Strategy against Islamic State could play big in 8th District race

CHISAGO CITY - Democrats and Republicans are generally supporting President Barack Obama's call for stepped up U.S. military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Shi'ite fighters from Mahdi Army advance in their vehicles towards Bo Hassan village near Tikrit, northern Iraq during heavy fighting with Islamic State militants, September 12, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

CHISAGO CITY - Democrats and Republicans are generally supporting President Barack Obama's call for stepped up U.S. military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

But U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat who represents Minnesota's 8th, District, thinks that pouring hundreds of millions more dollars to fight a war in the Middle Eastern is a terrible idea -- and that the United States won't be successful in destroying the Islamic State.

The congressman's position is at odds with that of his Republican challenger Stewart Mills, who said the nation must deal with the ISIS threat.

Still, Nolan applauds President Obama for making it clear there is no safe haven for people who kill U.S. citizens. He thinks the military's special forces should track down the people who murdered two U.S. journalists and "bring them to justice." But Nolan said it should end there. The people of the Middle East, he said, need to solve their own problems.

"This is not our fight. It's a fight that's been going on for several thousand years," Nolan said. "And it's one that can only be resolved by the Middle East."


Ramping up attacks in Iraq and moving into Syria will only worsen the predicament for the United States, said Nolan, who points to the ongoing conflict in Iraq, where the U.S. military has spent more than a decade.

"My God, we spent several trillion dollars and 10 years training an army and putting a government in place and we walked away," Nolan said. "[And] in a matter of months it all disintegrated."

He also said it's "terribly naive" and "costly in blood and treasury" to think that the United State can resolve a centuries-old Middle Eastern conflict.

"It's time to get the hell out of that part of the region," Nolan said.

Mills, however, contends that what's "naive" is to diminish the threat the Islamic State poses to the United States. He thinks voters will side with him on the issue.

"Like it or not we have to play some role here," Mills said. "And for Congressman Nolan to take those positions, I think, leaves America in an even weaker position than we have been in the past. We can't lead from behind. We have to lead."

Mills said the Islamic State might not gotten as strong as it is now had the United States found a way to keep more forces in Iraq.

"But that does not change the reality, the threat that we currently have being faced by America," he said. "And we have to deal with that. It's not about the past; it's about protecting us in the future."


National polls show solid majorities of Americans align more closely with Mills on fighting the Islamic State than with Nolan's position of leaving it to Middle Eastern countries.

A quick trip to the southern end of the 8th Congressional District found fear of the Islamic State and support for U.S. military force to oppose it.

In Chisago City's tiny downtown on Wednesday, a couple of workers packed crushed rock at a memorial for a local Navy seal killed in Afghanistan.

Across the street, Chisago City resident Mike Frokjer said a similar effort is underway in North St. Paul to honor his nephew, who was also killed in Afghanistan a few years ago. Despite the heavy cost of war, Frokjer is all in for a U.S. attack on the Islamic State to "get rid of them."

Frokjer said he'd support any move to put U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, if that's what it takes.

"You've got to stop this. All these kids that are from Minnesota now that are joining ISIS or from the U.S. that are going over there to fights with this ISIS and they're going to turn around and come back to the United States," he said. "I think it's a big threat to the United States."

Such sentiment may cost Nolan in the 8th District, where aside from a brief flirtation with former Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, voters reliably sent a Democrat to Congress.

Among them is 75-year-old Sandy Nickelson, who said she almost always votes for Democrats and supports Nolan. But she disagrees with him about leaving the Islamic State alone -- and said that could cost him her support.


"You know, maybe I would change my vote then,"Nickelson said. "It's hard to say."

Nolan said he understands he is not on the popular side of the issue. But he thinks once people have had a chance to think more carefully about what expanding on attacks on the Islamic State could lead to, they might be less hawkish.

He said history strongly suggests that the United States will not be able to defeat the Islamic State in Syria without deploying U.S. ground troops.

"The classic case is, that as a result of the blowback and the consequences, the very people who said, 'we can't have any boots on the ground' are the people who are will be saying, 'oh well, now we have to put boots on the ground,'" Nolan said. "And I'm seeing the evolution of this thing. It's like a sad, old story."

Although President Obama said he does not foresee sending ground troops to Syria, Mills also thinks some U.S. presence there is inevitable.

"If we are going to be interfacing with any of the local fighting groups there, we're going to need to have communications with them, provide support and have intelligence go both ways," Mills said. "And we can't do that over a cell phone."

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