By Zachary Toillion
On September 10, President Obama outlined the US plan to combat ISIS in a primetime address to the nation. In contrast to his plans for airstrikes in Syria in 2013, Obama rejected the need for a congressional authorization vote and announced the plan would be a long term three year solution to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the ISIS threat.
In his speech, Obama outlined the strategy by stating, “We will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense.” Obama did not close the door to airstrikes in Syria, or in any other country overtaken by ISIS, stating, “Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
The strategy outlined by President Obama is tactically similar to the actions taken by the United States at the beginning of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The beginning stages of those military offenses focused originally on a targeting bombing campaign and later shifted to arming elements in the region sympathetic to US national security interests with the goal of minimizing US casualties. President Obama preferred to liken the strategy to the actions taken by his administration in Yemen and Somalia. In those countries, US airstrikes have been the predominate means of killing alleged terrorists. The analogy is not perfect, the US does not have a working relationship with the Syrian government as it does with Yemen and Somalia. In Syria, the issue is more complex. The United States has openly condemned the Syrian government, and even sought to bomb assets owned by the Syrian government in 2013. Syria has remained receptive on the issue despite previous tension with the West. In a press conference in Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem stating, “Syria is ready to cooperate and coordinate with regional and international efforts to combat terror in accordance with U.N. resolutions and respect of Syrian sovereignty” adding, “Everyone is welcome, including Britain and the United States, to take action against ISIS and Nusra with a prior full coordination with the Syrian government.”
Obama also asked Congress to approve a $5 billion spending bill to fight ISIS, a measure he characterized as “buy-in” from Congress despite a formal vote. Later in the speech Obama also announced he had authorized sending 450 additional troops into Iraq, bringing the total to nearly 2,000 total since June. President Obama insists the troops are there to guard American diplomatic assets and to act as military advisors for those fighting ISIS.
Obama also outlined a plan to enlist the help of partners to fight ISIS, announcing he is sending Sec. John Kerry to Iraq to plan such a coalition. Key partners Kerry will be targeting includes Turkey and Jordan. On September 11th, Sec. Kerry visited Saudi Arabia, hoping to garner support from Saudis in restricting money going to ISIS from Saudi Arabian nationals.
The speech came a week after President Obama met with NATO and secured buy-in from member states for a future multilateral action against the terror group. Obama is also expected to bring up the threat posed by ISIS at the United Nations General Assembly meeting on September 16th, a fact he alluded to in his prime time address. The countries most needed to aid in this fight will be arab allies of the United States-countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who have largely remained on the sidelines thus far in the conflict.
The most critical allies in the fight against ISIS will come from the nations closest to the conflict. It is here that unlikely alliances could develop, due to long held divisions within Islam between the religion’s two main sects-the Sunni and the Shi’a. ISIS is a Sunni terrorist group, whereas the rest of Iraq is made mostly of Shi’a. The Sunni’s used to control Iraq before the US toppled the Saddam Hussein led government, and many of Hussein’s former top generals now work for ISIS. This has galvanized Iran into being strongly opposed to the recent military advances made by ISIS, particularly since Iran is overwhelmingly composed of Shi’ites and was one of Iraq’s central enemies prior to the US invasion. In Syria, President Bashar Al-Assad has received condemnation for the use of chemical weapons against his own citizens, with the United States briefly considering airstrikes against targets held by Assad’s army in 2013. Assad attacked his own people because they were attempting a coup to depose him as leader. ISIS is one of many groups who are attempting to depose Assad from power, meaning ISIS is also an enemy of the Syrian army.
Americans seem receptive to action against ISIS, according to polling from multiple sources. ABC News polling indicates that 91 percent of Americans see ISIS as a threat to US interests, while 71 percent support airstrikes in Iraq, 58 percent support arming regional forces to combat ISIS, and 65 percent of Americans support expanding airstrikes into Syria. A poll conducted NBC and the Wall Street journal showed 47 percent of Americans “believe we are less safe than before 9/11” with 94 percent following ISIS coverage on the news. Americans also increasingly favor intervention to stop ISIS. 61 percent favor taking military action against ISIS with 34 percent backing ground troops being sent to Iraq and Syria. Polling conducted by CNN/Opinion research showed many of the same results. 76 percent of Americans support continued airstrikes in Iraq, 62 percent back arming regional forces to fight ISIS, and 83 percent back humanitarian aid to groups targeted by ISIS. Like the polling conducted by NBC, most Americans still oppose ground troops being sent to deal with ISIS.
President Obama has received low approval ratings for his handling of foreign affairs, reaching 32 percent in the poll conducted by CNN. Despite low approval ratings, Americans largely are in favor of the actions he has taken thus far. Since the start of the conflict last month, the United states has conducted over 150 targeted airstrikes, rescue missions for American hostages, built up international support for taking on ISIS, conducted humanitarian drops, and sent a limited number of troops in Iraq to guard diplomatic facilities.
The debate going forward will be whether or not to pursue the Obama plan, or to deny the funding requested. More pushback is likely to come from members of Congress who feel Congress should have been consulted for an official declaration of military force, particularly if the air strikes expand into Syria. Thus far, nine Senators, and 105 House members have called for a congressional vote on the use of force. Of the 116 lawmakers, 34 are Republicans and 72 are Democrats meaning the coalition wanting an official vote on the use of force is not overtly partisan. Among the lawmakers calling for a vote are Tennessee’s Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Rep. John Duncan and Sen. Bob Corker.
Legally, President Obama is on shaky ground by not seeking Congressional approval for military action in Iraq and Syria. In the original resolution that authorized the War on Terror, the President was allowed to take unilateral action against Al Qaeda, not the new jihadist group ISIS-meaning there is serious question whether or not Obama’s actions have violated the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorist, a resolution passed on Sept. 14th 2001. Presidents also have the authority to send troops anywhere in the world for 60 days without any Congressional approval in accordance with the powers granted by the War Powers Act. After the 60 days expire, President Obama would legally to withdraw the troops. That day is fast approaching, Obama ordered the airstrikes in Iraq on August 7th, and the 60 day limit will be hit on on October 7th. Constitutionally, Congress is the branch of government that officially declares war, although this has typically not been the case in previous military conflicts. After the 60 day time limit expires, the ball will be in Congress’s court on whether or not to challenge the constitutionality of the president’s actions.
Sen. Corker criticized the President’s decision to not seek Congressional approval, statin “I think the president should come to Congress and ask for the authorization for the use of force. I don’t think he’s going to ask for that, and I’m dismayed by that.” adding, “I think most people here want to deal with ISIS in a strong manner that exterminates them. But I think not seeking that approval on the front end is extremely lacking in judgment.”
The one certainty Americans can take away from President Obama’s speech is the fact that ISIS will be a leading foreign policy issue for the remainder of Obama’s term.