Denis McDonough: The U.S. is at 'War' With ISIS

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough discusses the administration's strategy against ISIS.
6:30 | 09/14/14

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Transcript for Denis McDonough: The U.S. is at 'War' With ISIS
The fight against Isis is also setting up some critical political questions this morning. Does the president need congressional approval for his new military plan, and would he get it? ABC's Jeff Zeleny is tracking the latest from capitol hill. I know there's a lot of people around here that say they don't want to deal with it before the election. Are you kidding me? Tell the American people the truth, Mr. President. This is a counterterrorism mission. Reporter: The uncertain politics of the Isis debate coming to a boil on capitol hill. The sharpest skepticism from president Obama's closest democratic allies like senator Tim kaine of Virginia. Why do you think it's a mistake for the president not to be asking for congressional authority here? It's congress that declares war. Congress that initiates war. If we're going to ask people to risk their lives, then we ought to be willing to do the work to reach a political consensus that the mission is worth it. Reporter: The president insists he can order air strikes in Syria without congressional approval, but it's this request sparking the most debate. Give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. Reporter: Concerns about arming Syrian rebels go well beyond the $500 million price tag with questions of just who these fighters are and who they're loyal to. We're going to pick a side or try to pick a side and the same as we did when we went into Iraq, the same as we've done in Afghanistan and that hasn't worked well for us. Reporter: It's blurring partisan lines with republicans showing rare signs of backing the white house. Is this being rushed through too quickly? Shouldn't there be more of a debate? This is a very serious issue and ought to be handled that way and, frankly, we ought to give the president what he's asking for. Reporter: Democrats aren't so sure. Senator mark Begich is facing a tough re-election bid in Alaska. He is at it again. Reporter: His constituents worry about the cost and fear the U.S. Will slip into another long war. They're concerned that we would once again get engaged in a quagmire there and pick up the tab for who knows what over the long term. Reporter: The challenge for the white house is getting enough jittery democrats on board without scaring off republicans. For "This week," Jeff Zeleny, ABC news, capitol hill. Let's take on all of this now with white house chief of staff Denis Mcdonough. Mr. Mcdonough, let me start right away and ask if we've identified the executioner in those videos. I don't have any particular news or analysis on that for you, Martha, but obviously we're doing everything we can to find that out and everything we can to continue to keep the heat on isil. Do you think this will mean that the british will now join in air strikes with the U.S.? Does it strengthen the coalition? We obviously underscore to stand side -- shoulder to shoulder with our ally and our close friend, the UK. Exactly what form that takes, is it going to be something that will develop over the next -- Do you have anyone at this point, any countries that say, yes, we will join you in military action and not just support? Right, and you'll hear more about this from secretary Kerry who is obviously in the region and has been working this and he'll be testifying in congress later this week and he'll have news on that. The administration seems to be a bit confused about what to call this action. Let's listen to this. We're engaged in a counterterrorism operation, and I think war is the wrong reference term. The United States is at war with isil in the same way that we are at war with Al Qaeda and its Al Qaeda affiliates. We know we are at war with isil in the same way we're at war and continue to be at war with Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Sounds like some talking points there. Are we at war? Why is war the wrong reference term according to John Kerry? Well, this isn't talking points thflt. Have is obviously very serious business. You heard both what John Kirby and josh earnest and second second Kerry, you'll hear more from him, as well. We believe just as we have been at war with Al Qaeda since the day we got here, we are at war with isil and what does that mean? That means that we are going to use our unique capabilities in support of others on the ground. Other Sunni, in Iraq we'll obviously be supporting the Iraqi security forces and in Syria we'll be supporting with air power the Syrian opposition that's on the ground now. I want to point to an editorial cartoon that takes on your notion of no boots on the ground. Soldiers saying they're changing into golf shoes because of what the president said. Yet, you will have 1600 troops there. You've made it very clear they will not engage in combat, but what is not clear is how you plan on destroying 30,000 Isis fighters without U.S. Combat troops on the ground. Well, nobody knows this region better than you, Martha. And obviously you've been investing a lot of your own time in that effort over the course of this last many years and we've learned a lot of lessons from that, so what we want to make sure happens is we have committed partners who can take the fight to isil on the ground, and they will have not only support from us from the air, but they'll also have training and equipment support for us. And yet, Mr. Mcdonough, What I've seen and I have been there a lot is those Iraqi forces ran the last time they were confronted by Isis. They split apart and disappeared. We trained them for eight years, and it didn't seem to work. Why do you think that'll work now? There's no question that one of the reasons that that happened was the intense sectarian nature of Iraqi politics over the course of the last many years. That's why the president was very discerning and very prudent in the use of our air power, notwithstanding pressure to do more than he did earlier in the summer because he thought the first and most important thing we could do was to make sure there was a if you prime minister in Iraq. There is a new prime minister. That there's a new multiethnic government in Baghdad. There is now a new multiethnic government if Baghdad. They will support a unified capable multiethnic Iraqi force so that they can take this fight to isil. Just very quickly -- Ultimately they need to do it for their success as well as ours. Just very quickly, Mr. Mcdonough, is there a limit to how many U.S. Troops you will send to Iraq? Yeah, I'm not in a position right now to tell you limits one way or the other. Here's what we will do. We will be very candid with the American people as the president has been. We'll work very closely and consult with congress on this effort, and we believe that we have the right strategy the president laid out for the country on Wednesday night to make sure that we degrade and ultimately defeat isil. Thanks for joining us, Mr. Mcdonough. Thanks, Martha.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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