WASHINGTON (AP) — Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday pressed for a more aggressive U.S. military response in Iraq to combat Islamic state militants, including a sustained air campaign, and signaled he would support sending American ground troops.
"We need to have all of our options open," Perry told a standing-room-only crowd at the conservative Heritage Foundation. The potential 2016 presidential candidate dismissed the "limited" air strikes that President Barack Obama has ordered as insufficient as the U.S. tries to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces regain control of large sections of Iraq.
Perry also faulted Obama for not providing arms to Syrian rebels battling forces loyal to President Bashar Assad early on in the three-year-old civil war. He derided Obama's insistence that "Assad must go" as "an opinion, not a policy."
In adopting a hawkish stance, Perry is staking a position that many in the Republican Party have moved away from after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a reflection of a war-weary nation. His call for greater American involvement in Iraq and regrets about Syria also puts him at odds with possible presidential rival Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and number of other GOP conservatives.
Perry's openness to combat forces places him to the right of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the loudest critics of Obama's policies and a fierce defense hawk who opposes any "significant" deployment of boots on the ground.
Perry acknowledged the mistake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq by his predecessor — President George W. Bush — and spoke of the politically driven decision to withdraw U.S. forces in 2011. He said Republicans and Democrats should not be hemmed in by history in fighting the Islamic state militants.
Perry came to Washington to deliver a speech that Heritage billed as a discussion of immigration, but the governor, who has tangled with the administration on U.S. border security policy, devoted much of his talk to national security.
His appearance came a week after he was indicted by a grand jury in Austin on charges stemming from his veto last summer of state funds for public corruption prosecutors. He pleaded not guilty on Tuesday shortly after he was fingerprinted and had his mug shot taken.
Perry shrugged off the pair of indictments, saying he was "very confident" in his case and quoting Democratic pundits who have suggested the charges were politically motivated. Perry, whose 2012 presidential bid collapsed under the weight of his gaffes, is testing his political viability. He is heading to New Hampshire, the first in the nation primary state, for two days and then traveling to South Carolina next week.
In his speech, Perry described the militants as one of the most serious threats to Americans after attacks on a Christian minority and the beheading of an American journalist. He also raised the prospect of members of the Islamic state crossing the U.S. -Mexico border, which he said is too porous because of inaction by Obama.
"We have a vital stake here, reluctant as we might be," he said. On immigration, Perry dismissed any discussion of comprehensive immigration reform that is stalled in Congress, saying the border must be secured first. He said Obama has a constitutional obligation to protect the border.