President Obama vowed to “destroy” Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorists in a prime-time address Wednesday that sought to restore eroding public confidence in his leadership and ability to safeguard national security.
The president announced a “systematic campaign of airstrikes” against fighters with ISIS “wherever they exist,” signaling U.S. targets will expand from Iraq to Syria. [READ FULL TEXT OF OBAMA'S SPEECH.]
“I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country wherever they are,” Obama said during the 15-minute address from the White House. “That means I will not hesitate to take action against [ISIS] in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
Obama said he will send 475 additional U.S. armed services personnel to Iraq to reinforce that country’s military and ask Congress to approve a program allowing the Pentagon to train and equip moderate rebels inside Syria battling both ISIS and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.
“America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” Obama declared. “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, [ISIS] through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.”
The orders are a significant escalation in the fight against ISIS, which over the past month has executed two American journalists its members had kidnapped. The group released grisly videos of the journalists being beheaded by an ISIS member with a British accent, a move intended to win the group new members and scare the American public.
Obama acknowledged the ISIS terrorists were “unique in their brutality” and said the killing of the U.S. journalists was representative of their “acts of barbarism.” He also said the intelligence community believed thousands of foreign fighters have taken up arms alongside ISIS and could return to their home countries.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found 94 percent of voters surveyed were aware of the executions, and six in 10 support a U.S. military campaign against the group.
The president acknowledged that “many Americans are concerned about these threats” and said that, left unchecked, ISIS could pose a threat not just to the region but to the United States.
But Obama pledged the United States would meet the threats “with strength and resolve."
The speech marked a dramatic shift for a president largely elected on the promise to end the Iraq War. Obama has sought to use his second term to end American engagement in Afghanistan, the longest-running war in U.S. history.
Speaking on the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that ushered in those conflicts, Obama took pains to say he would not commit U.S. ground troops to the new fight. He compared the new engagement against ISIS to fights in Yemen and Somalia, where the U.S. has used drones and government partners to attack suspected terrorists.
“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Obama said. “It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
He said the campaign “will be waged through a steady, relentless effort” that relies on air power and partner forces on the ground, not U.S. soldiers.
He also urged patience, saying it would take time to “eradicate the cancer” of ISIS.
According to a senior administration official, the White House is still reviewing plans for the strikes within Syria, although Obama has decided definitively he will launch them.
“We will take action on the Syrian side of the border to degrade [ISIS],” the official said. “But we're not going to telegraph our punches.”
Wednesday’s speech was seen as pivotal for Obama, and he addressed the nation just nine weeks before midterm elections in which Republicans are favored to take over control of the Senate.
Democrats have blamed Obama for their political troubles, pointing to polls showing wavering confidence in his leadership. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 47 percent of respondents feel the U.S. is now less safe than it was before 9/11, the highest number since the terror attack.
The administration sought before the speech to win support from Congress for authority to arm Syrian rebel groups, a move aimed in part at ensuring shared responsibility for the conflict and presenting a united U.S. front abroad.
Obama stressed his administration was working hard to bring in international support for the mission and said allies within Iraq and Syria would ultimately be responsible for their own security.
On Wednesday, France said it would participate in airstrikes against ISIS, if needed, and Germany announced it was sending lethal aid to Kurdish fighters. Saudi Arabia has offered to host a U.S. training facility to assist the moderate Syrian opposition.
Obama called on Congress in his address to grant the Pentagon additional authority to run that training site, saying the U.S. “must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like [ISIS].”
But the administration’s request has already divided Capitol Hill, and efforts to include it as part of a stopgap spending bill led Republican leaders to punt a vote on measure to next week.
The president argued he had the legal authority to pursue his military strategy without additional congressional action, though he also encouraged any bid by Congress to explicitly authorize or fund the mission.
“I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together,” Obama said. “So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.”
Congressional leadership has balked at that opportunity so far, wary of a controversial vote weeks before the midterm elections. Memories of last year’s botched attempt to secure authorization for strikes against Assad also loom large.
“We believe that he can rely on the 2001 [authorization] as statutory authority for the military airstrike operations he’s directing against [ISIS] for instance,” the official said. “And we believe again that he has the authority to continue these operations beyond 30 days consistent with the war powers resolution because the operations are authorized by statute.”