President Barack Obama said he has asked Pentagon leaders for additional strike options on the Islamic State group, but cautioned that he is still consulting with his National Security Council and Congress to develop a strategy for defeating the terrorist group across Iraq and Syria.
The president put the brakes on Washington chatter this week that was anticipating an imminent escalation of fighting, perhaps while Congress remains on recess and without new authorization to enter combat.
“We will continue to consult with Congress … but I don’t want to put the cart before the horse; we don’t have a strategy yet,” Obama said in the White House briefing room on Thursday. It was a notable admission meant to calm members of Congress and the media, but that phrase also is likely to rile the president’s already restless critics who for two years have been clamoring for clarity on his Middle East policy and, in recent days, additional military strikes against extremist fighters across the region.
“I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at than we currently are. And I think that’s not just my assessment but the assessment of our military as well. We need to make sure that we’ve got clear plans so that we’re developing them,” Obama said.
Members of Congress and other critics in the past week have argued that Obama needs additional legal authority from Congress for the ongoing military operations in Iraq and any expansion of that mission. “I am confident that as commander-in-chief, I have the authorities to engage in the acts that we are conducting currently,” Obama said.
“My priority at this point is to make sure that the gains that ISIL made in Iraq are rolled back and that Iraq has the opportunity to govern itself effectively and secure itself,” he said.
Immediately after the president’s remarks, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers, R-Mich. said, “I think that there is a whole bunch of targets” that the president could strike now for short-term effects.
“The president needs to expand the mission,” he said.
Rogers said he supports expanded U.S. air strikes and “disruptive activities” inside Syria and Iraq. But Obama should “at least do a war powers notification” for those missions and meet with lawmakers, he said. Yet, the chairman did not call for new legislation. Rogers said he felt Americans needed to see a “unified United States Congress” join with the president against a unified enemy in the Islamic State.
“I can conceive of supporting that, yes,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said of U.S. air strikes in Syria. But, he cautioned, the Islamic State’s defeat cannot come “unilaterally.”
One week ago, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said that a total defeat of the Islamic State would require the United States military to attack the group inside of Syria, while noting that such an action would need international support from historically skittish neighboring regimes. Military action must be part of a nonmilitary, long-term plan to win allegiances against the Islamic State’s extremist violent ideology, they said.
“Our military’s the best in the world,” Obama said Thursday, echoing his war cabinet. “We can rout ISIS on the ground and keep a lid on things temporarily, but then as soon as we leave, the same problems come back again.”
“This should be a wake-up call to Sunni, to Shia, to everybody that a group like ISIS is beyond the pale; that they have no vision or ideology beyond violence and chaos and the slaughter of innocent people. And as a consequence, we’ve got to all join together — even if we have differences on a range of political issues — to make sure that they’re rooted out.”
Though the president has not settled on a strategy, he did offer a glimpse at where his thinking is headed: toward Syria. “When we look at a broader strategy that is consistent with what I said at West Point, that’s consistent with what I said at the National Defense [University], clearly ISIL has come to represent the very worst elements in the region that we have to deal with collectively,” he said. “And that’s going to be a long-term project. It’s going to require us to stabilize Syria in some fashion. And stabilizing Syria in some fashion means that we’ve got to get moderate Sunnis who are able to govern and offer, you know, a real alternative and competition to what ISIL’s been doing in some of these spaces.”