With bipartisan pressure building in Congress and support growing in the country for action, President Barack Obama is expected to announce Wednesday night that he will authorize U.S. military airstrikes in Syria as part of a broader plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State extremist group in the Middle East.
Obama also will stress the need to provide additional resources in the form of money, training and diplomatic support for those fighting the terrorist group responsible for murdering hundreds and beheading two American journalists.
He will speak to the nation in a rare prime time address from the White House at 9 p.m. EDT, the day before the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It is his first prime time address since the crisis in Syria last summer exactly one year ago today.
Obama dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to Baghdad Wednesday to meet with Iraqi government officials to congratulate them on their new government and discuss how the U.S. can increase its support to defeat the Islamic State.
“The president will lay out tonight a more detailed description of exactly what the United States is prepared to do together with many other countries in the broad coalition in order to take on this terrorist structure, which is unacceptable by any standard anywhere in the world,” Kerry said after a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met with members of the National Security Council in the Situation Room Wednesday morning as lawmakers and the public continued to call for a stronger response.
A NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll released Tuesday night showed that 61 percent of voters believe that the U.S. taking military action against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, another name for the group, is in the nation’s interest, versus 13 percent who do not.
That’s a significant increase since last year when the U.S. was considering similar action against Syria’s government after its reported use of chemical weapons. Only 21 percent said action was in the nation’s interest then, while 33 percent said it was not.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday that Obama needs to lay out a strategy, which includes a military component, to defeat the Islamic State and link his plans to additional congressional authorization and appropriations.
“If the president develops a regional strategy, builds a combat-effective military coalition, and explains how his strategy will lead to the defeat of ISIL,” McConnell said, using one of the acronyms for the group, “I believe he’ll have significant congressional support.”
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., cautioned that any plan should not include U.S. ground troops.
“We should be learning from our past mistakes, not repeating them,” Reid said. “Airstrikes and strategic use of drones and. of course, covert action are the most effective way to take out (the Islamic State) without committing troops _ American troops.”
Obama has already said several times that he would not send U.S. troops to the region. Forty percent of respondents in the NBC/WSJ poll said U.S. military action against the jihadist group should be limited only to air strikes, while 34 percent say it should include both air strikes and combat troops. Fifteen percent say military action shouldn’t be taken.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that Obama will outline “the next phase” of the fight, which includes continuing to build an international coalition to fight the group. Earnest said Obama would not necessarily detail costs or a timetable. Administration officials have said the group’s defeat could take years.
Obama’s speech comes roughly two weeks after he was repeatedly criticized for saying he did not have a strategy to combat the Islamic State. The U.S. began airstrikes on Aug. 8 to protect U.S. personnel and facilities, to support humanitarian efforts and to back Iraqi forces. As of Tuesday, it had conducted a total of 153.
He has sought to minimize U.S. involvement in Syria, where the more than three-year-old civil war pits President Bashar Assad’s Iran-backed forces against the Islamic State and weaker insurgent groups, including al Qaida’s affiliate, the Nusra Front. Most of the groups also are fighting the Islamic State.
But Obama is being forced to reconsider his policy after an acknowledgment by top U.S. officials that the group can’t be crushed without addressing its presence in Syria. He authorized the first U.S. surveillance flights of Islamic State targets in Syria and launched an effort to build an international coalition to fight the group through military, humanitarian and other means.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney blasted Obama president in a speech Wednesday at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, while urging him to be more aggressive. “Our president must understand that we are at war and we must do what it takes for as long as it takes,” he said.
Masrour Barzani, head of Kurdish intelligence in Iraq, said in a CBS News interview that the United States to go beyond airstrikes and provide Kurdish Peshmerga fighters with heavy armaments in their fight against the Islamic State.
“I think it’s very useful, and we are very thankful for everything the U.S. is doing so far, but I don’t think it’s enough to defeat ISIS,” he said, using another acronym for the group. “ISIS is still very intact in Syria.”
Obama met with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Reid; and McConnell for an hour Tuesday at the White House, telling them that he believes he has the authority to take the action he needs without a vote of Congress, the White House said.
Just last summer, Obama asked Congress to authorize airstrikes against Syria, but scrapped the request after it looked likely to fail and to allow time to explore a Russian proposal to get Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to international control.
Several members in both the Senate and House have introduced resolutions asking for authorization for strikes in Syria, though congressional leaders remained reluctant to commit to any formal debate or vote.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said he would have questions if Obama decides on airstrikes.
“That raises questions about what kind of congressional authority the president should have, if the American military force is used beyond the narrow rationale that’s been stated of protecting Americans and humanitarian efforts,” he said.
But Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said he believes that Obama has the authority, though he wants to hear a plan to specific destroy the Islamic group.
“I...want to hear him say that the strategy is to eliminate ISIL,” he said. “Not to contain them, but to eliminate them. And if that’s not our strategy, then that probably changes greatly how I look at it.”
David Lightman and Ali Watkins contributed.