World

Obama claims authority for continued campaign against ISIS

The White House says President Barack Obama has told congressional leaders he has the authority he needs to take action against Islamic State militants.

U.S. president's ISIS strategy to be outlined in a speech scheduled for 9 p.m. ET Wednesday

Obama will make a televised address Wednesday night to talk to the American public about his strategy to deal with ISIS militants. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

The White House says President Barack Obama has told congressional leaders he has the authority he needs to take action against Islamic State militants.

Obama discussed his plans with congressional leaders Tuesday as he sought their approval for a strategy against ISIS, a plan he will outline during a televised speech Wednesday night.

Following Tuesday's meeting, the White House said Obama still welcomes action by Congress that would "aid the overall effort" and demonstrate to the world that the United States is united in defeating the threat from the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

There has been no consensus in Congress on whether Obama should seek congressional approval for his plans. But some lawmakers suggested Tuesday that a vote was unlikely.

The president's strategy against the Islamic State militants could include more wide-ranging airstrikes against targets in Iraq and possibly in Syria, increased military assistance to forces in both countries, and similar commitments from allies in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.

"The president believes this is a high national security priority," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

For Obama, a sustained U.S. intervention in the Middle East is at odds with the vision he had for the region when he ran for president on a pledge to end the war in Iraq, where the role of American fighting forces drew to a close nearly three years ago.

 Obama's prime-time address to the nation is scheduled just hours before anniversary commemorations of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that drew the U.S. into war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It appeared increasingly unlikely that Congress would vote to authorize any escalation of military force in Iraq or Syria.

White House officials said only that Obama was seeking "buy-in" from lawmakers — a term they would not define — and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said it was doubtful there would be a vote before the November midterm elections.

"As a practical matter, I don't really see the time that it would take to really get this out and have a full debate and discuss all the issues," Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, a California Republican, told reporters after a closed-door briefing on national security threats.

Republican urges congressional approval

However, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said Obama should seek congressional approval for whatever he decided to do.

"I think it is to his advantage and the country's advantage to have Congress buy into that," McConnell said before joining other Republican and Democratic leaders in the Oval Office Tuesday afternoon for a meeting with Obama that lasted just over an hour.

None of the leaders spoke to reporters as they left the White House.

Even without a vote to authorize expanded force, there are other ways Obama could seek tacit support from Congress. They include calling for quick votes on two initiatives he outlined earlier this year: $5 billion to fund counter-terrorism missions and $500 million for arming and training Western-backed Syrian rebels.

The U.S. is already launching airstrikes against Islamic State targets inside Iraq, a mission undertaken at the invitation of the Iraqi government and without formal authorization from Congress. But the scope of the mission has been relatively limited to strikes that help protect American interests in the region and prevent humanitarian crises.

U.S. officials say Obama is expected to loosen those limitations and open a broader counter-terrorism campaign against the militants in Iraq. And following the group's shocking beheading of two American journalists in Syria, Obama began more seriously considering extending strikes into Syria.

People who have spoken with Obama in recent days said it appeared likely he would take that step. At a private dinner Monday night with foreign policy experts, Obama emphasized the importance of viewing the Islamic State as one organization, not two groups separated by a border.

Ruling out ground operations

Obama's spokesman has said the president is willing "to go wherever is necessary to strike those who are threatening Americans." However, Obama has continued to rule out sending U.S. troops into ground combat operations in the Middle East.

In a shift for a war-weary nation, new polls suggest the American people would support a sustained air campaign. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday showed 71 per cent of Americans support airstrikes in Iraq, up from 54 per cent just three weeks ago. And 65 percent say they support extending airstrikes into Syria.

Taking that latter step would raise legal and geopolitical issues that Obama has long sought to avoid, particularly if he moved forward without formal congressional authorization.

Unlike in Iraq, Obama would not be acting at the invitation of a host government. However, some international law experts say airstrikes could be justified as a matter of self-defence if Obama argues the Islamic State poses a threat to the U.S. and its allies from inside Syria, whose government is unwilling or unable to stop it.

Another possibility: Although the U.S. has said it will not coordinate with Syrian President Bashar Assad, his government could give back-channel consent to American strikes. The U.S. has a similar arrangement with the Pakistani military for U.S. drone strikes there, even though Pakistani officials publicly condemn the American actions.

Obama would still have to contend with the notion that American strikes against the Islamic State were actually helping Assad, who has overseen Syria's bloody civil war. The U.S. has long called for Assad to leave power, and the Islamic State is one of the groups inside Syria that is seeking to oust him.

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