President Barack Obama on Wednesday vowed to destroy the Islamic State, staking out his most aggressive stand yet in the wake of the group’s beheading of a second American captive.
Skeptics, however, suggested Obama still lacks a cohesive strategy on combating the militant group, and prepared to seek immediate action.
Obama, speaking in Tallinn, Estonia, ahead of a two-day NATO conference in Cardiff that is expected to be dominated by the extremist threat, used the U.S. government’s acronym for the Islamic State as he said that “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.”
“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, referring to videos the Islamic State released of the two Americans being beheaded — the second, journalist Steven Sotloff, on Tuesday. “The United States will continue to lead a regional and international effort against the kind of barbaric and ultimately empty vision that ISIL represents.”
The bold statements marked an escalation of Obama’s commitment to fighting the Islamic State, coming after his administration previously said its airstrikes in Iraq are aimed at aiding humanitarian efforts and protecting U.S. diplomatic and military personnel. His remarks also appeared designed to counter his own statement last week that he did not have a strategy for combating the Islamic State in its Syria redoubt.
Yet if Obama were working to signal a more muscular approach, he appeared to narrow his remarks later in the same news conference, saying the U.S. objective is to ensure the Islamic State is reduced to a “manageable problem.”
“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.
White House assurances did not assuage Obama’s critics, and even some Democrats said they want more.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., called on the White House to present to Congress “a clear strategy and political and military options for eliminating the ISIL threat.” Fellow Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, 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 called for swift action.
“This administration should come to Congress with clear objectives and scope of mission to combat the ISIL threat,” he said. “And Congress should immediately debate an authorization to use military force.”
The U.S. as of Monday had launched 124 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq. But 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 has overrun roughly half of neighboring Iraq.
The administration has been reluctant to expand the operation given the political crosscurrents and warring factions. Obama noted Wednesday that such military action “might require congressional approval” and signaled he is 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.”
But some members of Congress are impatient for action. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., plans to propose legislation when Congress returns to Washington next week that would authorize airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State.
“Let there be no doubt, we must go after [the Islamic State] 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.
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, has “borne fruit” and that the Iraqi government has shown progress in forming an inclusive central government.
He said a goal for NATO, which meets today, will be developing regional partnerships that can combat terrorist networks. .
“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.