President Obama declared Wednesday that he would go on the offense and pursue Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, outlining a detailed, long-term strategy to counter the militants who have captured large swaths of the region and pulled the U.S. into a fresh conflict in the Middle East.
Nearly six years after he was elected on a promise to end America’s years-long wars, Obama used a rare prime-time address to describe a military campaign broader than any other he has launched.
Obama said the U.S. would use air power to target the Sunni Muslim extremists “wherever they exist,” expanding the aerial assault he launched in Iraq a month ago.
He ordered an additional 475 U.S. service members to assist the beleaguered Iraqi and Kurdish forces and asked Congress to move quickly to approve hundreds of millions of dollars to increase funding for training and equipping Syrian fighters.
“America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” Obama said, speaking for less than 15 minutes.
“Our objective is clear: We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy,” he said, using one common acronym for the group.
The president’s plans represented a dramatic escalation of a campaign that just weeks ago he declared would be narrowly focused and limited to protecting U.S. citizens in Iraq and assisting Iraqis who fled the Islamic State as it rapidly marched across that country this summer.
The expanded campaign will provide air support to Iraqi troops who will “go on offense,” aided by training, intelligence and equipment supplied by U.S. service members.
The rare, high-profile unveiling of Obama’s counter-terrorism program came as part of a White House effort to bolster the president’s image on foreign policy and answer critics who pummeled him when he acknowledged two weeks ago that his administration had no strategy yet for dealing with Islamic State militants in Syria.
Obama tried to assure Americans that he would not send combat troops into the fight and sought to distinguish his campaign from the years-long ground wars he inherited from his predecessor.
Officials compared the strategy to counter-terrorism efforts against Al Qaeda in places such as Yemen and Somalia, rather than a full-scale military invasion.
“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” Obama said. “This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground.”
But with about 1,600 military advisors, intelligence officers and others already in Iraq, and more than 150 airstrikes, the comparison to relatively limited missions in Yemen and Somalia seemed an oversimplification. Lawmakers and experts noted that Obama’s new campaign would span two countries, involve engagement in a raging civil war in Syria, require long-term efforts to team with militias of uncertain alliances and present other complications.
“To say America is safer and the situation is very much like Yemen and Somalia shows me that the president really doesn’t have a grasp for how serious the threat of ISIS is,” Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona told CNN, using another acronym for the group.
Other congressional leaders expressed at least tentative support for the president’s remarks. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said the president “has finally begun to make the case the nation has needed him to make for quite some time, that destroying this terrorist threat requires decisive action.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took the opportunity to indirectly criticize the policies of Obama’s predecessor, saying that Obama plans to act decisively without “repeating the mistakes of the past in the Middle East.”
But in an indication of how members of Obama’s party face political pressure to demonstrate independence from an increasingly unpopular president, Democrats who are top targets in November’s midterm election expressed reservations.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said he opposed arming the Syrian fighters “without greater assurance that we aren’t arming extremists who will eventually use the weapons against us.”
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) called for the president’s entire plan to be put to a vote.
“The American people must be assured that we are not pursuing another open-ended conflict in the Middle East, and I will not give this president — or any other president — a blank check to begin another land war in Iraq,” he said.
The president’s plan may eventually mark the first direct U.S. intervention in Syria, a reversal of the White House’s long-held resistance to becoming entangled in the 3-year-old civil war. The plan to train Syrian opposition forces risks conflict with the government of President Bashar Assad, whom the Obama administration has long pressured to step down, decrying the brutal tactics he has used against Syrians to hold on to power.
Senior administration officials, who refused to be named discussing plans, said Saudi Arabia had agreed to host training camps for the Syrian opposition fighters with the hope that those forces will eventually secure areas of Syria now under Islamic State control.
The officials said the United States would not coordinate with Assad or inadvertently bolster his forces, but it was unclear how the Pentagon will identify and strike targets in his country.
Administration officials contend the broad new campaign is warranted because Islamic State is a threat to national security, as well as to U.S. interests and allies in the region, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Obama declared Islamic State “a terrorist organization, pure and simple.”
“If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States,” he said.
Advisors said Obama can and will take military action without authorization from lawmakers. Obama believes he can legally justify the attacks through the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which gave the commander in chief broad authority to retaliate against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. White House officials often characterize Islamic State as an offshoot of Al Qaeda.
The decision to avoid a vote in Congress is a reversal for the White House, which a year ago began to seek congressional authorization to launch airstrikes against Assad’s government. Obama declared then that lawmakers should have a role in sanctioning military action. Facing a likely no vote in Congress at the time, Obama called off the threat of airstrikes when Assad agreed to relinquish part of his chemical weapons stash.
This fall, with elections looming and political gridlock firmly in place, Congress is unlikely to agree on such a measure.
The president said Wednesday that he welcomes the support of lawmakers and asked them to authorize $500 million to arm and equip Syrian rebels by adding a provision to a must-pass spending bill that could be voted on as soon as this week.
Times staff writers Lisa Mascaro and Brian Bennett contributed to this report.