Under fire for his response in the face of foreign threats, President Barack Obama defended his methodical approach as he wrapped up meetings with allies Friday that included new steps aimed at deterring Russian aggression in Europe and the launch of a coalition designed to combat Islamic State terrorists in Iraq.
The NATO alliance approved plans aimed at Russia that included creating a rapid reaction force and pre-positioning supplies in Eastern Europe. Allies also signaled that stronger sanctions against Russia will follow quickly if negotiations on a cease-fire with Ukraine fail.
At the same time, a group of leaders met on the sidelines of the summit to forge an international coalition aimed at the Islamic State terrorists, at least those in Iraq. Secretary of State John Kerry said he hoped the coalition would have a more cohesive plan, including new training for Iraqi forces, by the time the United Nations met in New York later this month.
As if to back up Obama’s argument of progress, the U.S. also confirmed Friday that its airstrike earlier this week did kill its target, Ahmed Abdi Godane, a co-founder of al Shabab, the largest al Qaida affiliate in Africa.
“We are going to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL, the same way that we have gone after al Qaida, the same way we have gone after the al Qaida affiliate in Somalia,” he said, using one of the abbreviations for the Islamic State’s name.
“We have been very systematic and methodical in going after these kinds of organizations,” Obama added. “That deliberation allows us to do it right.”
His remarks at a news conference in Wales were aimed at the growing criticism at home that he’s been too tentative in taking on the Islamist group. That’s likely to continue next week as Congress returns from its August recess and members of both parties press for more action.
Obama said his strategy involved boosting the Iraqi government, ensuring the U.S. had the required intelligence to conduct airstrikes and bringing in a coalition of international partners.
“Our goal is to act with urgency, but also to make sure we’re doing it right,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. But we are steadily moving in the right direction.”
On Russia, Obama said he was “hopeful, but based on past experience, also skeptical” that pro-Russian separatists and Putin would heed the call for a cease-fire. He said the U.S. and Europe were finalizing plans to “deepen and broaden” sanctions against Russia’s financial, energy and defense sectors, while acknowledging they might be lifted if peace talks succeed.
Obama has also been criticized as not being firm enough to deter Putin, but he maintained that “the only reason that we’re seeing this cease-fire at this moment is because of both the sanctions that have already been applied and the threat of further sanctions.”
At the same time, NATO announced the plans for Eastern Europe, aimed at assuring allies there that the organization would come to their defense if necessary.
“An increased presence serves as the most effective deterrent to any additional Russian aggression that we might see,” the president said.
On the Islamic State, Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced support for an international coalition to counter the militants, who’ve overrun parts of Iraq and have threatened to behead more captives, including a Briton.
Foreign ministers and defense secretaries from Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Turkey agreed “there is no time to waste,” Kerry said, calling for a concrete plan by the time the United Nations General Assembly meets in New York later this month.
The goals will include providing military support to Iraq, stopping the flow of foreign fighters, countering the terrorist group’s financing, addressing humanitarian crises and “delegitimizing” the Islamic State’s ideology.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said NATO had agreed to offer a training mission for Iraqi security forces as soon as a new Iraqi government was in place. He noted that unlike the discord over the Iraq War, which remains deeply unpopular in the United Kingdom, “there were no real divisions here.”
“The fight against ISIL must be led by the Iraqis themselves,” Cameron said. “But we will continue to encourage countries in the region to support this effort, and we’ll continue to work with our partners on the ground to take all necessary steps to squeeze this barbaric terrorist organization out of existence.”
Kerry said the plan to combat the group wouldn’t include ground troops from the U.S. or the other countries, calling it a “red line for everybody here.”
He, too, used his remarks to push back at domestic critics who’ve questioned Obama’s approach, telling the leaders that “contrary to what you sort of heard in the politics of our country, the president is totally committed.”
The strategy will include a military component, Kerry said, and countries that are reluctant to engage militarily could contribute ammunition, weapons, technical know-how, intelligence or advisers.
Humanitarian efforts waged in Iraq over the past few weeks and the U.S.’s success at breaking a militant surge toward Irbil have shown “these guys are not 10 feet tall,” Kerry said.
“They’re not as disciplined as everybody thinks,” he added. “They’re not as organized as everybody thinks.”