President Obama has faced criticism from all sides for what appeared to many to be an ad hoc approach to countering the spread of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The group, which has murdered thousands of people and brutally beheaded two American journalists on videos released on the Internet, has steadily captured territory as part of its effort to create a new “caliphate” in the Middle East.
However, in an interview that aired on Meet the Press Sunday morning, Obama tried to tie the administrations actions so far into a broader strategy that has, slowly but surely, paved the way for the U.S. and its allies to begin rolling back the group, which the president generally refers to as ISIL.
“What I have done over the last several months is, first and foremost, made sure that we got eyes on the problem, that we shifted resources, intelligence, reconnaissance. We did an assessment on the ground,” the president told Chuck Todd, the new Meet the Press moderator.
“The second step was to make sure we protected American personnel, our embassies, our consulates,” he continued. “That included taking air strikes to ensure that towns like Erbil were not overrun, critical infrastructure, like the Mosul Dam was protected, and that we were able to engage in key humanitarian assistance programs that have saved thousands of lives.”
With that done, he said, “The next phase is now to start going on some offense.”
Obama told Todd he would address the nation on Wednesday and outline the next steps in the fight against ISIS and, importantly, said that he would seek congressional support for further action.
“I am going to be asking Congress to make sure that they understand and support what our plan is,” Obama said. “And it's going to require some resources, I suspect, above what we are currently doing in the region.”
He said the administration has been “consulting with Congress throughout… And this speech will allow Congress, I think, to understand very clearly and very specifically what it is that we are doing but also what we're not doing. We're not looking at sending in 100,000 American troops.”
The president stressed that he does not view ISIS as a direct threat to the American people at home.
“I want everybody to understand that we have not seen any immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland from ISIL,” he said.
“In the more immediate term … it’s a threat to friends, partners in the region and is causing all kinds of hardship. And we’ve seen the savagery not just in terms of how they dealt with the two Americans that had been taken hostage but the killing of thousands of innocents in Iraq, thousands of innocents in Syria, the kidnapping of women and the complete disruption of entire villages.”
While the president did not provide specific details on what the strategy to be announced Wednesday would be, he was clear on what it would not be: “[T]his is not going to be an announcement about U.S. ground troops. This is not the equivalent of the Iraq war. What this is, is similar to the kinds of counterterrorism campaigns that we've been engaging in consistently over the last five, six, seven years.”
Obama also noted that at the recent NATO summit in Wales he secured the promise of cooperation in the fight against ISIS from numerous U.S. allies.
“[T]he good news is that because of American leadership, we have, I believe, a broad-based coalition internationally and regionally to be able to deal with the problem.”
He said the U.S. will be going in “as as part of an international coalition, carrying out air strikes in support of work on the ground by Iraqi troops, Kurdish troops. We are going to be helping to put together a plan for them, so that they can start retaking territory that ISIL had taken over.”
The plan, he said, will also involve efforts to win the loyalty of Sunni tribes in Iraq alienated from the government in Baghdad, by using economic incentives.
The Shia-led Iraqi government has in the past several years alienated Iraq’s Sunni population, making them perhaps more likely to support ISIS, which follows a radical vision of Sunni Islam. The president said Iraq needs to establish a more inclusive government, and with the recent ouster of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Obama said he is hopeful that by next week a new government with greater Sunni participation can be formed.
Todd pointed out that ISIS likely cannot be fully defeated without the U.S. and its allies taking action in Syria, where the group holds a large amount of territory.
“But you also cannot, over the long term or even the medium term, deal with this problem by having the United States serially occupy various countries all around the Middle East,” Obama replied. “We don't have the resources. It puts enormous strains on our military. And at some point, we leave. And then things blow up again.”
In the case of Syria, he said, “The boots on the ground have to be Syrian.”
In saying that, Obama opened the door to arming and training members of the Syrian opposition – something the administration and the president himself have long resisted, partly on the grounds that it was unclear where weapons delivered to Syrian rebels would wind up. He argued Sunday that the U.S. has now been working with groups in Syria long enough that they have been “vetted.”
Todd raised the point that many have made: Going after ISIS in Syria is, in effect, aiding Syrian President Bashar al Assad, whose army has attacked its own citizens in an effort to shore up his regime.
“You know, the reason we're in this situation is because Assad brutalized his people and specifically brutalized the Sunni population that is the majority in Syria,” Obama said. “It's going to be hard for us to attract Sunnis to fight against ISIL in this area if they think that we're doing it on behalf of Assad.”
Through his actions, Obama said, Assad “has foregone legitimacy.” Nevertheless, he appeared to rule out taking any action against the Syrian dictator. “[W]hen it comes to our policy and the coalition that we're putting together, our focus specifically is on ISIL. It's narrowly on ISIL.”
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: