White House

Obama vows to ‘destroy’ Islamic State, critics still don’t see strategy

U.S. President Barack Obama leaves a Nordea Concert Hall after speaking in Tallinn, Estonia, Sept. 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)
U.S. President Barack Obama leaves a Nordea Concert Hall after speaking in Tallinn, Estonia, Sept. 3, 2014. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis) AP

President Barack Obama vowed Wednesday to destroy the Islamic State, staking out a more aggressive stand than ever before even as skeptics suggested he still doesn’t have a strategy to carry it out and he himself appeared to narrow the commitment later.

“The bottom line is this: Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat, not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States,” Obama said, using the U.S. government’s acronym for the Islamic State, which has released videos of two Americans being beheaded.

“It’s not only that we’re going to be bringing to justice those who perpetrated this terrible crime against these two fine young men,” he said. “The United States will continue to lead a regional and international effort against the kind of barbaric and ultimately empty vision that ISIL represents.”

And he started to ready the American people for a long-term commitment. “That’s going to take some time, but we’re going to get it done,” he declared in Tallinn, Estonia, ahead of a two-day NATO conference in Cardiff that is expected to be dominated by the extremist threat and by fears over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.

The bold statements marked an escalation of the president’s commitment, coming after his administration previously said its airstrikes in Iraq are aimed at aiding humanitarian efforts and protecting U.S. diplomatic and military personnel. The remarks also appeared designed to counter Obama’s own statement last week that he did not have a strategy for combating the Islamic State in Syria.

His comments came a day after Obama authorized an additional 350 U.S. personnel to fulfill a State Department request to protect diplomatic facilities and personnel in Baghdad.

The White House said the additional forces will not serve in a combat role and will allow some previously deployed military personnel to leave Iraq. Most of the new troops would be used to bolster security at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, with a small number reinforcing the U.S. Consulate in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, according to the Pentagon.

The new troops would bring the total number of U.S. forces in Iraq to 1,210, according to Pentagon officials.

A total of 290 troops are performing other functions in Iraq, with 176 at new Iraqi-U.S. Joint Operating Centers in Baghdad and Irbil. Eighty-nine troops are advising Iraqi commanders and 25 are performing command-and-control functions for the other American forces.

Yet if Obama were working to signal a more muscular approach, he later in the same press conference appeared to narrow his remarks, saying the U.S. objective is to ensure the Islamic State is not an ongoing threat to the region.

“We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem,” Obama said.

The White House assurances did not assuage Obama’s critics, and even some Democrats said they want more.

Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., called Wednesday on the White House to present to Congress “a clear strategy and political and military options for eliminating the ISIL threat.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern, South and Central Asian Affairs and a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, also signaled he didn’t want to wait.

“This administration should come to Congress with clear objectives and scope of mission to combat the ISIL threat,” he said Wednesday. “And Congress should immediately debate an authorization to use military force.”

Obama offered “the prayers of the American people” to the family of Steven Sotloff, the second American freelance journalist to be beheaded by the group. He said the beheadings “only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists.”

The U.S. as of Monday had launched 124 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq. But as the group has released gruesome videos of militants beheading its captives, Obama has come under increasing pressure to go after the group in Syria, where it has used the territory it controls as a springboard for a cross-border offensive that’s overrun roughly half of neighboring Iraq.

The administration has been reluctant to expand the operation into Syria given the political crosscurrents and warring factions. Obama noted Wednesday that such military action “might require congressional approval” and signaled he’s not yet ready to seek it.

“It is very important from my perspective that when we send our pilots in to do a job, that we know that this is a mission that’s going to work,” he said. “That we’re very clear on what our objectives are, what our targets are; we’ve made the case to Congress and we’ve made the case to the American people; and we’ve got allies behind us so that it’s not just a one-off, but it’s something that over time is going to be effective.”

Some members of Congress don’t want him to wait: Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., plans to propose legislation when Congress returns to Washington next week that would authorize airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

“Let there be no doubt, we must go after ISIS right away because the U.S. is the only one that can put together a coalition to stop this group that’s intent on barbaric cruelty,” said Nelson, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Obama said the U.S. is working to organize Middle East governments to combat the extremists.

“They’re the ones who are constantly under threat of being killed,” he said. “They’re falling behind because of this very small and narrow, but very dangerous, segment of the population. And we’ve got to combat it in a sustained, effective way.”

As part of that effort, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Lisa Monaco, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, soon will travel separately to the region, the White House said.

Obama said his strategy, which includes working with Iraqis to build up their government while conducting airstrikes to protect Americans and save ethnic minorities targeted by the militants, has “borne fruit” and that the Iraqi government has shown progress in forming an inclusive central government.

Obama, who will meet Thursday with NATO leaders on Russia’s threat in Ukraine, said a goal for NATO will be regional partnerships that can combat terrorist networks. He said NATO countries have helped with humanitarian airdrops and have provided arms to the Kurdish peshmerga militia and to Iraqi security forces.

“What we hope to do at the NATO summit is to make sure that we are more systematic about how we do it, that we’re more focused about how we do it,” he said.

His stop in Estonia came as he pledged U.S. and NATO backing for the former Soviet Republic and accused Russia of fomenting violence in Ukraine. NATO is expected this week to discuss increasing its defense cooperation with Ukraine.

Russia has denied its provocations in Ukraine, but Obama, addressing an audience at the Nordea Concert Hall, said the destabilization there was caused by pro-Russian separatists “who are encouraged by Russia, financed by Russia, trained by Russia, supplied by Russia and armed by Russia.”

James Rosen of the Washington Bureau contributed.