused Hagan of “deliberately attempting to mislead North Carolinians about her record” by suggesting arming Syrian rebels would have stymied the rise of the Islamic State.

Hagan, he said, was trying to “rewrite history and … tout the fact that she took a reckless position that top generals warned could result in American weapons ending up in the hands of ISIS terrorists.”

Keylin said Hagan supported Syrian rebels to fight Assad’s regime, not to stop the Islamic State as she suggested in the debate.

As chair of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee, Hagan referred to extremists when she questioned a Defense Department official in an April 2013 hearing.

What was the risk that violence in Syria, she asked, “would spill across the border into western Iraq and strengthen al-Qaida in Iraq?”

Hearings on terrorism

Asked during the debate whether the U.S. should strike the Islamic State in Syria, Tillis said it “needs to take all actions to protect American citizens and protect freedom-loving people.”

When asked about Obama’s Islamic State policy Tuesday during a campaign stop in Wilmington, he alluded to the president’s characterization of the group in January.

“I’m not in agreement with somebody who refers to one of the single greatest threats in the globe … to actually say that they were (Junior Varsity) just a couple of months ago, and then come back and admit he didn’t have a strategy,” Tillis said.

Keylin said Tillis believes “no options should be left off the table to protect our national security.” But he continues to have concerns about arming Syrian rebels.

“Even the president was against arming them a year ago, in part because of the risk that American weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists,” Keylin said. “Thom still has that concern today, he doesn’t want American weapons ending up in the hands of ISIS terrorists.”

Republicans such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have pushed to arm Syrian rebels even when Obama was reluctant to do so.

Tillis’ campaign also criticizes Hagan for missing what it says were 27 of 49 Armed Service Committee hearings over the last two years. Though the number could not be readily confirmed, Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said Hagan often had conflicting hearings.

Committee spokeswoman Tara Andringa said Hagan appeared to have “one of the best attendance records on the committee.”

While Tillis said Hagan had “not held a single meeting to discuss the threat of ISIS,” Andringa said she’d chaired three hearings on counterterrorism in which al Qaida in Iraq and Syria, as the group was formerly known, was a major focus.

Overall on foreign policy, Hagan fell near the middle of the Senate in 2013, according to rankings by the National Journal. That year she voted more liberal than 48 percent of senators on selected foreign policy votes and more conservative than 51 percent. (Raleigh) News & Observer staff writer Craig Jarvis and McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Renee Schoof contributed.