Barack Obama became the fourth consecutive American president to deliver a prime time speech to the nation about Iraq on Wednesday, vowing to wage “a steady, relentless effort” to wipe out ISIS, the Sunni militant group in Iraq and Syria which recently beheaded two American journalists.
“Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy,” Obama said.
The president was quick to emphasize that this won’t be a war like Iraq or Afghanistan, instead likening it to U.S. engagement in Yemen and Somalia. He
said it “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” and will instead involve “using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground” to attack ISIS (also called ISIL).
“If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region – including to the United States,” Obama said. He stressed that the strategy will be conducted with global allies, saying the four elements of his plan are air strikes, support for rebel forces on the ground, counter-terrorism and intelligence and humanitarian assistance to civilians.
“My administration has also secured bipartisan support for this approach here at home. I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL,” he said. “But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.”
The speech comes after Obama has faced withering criticism from many Republicans and some Democrats in Congress for not taking action sooner. The U.S. has conducted airstrikes against the group in Iraq, but it had not yet put forth a cohesive strategy for Syria, where the situation is more complicated. GOP leaders in particular have repeatedly called on the president to propose a strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria, where the group is attempting to gain a foothold.
A senior administration official said before the speech that the U.S. will take action in Syria but won’t work with Assad regime — also a foe of ISIS — “because they have no legitimacy in Sunni communities.” The official said the partners in the effort will include Saudi Arabia, with which the U.S. has common enemies in both the Assad regime and ISIS.
“We’re not going to telegraph our punches by being specific about the time and nature of our targets,” the official said.
The official also confirmed that the White House is lobbying Congress to include authorization for the U.S. to arm Syrian rebel — something that Obama has long been skeptical about — in the continuing resolution to keep the federal government running past Sept. 30. The official said the president already has the authority he needs for air strikes and other parts of the mission.
“That is the difference we make in the world,” Obama said. “And our own safety – our own security – depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation, and uphold the values that we stand for – timeless ideals that will endure long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.”