Politics

Obama pushes military campaign against Islamic militants in Iraq, Syria

U.S. President Barack Obama gives a statement during a press conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in this file photo taken August 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama is scheduled Wednesday to deliver a primetime address spelling out his plan to combat militants from the Islamic State.
U.S. President Barack Obama gives a statement during a press conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in this file photo taken August 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama is scheduled Wednesday to deliver a primetime address spelling out his plan to combat militants from the Islamic State.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

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Update 6:15 p.m. Obama: US to expand airstrikes on militants 

In a major reversal, President Barack Obama ordered the United States into a broad military campaign Wednesday night to "degrade and ultimately destroy"  militants in two volatile Middle East nations authorizing airstrikes inside Syria for the first time as well as an expansion of strikes in Iraq.

In an address to the nation, Obama also announced he was dispatching nearly 500 more U.S. troops to Iraq to assist that country's besieged security forces. And he called on Congress to authorize a program to train and arm rebels in Syria who are fighting both the Islamic State group and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Watch Obama's address below:

Obama's address to the nation

Saudi Arabia, a crucial U.S. ally in the Middle East, offered to host the training missions, part ofObama's effort to persuade other nations to join with the U.S. in confronting the militants.

"This is not our fight alone," Obama declared. "American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region."

"Our objective is clear: We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy."

The president adamantly ruled out the prospect of putting American troops in combat roles on the ground in Iraq or Syria.

Even so, Obama's plans amount to a striking shift for a president who rose to political prominence in part because of his early opposition to the Iraq war. While in office, he's steadfastly sought to wind down American military campaigns in the Middle East and avoid new wars — particularly in Syria, a country where the chaos of a lengthy civil war has given the Islamic State space to thrive and move freely across the border with Iraq.

Speaking on the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Obama's plans also amounted to an admission that years of American-led war in the Middle East have not quelled the terror threat emanating from the region.

While administration officials have said they are not aware of a credible threat of a potential attack by the militants in the U.S., they say the Islamic State group poses risks to Americans and interests in the region. Officials are also concerned about the prospect that Westerners, including Americans, who have joined the militant group could return to their home countries to launch attacks.

In recent weeks, the militants have released videos depicting the beheading of two American journalists in Syria. The violent images appear to have had an impact on a formerly war-weary public, with multiple polls in recent days showing that the majority of Americans support airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria.

The U.S. began launching limited airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq earlier this summer. But officials said Obama was waiting for Iraq to form a new government — a step it took Tuesday — before broadening the effort.

Officials said strikes in Iraq would now be wide-ranging and extend into Syria. Obama plans to proceed with those actions without seeking new authorization from Congress.

Instead, officials said Obama will act under a use of force authorization Congress passed in the days after 9/11 to give President George W. Bush the ability to go after those who perpetrated the terror attacks. Obama has previously called for that authorization to be repealed, he has also used the measure as a rationale to take strikes against terror targets in Yemen and Somalia.

Officials compared the new U.S. mission in Iraq and Syria to the actions in Yemen and Somalia, campaigns that have gone on for years.

Obama is seeking authorization from Congress for a Pentagon-led effort to train and arm more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition. Ahead of Obama's remarks, congressional leaders grappled with whether to support that request and if so, how to get such a measure through the fractured legislature before the November elections.

The White House wants Congress to include the authorization in a temporary funding measure they're expected to vote on before adjourning later this month. Republicans made no commitment to support the request and the House GOP has so far not included the measure in the funding legislation.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Nevada Democrat might opt to seek separate legislation to authorize the president's request.

While the CIA currently runs a small program to arm the rebels, the new program would be more robust. Obama asked Congress earlier this year to approve a $500 million program to expand the effort and put it under Pentagon control, but the request stalled on Capitol Hill.

Some of Obama's own advisers, including former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, pressed him to arm the rebels early in their fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad. ButObama resisted, arguing that there was too much uncertainty about the composition of the rebel forces. He also expressed concern about adding more firepower to an already bloody civil war.

Separately, the White House announced Wednesday that it was providing $25 million in immediate military assistance to the Iraqi government as part of efforts to combat the IslamicState.

In the hours before the president's remarks, the Treasury Department said that Obama's strategy would include stepped-up efforts to undermine the Islamic State group's finances. David Cohen, Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, wrote in a blog post that the U.S. would be working with other countries, especially Gulf states, to cut off the group's external funding networks and its access to the global financial system.

The U.S. has also been pressing allies in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere to help with efforts to degrade the terror group.

France's foreign minister said Wednesday that his country was ready to take part in airstrikes against extremist fighters in Iraq if needed. And the German government announced that it was sending assault rifles, ammunition, anti-tank weapons and armored vehicles to Kurdish forces in Iraq fighting, breaking with Berlin's previous reluctance to send weapons into conflicts.

Secretary of State John Kerry is traveling to Saudi Arabia and Jordan this week. He first made a stop in Baghdad to meet with Iraq's new leaders and pledge U.S. support for eliminating the extremist group.

AP

7:06 a.m. President Obama delivers a rare, primetime address Wednesday.

Taking over the TV networks during the crucial 9:00 p.m. ET programming slot is not something any White House does lightly.

This time, it's for Obama to spell out his plan to combat militants from the Islamic State, and spokesman Josh Earnest calls the timing a signal of the high national security priority at stake.

On this eve of the Sept. 11 anniversary, the administration does not believe the Islamic State is plotting an immediate attack on the U.S. But as Obama told NBC over the weekend, that could change if the group is allowed a safe haven in Syria and Iraq.

"More than anything I just want the American people to understand the nature of the threat and how we're going to deal with it," Obama said, "and to have confidence that we'll be able to deal with it."

Public opinion has evolved

Americans don't need much convincing that the Islamic State poses a threat. The militant group has already accomplished that, with its grisly Internet videos showing the murder of two American journalists. Obama's bigger challenge is persuading a skeptical public he can deal with that threat.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell says that Obama needs to detail how this fight will play out.

"The threat from ISIL is real and it's growing. It's time for President Obama to exercise some leadership in launching a response," he says.

McConnell and other congressional leaders met with the president at the White House on Tuesday. Obama told the lawmakers he welcomes congressional support, but already has the authority to conduct the campaign he'll outline Wednesday night.

A year ago, the president sought lawmakers' approval for airstrikes inside Syria, in response to Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons. But Obama was forced to back down in the face of public and congressional opposition.

Pollster Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center says Obama is on stronger ground now, with Americans very aware of the murders.

"They want to see something done about it," he says. "They favor military action. And that's a change from a year ago when the idea of military action against Syria when the president proposed it was so unpopular."

Doherty says the biggest shift has come among Tea Party Republicans, who now favor a more muscular U.S. approach to foreign policy than they did a year ago.

Focusing the plan

Increasingly hawkish public attitudes give the president an opening, but Doherty cautions the window here is a small one.

"So the president has to hit the right balance with taking action. But the public is still, after two wars, reluctant to see a third war in the Middle East," he says.

Obama, who campaigned on ending the war in Iraq, is all too conscious of that. So Wednesday night, as he told NBC, he'll keep in mind the limits of U.S. military involvement.

"This is not going to be an announcement about U.S. ground troops. This is not the equivalent of the Iraq War. What this is is similar to the kinds of counter-terrorism campaigns that we've been engaging in consistently over the last five, six, seven years," he said.

That approach relies heavily on cooperation from local forces, which the administration believes will come more easily now that Iraq has installed a new, and possibly more inclusive, government.

Secretary of State John Kerry meets this week with leaders in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, appealing to these neighbors to help press the fight against the Islamic State.

But Brian Katulis, who studies national security at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, says pulling off a working regional alliance won't be easy.

"Getting the motley coalition of Turkey and Qatar, on the one hand, to work closely with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, I think is worthy to try to do. But these countries deeply distrust one another. And I think that's going to be the real trick," he says.

Katulis adds the test of that strategy is not so much what the president says Wednesday night, but what he and that coalition actually do in the months to come.

Scott Horsley/NPR

This story has been updated.