Obama largely delivered a stay-the-course speech rather than one that heralds significant changes to his anti-terrorism approach
It is not just Congress that Obama sees as frustrating his effort to combat ISIS but the realities of the conflict-torn Middle East
President Barack Obama’s televised address on ISIS on Sunday night was meant to calm the public’s escalating fears of terrorism, to chide 2016 candidates about explosive rhetoric over waging war and the place of Muslims in society and to defend his own efforts to combat the extremist group.
Whether it succeeded on any of those counts may depend where observers sit on the polarized U.S. political spectrum. But while it was largely a stay-the-course speech rather than one that heralds swift or significant changes to the anti-terrorism approach Obama has pursued throughout his presidency, the President did make several proposals and highlight some evolution in how the United States will go after ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
He notably put the emphasis on Congress to take action on making it more difficult for terrorists to acquire guns in the United States and to enact changes to visa programs in the wake of the San Bernardino attack. Obama also wants lawmakers to finally put the war against ISIS on firm legal footing.
Here is a look at the President’s proposals – and the chances that they will actually happen.
What the President said:
“If Congress believes, as I do, that we are at war with ISIL, it should go ahead and vote to authorize the continued use of military force against these terrorists.”
The United States has spent more than a year pounding ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria from the air. Obama has sent Special Operations forces to Syria and several thousand soldiers are in Iraq. Now, there are plans for the Pentagon to send a specialized expeditionary force to Iraq to target ISIS. But officially, this is an undeclared war.
The administration has cited authorizations that permitted both the war in Iraq and the fight against al Qaeda to justify its actions but has repeatedly called on Congress to update its mandate to reflect the new threat from ISIS.
But it has not yet happened. Why?
Despite Obama’s comments in his address, the White House is not optimistic that Congress will move soon. The administration introduced its proposal in February, hoping to get a jump on the political season. But like much else touching on the war on terror, the presidential and congressional elections in 2016 are now weighing on lawmakers.
Democrats running for re-election are wary of tough votes authorizing a new war that may upset the party’s dovish grass roots.
Republicans don’t like the President’s proposal, but they haven’t drafted their own version and punt by saying the administration already claims to have sufficient authority. And there’s a dispute over language. The White House request for an AUMF lasting three years included a provision that prevents “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”
Republicans, who want a more robust U.S. effort and are wary of tying the hands of a possible future GOP president, rejected such restrictions.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Monday that the version of the authorization that the administration sent to Congress earlier this year would “limit” the military, so “it would have to be something different.”
What the President said:
“Congress should act to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun … this is a matter of national security. We also need to make it harder for people to buy powerful assault weapons like the ones that were used in San Bernardino.”
Just as the Newtown massacre and other mass killings did not budge the politics of gun control, the same dynamic applies after San Bernardino – one reason why Obama is now framing gun control as a matter of “national security.”
Making it more difficult for a potential terrorist to buy a gun, in essence, would entail making it more difficult for everyone to buy a gun.
That’s why die-hard Second Amendment supporters in both parties are wary of the idea, with many Republicans and Democrats unenthusiastic about a tough vote on guns in an election year – especially those from rural districts where gun rights are a potent issue for many voters.
In fact, even the day after the San Bernardino killings, the Republican-controlled Senate rejected a bill that would prevent people on a federal terrorism watch list from buying guns.
House Speaker Paul Ryan on Monday told the Wisconsin State Journal in an interview that Obama’s no-fly list plan was a “distraction,” saying many people ended up on such databases erroneously and risked losing their due process rights, a concern echoed by some 2016 GOP hopefuls.
McCarthy made it clear Monday that Republicans are not inclined to take up the proposal that the President pushed to deny guns to those on the terror watch list used by airlines.
Some congressional Republicans want a judge to weigh in on whether someone should be on the list before his or her constitutional right to bear arms is taken away.
Obama’s other gun control efforts have repeatedly hit a brick wall in Congress, and he has frequently expressed frustration at his failure to do more despite ordering a series of executive actions. His efforts to pass an assault weapons ban, for instance, failed in 2013.
The White House is preparing an executive order to expand background checks, given its expectation that nothing will make it through legislatively.
But White House officials say the legal and administrative challenges are difficult to surmount, and that the order is going to take some time to prepare.
And the President has acknowledged that wielding his own executive power cannot be as effective as action from Congress.
What the President said:
“We should put in place stronger screening for those who come to America without a visa so that we can take a hard look at whether they’ve traveled to war zones.”
Obama also said that he had ordered the Departments of Homeland Security and State to review the visa program under which the female terrorist in San Bernardino originally came to this country as a fiancee of a U.S. citizen.
