By Olivier Knox
On the eve of Sept. 11, President Barack Obama on Wednesday made a prime-time plea for Americans to support an open-ended war on the brutal fighters of the Islamic State — an escalating Middle East campaign with ill-defined conditions for victory and a timetable that will likely take it into his successor’s term.
Obama made certain to distinguish his approach from his predecessor’s large-scale invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He promised that there will be no American ground troops taking the fight to the terrorist group also known as ISIL or ISIS.
“This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground,” he said. The model? Smaller-scale conflicts in Yemen and Somalia where U.S. drone strikes and special operators have targeted extremists “for years,” he explained.
Critics of both of those campaigns point out that U.S. forces essentially play a deadly game of “whack-a-mole” with no definitive victory in sight. And U.S. airstrikes regularly kill civilians, fueling anti-American resentment that feeds radical Islamist organizations in a vicious cycle.
The unpopular president’s primetime speech amounted to a legacy-defining expansion of America’s 13-year-old war on terrorism, one almost sure to have far-reaching effects on U.S. national security.
One year exactly after setting aside his own calls for airstrikes on forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Obama vowed to chase IS wherever it goes.
“That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq,” he said. “This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
The administration has previously insisted that Obama had the authority to strike IS anywhere, without formally securing a congressional green light. The president said he will not ask lawmakers to vote on a standalone measure authorizing him to use force, though they could be expected to take up measures to fund the new effort.
Before the speech, senior administration officials cited the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force as the legal basis for taking the fight to Syria. Strikingly, a little over a year ago, in a major counterterrorism address at the National Defense University in Washington, Obama said he wanted to “refine and ultimately repeal” the AUMF, which President George W. Bush had relied on for his Global War on Terror.
Obama laid out a sharp strategic shift for American forces in Iraq, where they have rained 154 airstrikes on IS targets since early August as part of a campaign to give Kurdish and Iraqi security forces some breathing room and to safeguard U.S. personnel and facilities.
U.S. air power, which successfully froze IS’s shocking westward drive from strongholds in Syria through much of northern Iraq, will now back up the Kurds and Iraqi forces as they strive to roll back the IS threat.
The president, who explicitly left open the possibility of strikes inside Syria, promised that a broad international coalition, including prominent Muslim nations, would support the campaign. The effort appeared to have at least the tacit backing of archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Obama also announced that he would send 475 more American troops to shore up friendly local forces, bringing the total U.S. military personnel to 1,518. And he urged Congress to sign off on a plan to step up efforts to arm Syrian rebels from factions less extreme than IS and train them in Saudi Arabia.
“Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy,” he said.
But Obama and top aides left unclear what would constitute victory. The Yemen and Somalia campaigns have dragged on for years, and Americans may mostly remember the latter country from the 1993 military debacle immortalized in the book and film “Black Hawk Down.” The Taliban appear resurgent in Afghanistan. Obama ordered the daring raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011 and the airstrikes that are thought to have left “core al-Qaida” badly diminished, but al-Qaida affiliates and rivals like IS have taken their place — even if top officials in recent days have taken pains to say that there is no evidence the Islamic State is taking aim at targets on U.S. soil.
Obama, who took immense heat for saying on Sept. 3 that he aimed to reduce IS to “a manageable problem,” did not spell out in detail how America would know it had achieved victory.
“It will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL,” he emphasized.
Congressional reaction fell largely along party lines.
Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi praised Obama’s “concrete and forceful strategy” against IS and highlighted his pledges to act “with a broad coalition of partners and without using U.S. combat forces on the ground.”
Republican House Speaker John Boehner crowed that Obama had “recanted his earlier dismissals” of the threat posed by IS.
“A speech is not the same thing as a strategy, however,” Boehner said. He expressed concerns that it could “take years” to arm moderate Syrian rebels and shore up Iraqi forces.
“It is also a cause for concern that the president appears to view the effort against ISIL as an isolated counterterrorism campaign, rather than as what it must be: an all-out effort to destroy an enemy that has declared a holy war against America and the principles for which we stand,” he said.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was “encouraged” by Obama’s strong rhetoric but took a veiled shot at the president’s vow not to send in combat troops.
“We cannot afford to rule out military options or allow ISIL to make any further progress. Our unequivocal and unrelenting goal must be to pursue these terrorists wherever they go and destroy them,” said Chambliss.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Intelligence Committee chair, pressed Republicans to rally behind the president.
“Now that a strategy has been outlined, it is critical that Congress and the American people come together in solidarity to support the president and our armed forces,” she said.
Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, a critic of Obama’s national security policies who faces a tough re-election fight, urged the president to get explicit authorization from Congress for the expanded campaign.
“I will not give this president — or any other president — a blank check to begin another land war in Iraq,” said Udall.
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- Unrest, Conflicts & War
- Barack Obama
- the Islamic State