To absolutely no one’s surprise, President Obama is signaling his ambition to make war on Syria under the guise of attacking ISIS. He may or may not discuss this in his speech tonight at 9pm Eastern Standard time.
President Obama is prepared to use U.S. military airstrikes in Syria as part of an expanded campaign to defeat the Islamic State and does not believe he needs formal congressional approval to take that action, according to people who have spoken with the president in recent days.
Obama discussed his plans at a dinner with a bipartisan group of foreign policy experts this week at the White House and made clear his belief that he has the authority to attack the militant Islamist group on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border to protect U.S national security, multiple people who participated in the discussion said. The move to attack inSyria would represent a remarkable escalation in strategy for Obama, who has sought during his presidency to reduce the U.S. military engagement in the Middle East.
Administration officials have been working in recent days to enlist the support of the nation’s political establishment to help sell their strategy to the American public, which Obama will address in a prime-time speech Wednesday night. The president met with the top four congressional leaders Tuesday, while his aides held briefings on Capitol Hill.
The intensity of the outreach amounted to a tacit acknowledgment by administration officials that they have been slow in formulating a strategy to confront the militants and in conveying that vision more broadly. The Islamic State controls wide swaths of territory in both countries, but the United States has so far limited its military engagement to Iraq, as Obama has been reluctant to intervene in Syria’s civil war.
Obama is committed to taking the fight to the Islamic State “wherever their strategic targets are,” said Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy who was among those at Monday’s dinner.
“This is not an organization that respects international boundaries,” said Flournoy, who left the Obama administration in 2012 and now serves as chief executive of the Center for a New American Security. “You cannot leave them with a safe haven. . . . I expect him to be very candid.”
There is no indication that a U.S. strike in Syria is imminent, and the Obama administration has signaled that a stepped-up U.S. effort in Iraq, in conjunction with an international and regional partnership, is probably the first step in combating the Islamic State’s advances.
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment for this article, but White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at his daily briefing Tuesday that the Islamic State is “essentially operating in a virtual safe haven in Syria. That’s a dangerous situation.”
Many congressional Republicans, as well as some Democrats, have criticized Obama as being too cautious. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Tuesday that “what we need is a strategy,” while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a floor speech before meeting with the president that Obama “needs to explain to Congress how additional authorities of the use of force will protect Americans.”
After the meeting with congressional leaders Tuesday, Boehner was supportive of some of what he heard. The speaker’s office issued a statement saying, “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 lethal targeting of ISIL leadership.” (The Islamic State is also known as ISIL or ISIS.)
Obama informed lawmakers during the session that he did not need new authority from Congress to pursue his approach to countering the threat posed by the Islamic State, according to congressional leadership aides.
Former vice president Richard B. Cheney made his case for more-aggressive intervention in Iraq in a meeting with House Republicans on Tuesday, but many of the newer, more libertarian members of the GOP conference seemed unmoved.
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