President Obama on Wednesday shared with the American people his broad military plan, including increased airstrikes, aimed at destroying Islamic militants trying to take control of Syria and Iraq.
Although he did not say he would seek congressional approval for the strikes, he called on Congress to fund arms for moderate Syrian rebels also trying to fight the group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Addressing the nation from the State Room of the White House on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Obama called ISIS a “cancer,” but promised no U.S. ground troops would be involved in the fight against the terrorist group.
“Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy,” Obama said, using an alternative acronym for the organization.
The U.S. will continue airstrikes and support forces on the ground to go after ISIS, in Syria and Iraq, the president said. “Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense.”
Obama promised a coalition of international partners in the effort, which he described as a long-term operation. He said that in two weeks he would chair a U.N. Security Council meeting aimed at rallying additional international support for the effort.
The president, who was swept into office in part because of his forceful opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, sought to walk a political and policy tightrope, made even more perilous by his relatively low approval ratings: announcing a plan that has a realistic chance of combating the threat from ISIS, while maintaining support from the American public, who polls suggest are opposed to another ground war in the Middle East.
As a result, he took pains to draw a contrast with other recent military actions in the Islamic world.
“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” Obama said.
The president announced he would send an additional 475 U.S. service members to Iraq to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with “training, intelligence and equipment.”
Even so, the plan that Obama announced is likely to lead to a long-term U.S. military commitment in Iraq, less than three years after the president withdrew American ground forces from the country. And there’s no guarantee the limited engagement the president announced won’t expand as circumstances change.
“Even if we say this is only going to be in the air, one of those pilots goes down, or we have special operators on the ground, and they end up in yellow jumpsuits in the desert, and you gotta imagine we’re going to be sending in the troops after that,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) told msnbc’s Rachel Maddow after the speech. “So there is a broad risk of escalation here and that’s something Americans need to be mindful of.”
Aiming to rally support for the campaign, Obama dwelled on ISIS’s well-publicized human rights abuses, calling the group’s fighters “unique in their brutality.”
“They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage,” he said. “They threatened a religious minority with genocide.”
And he said that though no specific plots against the U.S. homeland had been uncovered, there are concerns that Americans and Europeans who have been trained by the terror group in Syria and Iraq could return home to launch domestic attacks.
Republicans have in recent weeks been critical of Obama for not taking harder line with ISIS earlier. The response to the president’s speech from House Speaker John Boehner was non-committal.
“While the president presented a compelling case for action, many questions remain about the way in which the president intends to act,” Boehner said in a statement.
Boehner said training the Iraqi army and Syrian rebels could take years, adding, “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.”
Boehner said House Republicans would meet Thursday morning to discuss “next steps.”In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the strategy laid out by Obama “strong and decisive.”
Democratic senators facing tight re-election races in November did not embrace Obama’s approach to the ISIS threat. Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, locked in a close contest with GOP Rep. Cory Gardner, said any broader U.S. military engagement in the region beyond airstrikes must be approved by Congress. “I will continue to demand that the administration provide a very clear picture of its goals and objectives,” Udall said.
Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich was more direct, saying in a statement he opposed Obama’s plan to arm the Syrian opposition. “I am gravely concerned by reports of ISIS seizing and utilizing U.S. weapons intended for those fighting against the Syrian regime, and we must have greater assurance that we aren’t arming extremists who will eventually use the weapons against us.”
Begich is facing a competitive race with Republican Dan Sullivan in the heavily red state.
Many Republicans were more outspoken in their criticism. In an interview on Fox News, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz called the president’s speech “fundamentally unserious,” and ridiculed what he called the “Obama-Clinton photo-op foreign policy.”
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain suggested that the president was responsible for the chaos in Iraq, thanks to his decision to pull troops out in 2011.
“We had this thing under control, all we had to do was leave that residual force behind” McCain said on Fox News.Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul took a more nuanced view. While lamenting Obama’s failure to initially seek Congress’s approval for military action, Paul said this is “intervention I do support.” In the past, Paul, a potential 2016 presidential contender, has espoused more isolationist views.
House Republicans on Wednesday delayed a planned vote on a government funding measure so that money for arming the Syrian rebels could be added to the bill.
Obama has been reluctant to recommit to military action in Iraq after the last American troops left that country in 2011.
But the specter of renewed violence in that country—including the savage recent beheadings of two American journalists—forced his hand and upped the pressure on the president to act. An NBC News poll released Tuesday that 61% of respondents support military action against ISIS.
Adam Howard contributed reporting.