Middle East Online
WASHINGTON: Barack Obama will
steel Americans for a prolonged battle against the Islamic State
Wednesday, despite devoting much of his presidency to avoiding
sapping new entanglements in the Middle East.
His hand forced by the radical group's sudden
rise in Syria and Iraq, Obama will use a prime time address to
argue that targeted military might and an international
coalition can defeat IS, before it poses a threat to the US
But mindful of avoiding what he believes are the mistakes of the
last decade, Obama will assure millions of television viewers
that he will not send conventional ground troops back to Iraq to
fight a group that has beheaded two US journalists.
It remained unclear whether Obama would also use
the address on the ceremonial state floor of the White House --
where he announced the success of a US operation to kill Osama
bin Laden -- to signal an expansion of US airstrikes against IS
from Iraq into Syria.
But the New York Times and the Washington Post said late Tuesday
that Obama is in fact prepared to authorize air strikes in
Syria. The Times quoted a senior administration official, while
the Post cited foreign policy experts who have spoken to Obama
in recent days.
The speech will also lack a definitive timeline for US
operations against IS, after several reports cited senior
officials as saying they could outlast Obama's presidency, which
ends in January 2017.
"I think the American people need to expect that this is
something that will require a sustained commitment," said White
House spokesman Josh Earnest.
The address will come at a poignant time -- on
the eve of the 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks,
when Islamic radicalism on a mass scale scorched the US homeland
for the first time, and drew America into exhausting overseas
wars and a still unending anti-terror campaign.
Earnest said Obama would "talk about the risks
that the United States faces, and he'll talk about the strategy
that he has put together to confront those risks, to mitigate
them, and ultimately to degrade and destroy ISIL," he said,
using an alternative acronym for IS.
But many details of the plan Obama will outline,
as he enlists the symbolic weight of a national address at 9:00
pm (0100 GMT Thursday) remain unclear.
- Cautious hope -
White House aides say it will be anchored on the
cautious hope that Iraq's new unity government will prove more
inclusive than ex-prime minister Nuri al-Maliki who was blamed
for fanning sectarianism that eased Islamic State's rise.
The president briefed senior congressional
leaders on his plan on Tuesday, and an aide to House Speaker
John Boehner stirred speculation that he could order US troops
back to Iraq on a mission strictly limited to training their
Iraqi counterparts and to call in air strikes against IS forces.
"The speaker stated he 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 the lethal targeting of ISIL leadership," the aide said.
There was no comment from the White House on
whether Obama was considering such an idea, after aborting plans
for a small contingent of American soldiers to stay on in Iraq
after 2011, following a disagreement with the Maliki government.
Obama, who sees ending wars in Afghanistan and
Iraq as a centerpiece of his legacy, is also under pressure to
announce stepped-up support for moderate rebels of the Free
Syrian Army, despite his antipathy to intervening in Syria's
vicious civil war.
Washington wants to ensure that President Bashar al-Assad, who
it regards as a war criminal, does not benefit from any power
vacuum left in the event that US military action degrades IS.
A White House official said Obama told
congressional leaders on Tuesday that he did not need fresh
permission for military action he is planning to take against
IS, a question that has divided senior lawmakers.
- Rebel aid -
A senior US official however said that Obama told
the bipartisan leadership of the House and the Senate that he
did need lawmakers to vote on intensifying US training and
equipping of moderate Syrian rebels.
Obama previously asked for such authorization in
May, and wants action before Congress leaves town within weeks,
ahead of midterm elections in November.
The speech will represent a chance for Obama to
redress criticism that he has been slow to respond to IS, amid
fears fighters armed with Western passports could hit US
started the work of creating an international coalition to take
on IS at the NATO summit last week.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been in the
Middle East, and Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in the
region Wednesday to accelerate Washington's efforts
Public opinion in the United States meanwhile
appears to be shifting in favor of a limited intervention in
A Wall Street
Journal/NBC News poll published Tuesday found two-thirds of
those asked favored taking on IS.