In a speech outlining a new strategy to destroy the group also known as ISIL or the Islamic State, Obama announced an extensive air campaign with no set end date, and plans to rely on others to engage in a ground war — Iraqi forces in Iraq, and Syrian moderates in Syria.
Congress will have a role to play, but it might be a bit part.
"Following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat," Obama told the nation in the primetime address.
"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. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven," Obama said.
"Now, we are poised to go on offense," a senior administration official said when previewing the speech.
The official cited the 13-year-old post-9/11 authorization against al Qaida and its affiliates as the authorization for a broad new air campaign that will target ISIS, otherwise known as ISIL or the Islamic State, in Syria as well as Iraq. That broad claim of authority has its critics in Congress — and beyond — but isn't being challenged by top leaders.
If anything, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, remained concerned Obama wasn't going far enough, saying the president needs to launch "an all-out effort to destroy an enemy that has declared a holy war against America and the principles for which we stand."
But Boehner stopped short of saying he would schedule a vote on a war authorization, something the Congressional Progressive Caucus leadership — co-chairs Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Keith Ellison, D-Minn., along with CPC Peace and Security Task Force Chair Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. — demanded Wednesday night in a joint statement.
"The voices of the American people must be heard during a full and robust debate in Congress on the use of military force. Speaker Boehner should put legislation authorizing military action on the floor of the House of Representatives before Congress leaves," they said.
The administration official, meanwhile, was careful to say that ISIS was an outgrowth of al Qaida in Iraq. Neither group, however, existed at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Here's what Obama still needs from Congress:
* He's asked for $500 million for training and equipping moderate Syrian rebels as well as so-called Title 10 authority to train the rebels. That request is months old, but hasn't gone anywhere until now. Obama's personally been making calls to lawmakers to day to get them to pass the authority, and he's asking for it again in his speech. It would put Congress on record backing a key part of his overall strategy.
"Tonight, I again call on Congress to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters," Obama said. "In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria's crisis once and for all."
Here's what Obama wants from Congress:
* While Obama doesn't need a new war authorization, he'd welcome their support. He made a similar statement a year ago when he made an aborted attempt to get congressional support for strikes on Syria's government — that America is stronger when the Congress and the president are working together.
"My Administration has also secured bipartisan support for this approach here at home," Obama said. "I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. 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."
* Don't get in the way. At a minimum, Obama doesn't want Congress reining in his authority. His team is pushing hard to get as broad support as possible inside the Congress. A "clean" CR that doesn't restrict his authority could end up as a de facto blessing of his plans.
Other key points the administration officials — and Obama — are making:
* This really isn't all that different from taking on terrorist groups in Yemen or Somalia, where Obama has approved air strikes while supporting ground forces.
* Obama is enlisting a broad coalition so the United States won't be going it alone.
* This won't be another Iraq war or Afghanistan. U.S. ground forces won't be invading Syria.
* The goal is to "destroy" ISIS. That suggests a very long campaign given that 13 years after 9/11 we still haven't destroyed al Qaida.
* The administration is very concerned about the threat posed by foreign fighters with western passports going to the United States, although the government knows of no specific threats.
* "If there is an ISIL target that we need to hit in Iraq, we will hit it," the senior administration official said. "We will go after ISIL wherever they are, and that includes Syria. We will not be restrained by that border...(Obama) will not tolerate safe havens for terrorist organizations."
* The United States will not work with the Assad regime "because they have no legitimacy in the Sunni community," the official said.
* The senior administration official defended the delay in Obama putting together his strategy. Obama "does not shoot first and ask questions later."
* Strikes in Syria aren't necessarily imminent. "We're not going to telegraph our punches."
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