The United States is “at war” with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), White House and Pentagon officials said Friday, marking a significant departure from the more cautious rhetoric President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry used earlier this week.
“This is not the Iraq War of 2002, but make no mistake, we know we are at war with ISIL,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said during a briefing Friday afternoon, using an alternate name for the Islamic militant group that has seized territory throughout Iraq and Syria. He qualified that the U.S. is at war “in the same way we are at war and continue to be at war with al Qaida and its affiliates.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest echoed that language in a separate briefing moments later, acknowledging that the U.S. is “at war” with ISIS in the same way it is with al Qaida.
Both comments come less than a day after Secretary of State John Kerry explicitly told ABC News that the nation was not at war with the militant group.
“Look, we’re engaged in a counterterrorism operation of a significant order,” Kerry said in response to a question about whether the evolving military campaign constituted a war. “I think ‘war’ is the wrong reference term with respect to that, but obviously it involves kinetic military action.”
The mixed messages come on the heels of the president’s prime time address Wednesday night outlining his strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. Obama was careful in his speech not to call the planned expansion of military operations a war, instead labeling the mission a “sustained counterterrorism strategy.”
Although he did not say he would seek congressional approval for the strikes, Obama called on Congress to fund arms for moderate Syrian rebels who opposed both ISIS and the Assad regime. The president also announced he would send an additional 475 U.S. service members to Iraq to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces, though he promised that “American forces will not have a combat mission – we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.”
The ambiguous distinction between war and counterterrorism, and between combat troops and armed military personnel assigned to provide “training, intelligence and equipment,” reflects the ambivalence of a president elected in part on the back of his forceful opposition to the Iraq War. Obama, who was once on track to have ended two drawn-out wars in the Middle East, now finds himself on the brink of launching a third.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have reservations as well. While an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this week found a majority of Americans – 61% – say military action against ISIS is in the nation’s interest, several high-profile Democrats balked at the prospective cost or were insulted that Obama said he didn’t need congressional approval. On the right, Republicans hammered the president for the limits he placed on the campaign against ISIS, particularly his pledge that he would not put U.S. boots on the ground.