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Sen. Ron Johnson Weighs In On Obama's Terrorism Message

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The audience for President Obama's speech last night included our next guest. He is Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Senator, welcome to the program.

RON JOHNSON: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Did you hear an approach to terrorism that you can support?

JOHNSON: I didn't hear anything new. And let's face it, it was 15 months ago on September 4 of 2014 that President Obama laid out a goal that I agreed with - degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS. But in the last 15 months, we haven't even contained ISIS. And I have seen no strategy whatsoever for its defeat. And so I heard nothing new and that was very disappointing.

INSKEEP: The president has said the strategy will work, perhaps acknowledging there that it hasn't worked yet but he says it will work. Do you believe that the United States is on track to win?

JOHNSON: No. I think - just take a look at the events on the ground. ISIS has not really lost much territory. We've maybe confined it in terms of territorial aspirations. But, you know, it continues to inspire. It continues to grow. You know, there are reports that there's affiliates in 30 different countries right now. As long as ISIS is not overtly losing, they'll continue to be perceived as winners. They'll continue to inspire the type of terrorist activity that we saw in San Bernardino, Calif., last week.

INSKEEP: And their loss of cities like Sinjar in Iraq and some other places, Kurdish territory and so forth, that doesn't impress you.

JOHNSON: Well, it's pretty limited. And it's - the only effective coalition partner we have right now are the peshmerga, but they're - they're not going to be extending much beyond their own territorial gains or aims themselves.

INSKEEP: Senator Johnson, the president also, as I understood it, effectively challenged his critics to get on board and do something. Specifically he said if there are Republicans who believe that we're at war against ISIS, why don't you guys vote on it? And there actually has been discussion of a new authorization for the use of military force specifically dealing with ISIS. And Congress hasn't voted on it. Are you going to do that?

JOHNSON: Well, the problem is is what President Obama is asking for actually restricts his ability to use force to accomplish his goals. And so that's been a big stumbling block. He's actually trying to restrict not only his own efforts and his own power but future presidents' power as well. So no, I would love to have the administration support a authorization for the use of military force that would work, that would actually defeat ISIS, combined with a strategy to do so. But that is not what this president has presented Congress.

INSKEEP: You'd rather vote on nothing then.

JOHNSON: What is - what is happening right now is he's using the authorization for use of military force that quite honestly, I don't - I can see where critics say that that doesn't apply to the situation. But he's using it. And it is not restricting his activities and would not restrict the activities of a future president. And what he's offering us in terms of one that he would be willing to sign would actually restrict his use and that of a future president. That's what I can't support.

INSKEEP: One other thing, Senator Johnson, there was a lot of Republican disappointment at the president's speech last night. And as is - at his response to this entire situation for many, many months. David Ignatius of The Washington Post, as elsewhere in today's program, he said - he noted, you know, we're at war. And he complained, as I understood it, about constant, quote, "shrill super partisan attacks." And I want to ask about that. You do want to support your president and the war, I'm sure, but at the same time, it's a democracy. You're allowed to criticize people. So how exactly is your party drawing the line between what's appropriate and what's simply super partisan attacks?

JOHNSON: Well, I think what's appropriate is laying out reality, letting the American people know exactly what is happening, what has happened. And you have to learn from history. And of course the historic blunder of this administration was not leaving a stabilizing force behind in Iraq after those - after the sacrifice and the hard-fought gains. We had a relatively stable Iraq. President Obama said it was a huge success. But by not leaving that stabilizing force we lost the glue that held that coalition together and ISIS was able to rise from the defeated ISIS - or ashes of what was al-Qaida in Iraq. And now we've got this big mess on our hands. Our goal ought to be to try and put that Humpty Dumpty back together again. But President Obama's made the situation far worse by bugging out.

INSKEEP: OK. Senator, thank you very much.

JOHNSON: Have a good day.

INSKEEP: That's Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.