President Barack Obama laid out a cautious U.S.-led strategy to contain the fast growing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but didn’t identify any participating U.S. allies, such as Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
“If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region – including to the United States… Tonight, I want you to know that the United States of America is meeting them with strength and resolve,” he said shortly after 9.00 p.m. EST.
Obama’s speech sought to reassure Americans that he has the situation under control, some eight weeks before a critical midterm election in which his poll ratings have been hammered by his handling of foreign policy, the economy, immigration and healthcare.
Obama described a U.S. commitment large enough to contain ISIS, but not so large that it angers his progressive base. That base rallied behind him in 2008 after he promised to withdraw all troops from Iraq, and he needs their vote in November.
Obama’s eye on the 2014 campaign was underlined by his inclusion of boilerplate campaign-trail praise for his management of the nation’s economy. “I see the grit and determination and common goodness of the American people every single day – and that makes me more confident than ever about our country’s future,” he said, echoing a passage in many recent speeches to supporters and donors.
In his short 15-minute speech, Obama outlined a role for Iraq’s new government, including the rebuilding of an army capable of advancing into the territory held by the jihad army.
“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,” he said.
That’s a powerful combination, because U.S. bombers and drones can destroy ISIS when it congregates to block an Iraqi advance.
Obama used the same strategy in Libya in 2010 to take down the country’s dictator. He recently admitted that strategy was a failure, because the lack of U.S. ground troops weakened the new government and helped spur the civil war that is now wracking Libya.
Obama strongly hinted — but did not say — that U.S. forces would strike jihadi forces in northern Syria. “I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq,” he said.
That’s legally contentious, because the existing authority from the U.S. Congress allows U.S. force in Iraq, but not in Syria.
Obama said he will provide extra weaponry to some of Syria’s various rebel force. “Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition [and] I again call on Congress to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters.”
Many critics say that all of Syria’s rebel forces are Islamic radicals to a greater or lesser extent, and sometimes ally with ISIS. That extremism hinders reasonable deals with Syria’s many fearful Christians and minority groups, who are now allied with the country’s ruling clan.
Obama said he would boost the number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq above 1,000, even as he said he would not commit combat units. “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,” he said.
One role officials have suggested could be accomplished by neighboring governments is to delegitimize the ISIS claim that they are the most devout of Muslim governments. ISIS uses that claim to demand aid and volunteers from the Arab region.
Obama pushed back against the claim, but did not provide any evidence that ISIS is violating the tenets of Islam. “ISIL is not ‘Islamic,’” he said, adding. “No religion condones the killing of innocents.”
Obama portrayed ISIS as a nihilistic force of nature, devoid of any purpose or strategy. “It has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way,” he said. “These terrorists are unique in their brutality. They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide,” he said.
However, ISIS’s leader say their strategy and behavior is guided by Islamic law. If true, ISIS’s desire to follow Islamic law could guide a U.S.-led strategy seeking to delegitimize ISIS’s claim to Islamic purity.
Obama didn’t explain the history of ISIS, which grew rapidly after he pulled U.S. forces from a largely peaceful Iraq in 2010 and 2011. It’s leader claims to be an Islamic cleric, and it emerged from the wreckage of an al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq.
Obama did not talk about Iran’s theocracy, which has been conducting a low-level war against the United States since 1979. During the Iraq campaign from 2006 to 2010, Iran provided weapons that killed U.S. troops inside armored vehicles. Now, Iran’s government is help Iraq, and is providing soldiers who may fight alongside U.S. airpower.
Nor did Obama talk about funding. He’s already set U.S. defense spending on a downward spiral, and has not suggested that defense spending rise to cover the cost of the new operation.