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Obama's ISIL Strategy to Emphasize Coalition Effort

Obama's ISIL Strategy to Emphasize Coalition Effort

By Alexis Simendinger - September 10, 2014

On the eve of another 9/11 anniversary, Barack Obama will tell Americans in a prime time address Wednesday that the United States is back in the business of battling Islamic extremists in Iraq.

If it had been possible years ago to show then-Sen. Obama a crystal ball in which he stood in the same White House doorway as George W. Bush, gazing through a television camera to explain a war against an army of terrorists, he would have rejected the fortune-telling out of hand.

Obama has long seen himself as the un-Bush -- the peacemaker who could end wars, pull American troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and close the book on a decimated band of 9/11 masterminds.

But nearly 13 years after al-Qaeda struck the United States, and more than 150 airstrikes into a new U.S. military offensive against a spinoff terror group known as the Islamic State, Obama will stand where Bush stood and tell worried Americans that defeating another murderous group operating in Iraq and Syria is necessary to protect “the core national security interests of the United States and the American people.”

Just a few weeks ago, Obama imagined using his autumn to focus on the economy, immigration executive action, and help for vulnerable Democratic candidates trying to defeat Republicans in November. Instead, he is cobbling together some like-minded countries for a 2014 version of Bush’s coalition of the willing, and has embarked on a new multi-phased operation in Iraq that may -- or may not -- involve U.S. bombings in Syria. The overarching rationale, as Obama expects to say in an outline of his strategy, will be prevention of new terror attacks inside the United States.

The president will not describe shock and awe, as the Bush administration did during the run-up to its attacks inside Iraq. Indeed, Obama will not promise anything akin to the quick-knockout punch his predecessor initially (and wrongly) envisioned when Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda and the Taliban morphed into a shifting mosaic of “evildoers” after 2001.

Obama will insist that no U.S. combat troops will be deployed to Syria and that ground troops will not be back in Iraq. Military action is but one tool America will use to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group known as ISIL or ISIS, he will say.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest conceded the defeat of ISIL may take years, but suggested Obama will not commit to any set timetable. He also won’t seek from Congress specific authorization to use force (U.S. airstrikes already have been continuous since early August in Iraq).

“The president … has the authority he needs to take action against ISIL in accordance with the mission he will lay out,” the White House said in a written statement late Tuesday.

While the president will continue to express U.S. support for “moderate” forces battling Syrian dictator Bashir al Assad and ISIL, which has strongholds across Iraq’s border with Syria, the mechanics of a U.S. alliance with the Free Syrian Army is likely to remain murky.

In his remarks, the president will not disclose to his listeners a price tag for the operation (a blend of airstrikes, lethal military assistance to Iraqis, humanitarian aid, diplomacy with other nations, and beefed-up intelligence and counterterrorism measures), Earnest added.

Following a meeting with four House and Senate leaders from both parties Tuesday, the White House and the lawmakers indicated they do not expect to cast votes this month to expressly authorize the new hostilities, although they may vote on a mechanism to fund the operation.

In what sounded like a reference to discussions about appropriations (colloquially known as “buy-in”), the White House said  the president “told the leaders that he would welcome action by the Congress that would aid the overall effort and demonstrate to the world that the United States is united in defeating the threat from ISIL.”

The fiscal year ends Sept. 30, and Congress plans to approve a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government operating past Oct. 1 and beyond the midterm elections. The administration has submitted an overall budget, plus a wish list of supplemental funding it favors, including money for border enforcement and migrant processing, but it remains unclear whether Congress is ready to take up Obama’s call for potentially billions of dollars to battle a wealthy army made up of religious fanatics.

Speaker John Boehner, after meeting with Obama Tuesday, appeared to suggest he would support U.S. military advisers on the ground in Iraq, but he made no specific mention of any operations inside Syria. In a written statement, his aides said the speaker would “support the president if he chose to deploy the military to help train and play an advisory role for the Iraqi Security Forces and assist with lethal targeting of ISIL leadership.”

Boehner also told Obama the administration must protect the United States within its borders from foreign fighters, more than 100 of whom are Americans with U.S. passports (they are fighting alongside ISIL and can theoretically re-enter this country).

Just days before this year’s 9/11 anniversary, the administration repeated it has no credible intelligence suggesting there’s an active ISIL-linked plot to attack Americans outside of Iraq and Syria. In recent weeks, two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, both held captive in the region, were brutally beheaded by one or more individuals who boasted they represented the Islamic State.

In his address, Obama may borrow from remarks delivered more than a year ago, during which he attempted to shift the country away from more than a decade of bloody wars. But while enumerating American successes, including Osama bin Laden’s death, the president warned that al-Qaeda successors operating in multiple countries meant the risks of terrorism are “more diffuse.”

“America is at a crossroads,” he said in May 2013. “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison's warning that `No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’ Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society,” he said. “But what we can do --what we must do -- is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold.”  

The president is betting he can reinvigorate public support for battles in Iraq by conveying ISIL as a serious threat here at home. He will say there is a global commitment, even if the United States shoulders most of the military costs. He will argue it’s both a commitment and justice to defend and support a “more inclusive” Iraqi government.

Seventy-one percent of Americans, while sick of war and eager to focus on their own economic well-being, now say they support airstrikes against Sunni extremists in Iraq, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll of adults conducted Sept. 4-7. In June -- when Obama was still not persuaded ISIL was a significant threat to American interests, he has admitted -- public support for such strikes was 45 percent.

With reforms underway within Iraq’s government, Obama believes that nation can become less sectarian and more united, although divisions abound. ISIL has blurred the border between Iraq and Syria, and the Kurds in northern Iraq have seized territory during battles with the Islamic State, which they will not soon relinquish.

“It’s easier for the United States to come behind [Iraqis] and support them as they take the fight to ISIL,” Earnest said, sidestepping the fact that ISIL this summer easily overwhelmed the Iraqi military and security forces, capturing cities, seizing bank holdings and oil resources, and terrorizing Iraq’s religious minorities.

“But the important thing for people to remember is that we're not going to do that alone,” Earnest added, previewing a key Obama theme. “The United States is only going to do that with the strong support and active involvement of the international community.”

Obama will repeat that message Wednesday, hoping the idea of shared international responsibility to crush ISIL will allay some of the fears among the American public and lawmakers, especially incumbents in tough races this fall.

So far, the administration has offered no specifics about how countries in the region and other members of the U.S.-led coalition are planning to contribute to the total bill. The president will convene a special ISIL discussion during the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month, where details may become clearer.

By that time, members of both the House and Senate are scheduled to have departed Washington until after Election Day.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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