Obama Presses Congress on Islamic State as the Public Shifts

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U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama asked Congress Tuesday to authorize military action against Islamic State extremists, saying the U.S. can defeat them without being “dragged into another ground war in the Middle East.”

In his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, Obama put the burden on Republicans, many critical of his leadership, to support his strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group in Iraq and Syria. Beyond that, Obama offered a broad, though vague, pledge to support the “moderate” Syrian rebels and “people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.”

“This effort will take time,” he said. “It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force” against Islamic State.

Obama’s speech comes against the backdrop of a shifting public mood, with polls finding a larger share of Americans favoring stronger U.S. global leadership, particularly in light of the threats from Islamic extremists.

Many of the Republicans listening to Obama, such as Senator John McCain of Arizona, have been critical of his foreign policy, particularly on Iraq and Syria. McCain has said that weak leadership by Obama has contributed to the advances by Islamic State and other challenges to global order and U.S. security.

Sharp Retort

Obama offered a sharp retort to his critics, saying that America leads “not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.”

“When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military –- then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts,” he said.

Challenged by bipartisan support in Congress for additional sanctions on Iran, Obama said there are “no guarantees” that negotiations to deny the Islamic Republic the ability to develop nuclear weapons will succeed.

“But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails –- alienating America from its allies, and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again,” he said.

Veto Warning

Obama repeated that he would veto any sanctions legislation, putting an edge on that by saying that “the American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort.”

The Senate Banking Committee has scheduled a vote for Jan. 29 on legislation to increase sanctions, though lawmakers have said that new penalties would take effect only if there’s no comprehensive deal with Iran by the current June 30 deadline.

“This is perhaps one of his toughest political battles he’ll face in the next few months on the foreign policy front,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington research group with close ties to Democrats.

On other matters, Obama said his opening to Cuba “has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in the hemisphere” and expressed support for Ukraine against “aggression” by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Obama said America “stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.”

He left unsaid that Putin has shown no inclination to reverse Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continues to support separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

After highlighting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks last year, Obama didn’t mention the topic this time, given the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts.

“Unlike John Kerry, I don’t think he considers that much of a priority,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Shifting Ground

Obama’s call for the military-force resolution demonstrated how quickly the rise of Islamic State, as well as threats from other al-Qaeda offshoots, has shifted the political ground.

A year ago in the same Capitol chamber, Obama had claimed credit for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and said that “America must move off a permanent war footing.” That was popular with many Democrats, even as Republicans depicted Obama as being too quick to pull out U.S. troops.

Now he’s asking Congress for broad authorization for a war against Islamic State, while retaining 10,600 troops in Afghanistan to support that government’s fight against the Taliban and its allies and sending as many as 1,000 military trainers and support personnel to assist moderate Syrian rebels.

In Harm’s Way

After highlighting in last year’s address that “all of our troops are out of Iraq,” the president has authorized the return of 3,100 U.S. troops to train and support Iraqi troops fighting Islamic extremists and launched U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. While Obama sought to rule out a U.S. “ground war,” some of the American forces are in areas of Iraq where they can be threatened by Islamic State fighters.

“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership –- including our military power --– is stopping ISIL’s advance,” Obama said, using the acronym for one variation of Islamic State’s name. “Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.”

Even some administration officials say, however, that Obama’s tactics -- which include using unmanned aircraft and advisory forces coupled with soliciting allied support and training local forces -- has produced limited success so far. On another battlefront, Yemen, Shiite rebels seized the presidential palace on the day Obama spoke, and Sunni extremists with ties to Yemen killed 20 people in Paris two weeks ago.

Republican Criticism

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, just back from meetings with the Syrian opposition leaders and Saudi officials, offered a similar assessment Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “The current strategy is failing,” he said, calling for imposition of a no-fly zone over parts of Syria to protect rebels from forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

The airstrikes and other military measures in Iraq and Syria are being conducted under a broad interpretation of legislation authorizing the fight against al-Qaeda that was passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Senators say the president told congressional leaders last week that he’ll propose terms for a new measure, following bipartisan criticism that the administration has failed to spell out out the provisions Obama is seeking in the legislation, known as authorization for use of military force.

Seeking Flexibility

The administration wants a more open-ended authorization than the one drafted and approved by his fellow Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December, which would have imposed a three-year limit and banned “large-scale U.S. ground combat operations.”

Republicans who now lead key Senate committees, including McCain on Armed Services and Bob Corker of Tennessee on Foreign Relations, have said they want to know more about Obama’s strategy as Islamic State consolidates its control over a swath of territory that includes the city of Mosul and much of Anbar province in Iraq.

A majority of Americans, 51 percent, disapprove of Obama’s handling of foreign policy, according to a Bloomberg Politics poll conducted in early December. Thirty-seven percent approve, and 12 percent aren’t sure, according to the poll, which surveyed 1,001 U.S. adults and had a maximum margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.

Underling those numbers is a shifting mood among Americans as they assess a world that looks more threatening with the rise of Islamic State, turmoil in Yemen and Libya and the attacks in Canada, Australia and France by individuals or small groups trained or inspired by Islamic terrorist groups.

Changing Mood

The American mood had tilted away from foreign involvement after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. That is changing, according to polling by the Pew Research Center in Washington.

The share of Americans who say the U.S. does too much on global problems has declined from 51 percent in Nov. 2013 to 39 percent in August 2014, according to Pew polls. While the share saying the U.S. does too little has almost doubled from 17 percent to 31 percent, that remains a minority view.

This shift has been most striking among Republicans. While just 18 percent of Republicans in November 2013 said the U.S. does too little, that increased to 46 percent in August 2014, according to Pew polls.

Although a few prominent Republicans, such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, have called for pulling back overseas, most Republicans considering presidential campaigns have attacked the foreign policy performance of Obama and his first term Secretary of State, the prospective Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

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