The visa waiver program appears to be one rare area where there is bipartisan agreement on how to act. The Paris attacks especially alarmed U.S. security experts because of the fear that thousands of Europeans have traveled to Syria to fight with ISIS. And if those people have European passports, they don’t need a visa to enter the United States, potentially making it possible for ISIS to easily dispatch operatives into the United States.
One measure being considered in the House and likely to get White House support would ensure that nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran or Sudan, or those who’ve visited those countries since 2011, cannot travel to the United States without a visa.
Instead, individuals from designated countries will have to be vetted through a more rigorous process. It requires countries who participate in the visa waiver program to share counterterrorism information or risk being cut out. And it also enhances screening for criminal activity.
The bill is expected to pass with a big bipartisan vote in the House on Tuesday and may be added to broad government spending bills so has a good chance of being signed into law soon.
Still, changing the visa waiver program is fraught with diplomatic complications. Visa-free travel to the United States is a prized privilege for many national governments and is strongly supported by the U.S. tourism industry. And changes to the program could also spark reprisals and complications for Americans who travel abroad.
Islam and the politics of 2016
What the President said:
“We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam.”
This horse is already out of the barn. Several prominent GOP presidential candidates – Donald Trump and Marco Rubio, for instance – have declared that America is facing a civilizational war against radical Islam. They have bashed Democrats like Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton for not using similar terminology, arguing it shows they don’t comprehend the nature of the threat or prefer to avoid offense rather than accurately delineate the enemy.
The President and his former secretary of state argue that using such terminology stigmatizes every Muslim and actually plays into ISIS’s hands by making it seem like a legitimate representative of a great faith.
This is a dispute that will continue up to the 2016 election and beyond.
The regional strategy
What the President said:
“The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us.”
It is not just Congress that Obama sees as frustrating his effort to combat ISIS. The realities of the conflict-torn Middle East, a region festering with sectarian hatred, geopolitical gambits by major nations and a collapse of the political order that has been in place for a century are posing imposing obstacles to U.S. strategy.
On the upside, the President can legitimately claim to have assembled a 65-nation coalition to go after ISIS in a campaign that includes air strikes in Iraq and Syria that have killed thousands of militants, covert intelligence work and an effort to choke the extremist group’s financial network.
But there is a glaring reason why Obama has struggled to effectively sell his strategy: It does not seem sufficiently broad, kinetic or aggressive to accomplish the goal around which he built his speech – the ultimate destruction of ISIS.
Another factor weighing against a big change in strategy is the self imposed limit that Obama has placed on the entire enterprise. He is staying faithful to his refusal to commit U.S. troops to another major Middle East entanglement – citing the quagmire that developed after the Iraq War.
Then, there is the intractable nature of civil wars in Iran and Syria, which have fractured both nations and allowed ISIS to build a vast cross-border terror haven.
Even if the air campaign against ISIS in strongholds like Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq succeeds – progress may be fleeting without a vast ground force to secure territory, consolidate gains and allow space for the return of administrative politics.
But Western leaders, with Iraq in mind, have little desire or political backing to commit a vast land army.
So they, and 2016 presidential candidates, spend a lot of time calling for regional, Arab and other powers to step into the breach.
But those governments are no more willing or able to thrust their soldiers into the cauldron either. And many have goals in Syria that contradict U.S aspirations, leading to inertia. Then there is the influence of other powers involved in Syria, like Iran and Russia – which may have common interests in defeating ISIS, but are hardly on the same page as the U.S.
Still, the administration says it is encouraged by the increasing role of allies like France and Britain in the military air campaign over Syria since the ISIS rampage on the streets of Paris last month that killed 130 people. But due to the limited capabilities of its partners, Washington will still do most of the heavy lifting in the air campaign.
The administration has also touted recent German pledges to ramp up reconnaissance over Syria. But at the same time, Arab partners have stepped back. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are now more focused on combating Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The White House is working with Turkey to seal the remaining 98 kilometers of unsecured border with Syria, an effort that includes both Turkish and Syrian Arab forces hoping to cut the flows of foreign fighters into the Syrian civil war – and their return to Europe.
In the absence of a continued military campaign from the Sunni Arab states – which the U.S. would like to see resume – the White House is hopeful those nations can capitalize on their relationships with opposition forces in Syria.
Saudi Arabia is also hosting an upcoming meeting of different opposition groups that the U.S. hopes can help pave the way for their participation in a political transition process that would see the eventual departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a theoretical revival of the Syrian state
But those incremental steps, though significant, are unlikely to paper over the fundamental weaknesses of the anti-ISIS fight.
Ted Barrett contributed to this report.