On the eve of the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the president will speak directly to the American people, outlining his strategy to tackle the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in a rare primetime address.
That “comprehensive strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL” will include “military action and support for the forces combating ISIL on the ground, both the opposition in Syria and a new, inclusive Iraqi government,” a White House official said in a statement early Wednesday, referring to ISIS by an alternate acronym.
Obama made clear in a meeting with congressional leaders on Tuesday that he plans to move forward with the intervention with or without their support.
In a press briefing Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made clear that the president's decision to give a primetime address was deliberate and in line with the threat ISIS poses.
"The president believes that this is a high national security priority," he said, noting that there wasn't just a fear for Americans' safety abroad, but Americans at home.
While Obama has said he won't put troops on the ground , his likely strategy—air strikes and supporting the opposition—is a tricky one, too: The shortage of on-the-ground intelligence in Syria will make choosing targets difficult and ISIS's anti-aircraft weaponry could risk pilot's lives. Syria's government-controlled Russian-built air defenses are a worry, too, though it's unclear if President Assad would use them against the U.S., Reuters reported. In terms of training efforts, the opposition forces fighting ISIS aren't a cohesive, united group, which could complicate American efforts.
Exactly one year ago, the president appealed to the country and Congress to intervene in Syria after President Bashir al-Assad began using chemical weapons on civilians; the public and Congress were skeptical and the president later backed off. But today, the president’s foe is completely different -- one that threatens to upend the entire Middle East, rapidly.
The brutal, jihadist movement has made enormous gains in recent months, moving from Syria into Iraq and taking control of large parts of northern and western Iraq, which they rule by Sharia law. Their ultimate goal is to turn the Middle East into a large Islamic caliphate, or religious state. The movement has attracted Western fighters, too: A ‘small handful’ of Americans are believed to be fighting on their behalf, U.S. officials told NBC News. Their potential return to the U.S. is among ISIS’s threats to the U.S., officials say.
Led by Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, the group that was once an al-Qaeda splinter is now a formidable rival, known for public and mass executions, beheading American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and others, and vicious acts like crucifixions and the massacre of—they claimed—1700 Iraqi soldiers in the deadliest sectarian atrocity in recent history.
The White House and State Department have been busy shoring up international allies on the effort: the president and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom co-wrote an opinion piece last week where they encouraged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization members to unite in their opposition to ISIS, and Secretary of State John Kerry is working overtime to build an international coalition against the extremist movement that has taken over large parts of Iraq.
The country has been conducting airstrikes in Iraq since August, in an attempt to knock back ISIS's advances in Iraq. On Monday and Tuesday, five additional strikes were fired, using a mix of attack, fighter and drones, bringing the total number of strikes up to 153.
The address comes as Americans' faith in the government's handling of international affairs reaches an all-time low, with just 43% of Americans voicing faith in the government to handle world issues, according to a Gallup poll. Still, nearly two-thirds of Americans support attacking ISIS, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Kerry flew from Washington to Amman last night, where he met with two ambassadors from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a brief half hour. By roughly 2:10 a.m. EST, he was back in the air again, arriving in Bagdad shortly after, where Kerry will meet separately with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Ja’fari, Council of Representatives Speaker Salim al-Jabouri, and President Fuad Masum.
Kerry is also expected to head to Saudi Arabia and Paris on this trip, though the schedule has not been made public.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney—the chief architect of the Iraq war and one of the president's biggest critics—called the situation "a grave strategic threat to the United States" and a "test of leadership" for the president, arguing that the president's foreign policy was directly responsible for the unrest in the Middle East and elsewhere.
"When you have a president whose primary concern is to never "elevate America," then it’s no surprise," he said, quoting Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel who said "the world is exploding all over."
"So often President Obama responds to crises by announcing all the things that he will not do. And here again, we can only hope that pattern ends tonight," Cheney said. "Our President must understand we are at war and that we must do what it takes for as long as it takes to win."
Back home, the president met with congressional leaders on Tuesday night, where he asked for congressional approval to train the Syrian opposition, just one portion of his strategy.
The leaders—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—reportedly did not ask for the president to ask for additional congressional approval of his military action, though McConnell called for it on Tuesday from the Senate floor.
“The Speaker expressed support for certain options that have been proposed by the president, such as increasing the effectiveness of the Iraqi Security Forces and training and equipping the Syrian opposition,” a statement from Boehner’s office read, adding that the Speaker had promised the president his support. In a nod to the party’s most conservative outposts, Boehner also “made clear that the administration should re-examine our border and homeland policies and authorities to determine whether there are loopholes or weaknesses that could expose the homeland to an immediate ISIL-linked attack.”
Conservative news outlets have been running reports that ISIS is considering infiltrating the U.S. via the Mexican-American border, or already has, though there’s little evidence to support the claim. Last month, Texas Gov. Rick Perry argued that there "there is a very real possibility” ISIS had already entered the country through his state.
"Our President must understand we are at war and that we must do what it takes for as long as it takes to win."'
The president reportedly did not request any additional funding, according to NBC News, but earlier this year, the administration requested to move some Defense Department spending around, something Congress would need to attach to the short-term government budget vote that is expected this week. It’s unclear whether Congress will be amenable to this, but the money—roughly $2 billion—would fund the country’s efforts in eastern Europe, Iraq, and the Middle East.
Other Senate leaders—including Sen. Angus King, a Maine Independent—have called for the president to define the mission’s limits and secure congressional approval before moving ahead.
“There should be some limitations on what the level of commitment is,” King told reporters after an Intelligence Committee meeting where senators were briefed on ISIS. “I think the president’s statement is gonna be extremely important and he has to begin, in my view, by telling the American people what kind of national interest is at stake here and why it justifies the substantial commitment of American resources.”