President Barack Obama said Wednesday night that he was ordering a significantly expanded military campaign against Sunni militants in the Middle East that includes American airstrikes in Syria and the deployment of nearly 500 more military advisers to Iraq. But he sought to dispel fears that the United States was embarking on a repeat of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a televised speech from the State Floor of the White House, Obama said the United States was recruiting a global coalition to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the militants, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. He warned that the effort would require years of sustained effort.
"We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are," Obama said. "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." ISIL is an alternative name for the Islamic State.
The president took pains to distinguish between the military action he was putting in motion and the two wars begun by his predecessor, President George W. Bush. He likened this campaign to the targeted airstrikes that the United States has carried out for several years against suspected terrorists in Yemen and Somalia, few of them ever made public.
After enduring harsh criticism for saying in a news conference two weeks ago that he did not have a strategy for dealing with ISIS, Obama sketched out a plan that will involve heightened American training and arming of moderate Syrian rebels to fight the militants. Saudi Arabia has agreed to provide bases for the training of those forces.
The White House has asked Congress to authorize the plan to train and equip rebels — something the CIA has been doing covertly and on a much smaller scale — but Obama said he already had the authority necessary to expand the broader campaign.
"These American forces will not have a combat mission — we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq," Obama pledged, adding that the broader mission he was outlining for American military forces "will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; it will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil."
For all his efforts to reassure the public, Obama's remarks were a stark admission of the threat posed by the militants, whose lightning rampage through Iraq and Syria and videotaped beheading of two young Americans has reignited fears of radical terrorism.
The president's remarks, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, will thrust the United States into a civil war in Syria that he had long sought to avoid, and return the country to a significant military presence in Iraq, from which Obama withdrew the last American combat soldiers at the end of 2011.
The president's speech came after a frenzied effort to line up the support of partners worldwide. Earlier on Wednesday, Obama called King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to enlist his support for a plan to bolster the training and equipping of moderate Syrian rebels.
"The president and the king agreed on the need for increased training and equipping of the moderate Syrian opposition," the White House said in an unusually extensive briefing for reporters about the call. "President Obama welcomed Saudi Arabia's support for this program."
Obama is facing political challenges on Capitol Hill, where Republicans lawmakers, initially reluctant to demand congressional authorization of military action, have begun agitating for a vote at the same time that some Democrats are warning of a stampede to war.
But Senate Democratic leaders on Wednesday prepared legislation to expressly authorize the U.S. military to train Syrian rebels. House Republicans appeared ready to follow their lead.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House majority leader, abruptly called off a vote on a stopgap spending bill that was planned for Thursday to reconsider Obama's request that language be included authorizing the training of the rebels. The president called the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, to plead his case.
The flurry of activity means that Congress is likely to weigh in on the looming military action before the midterm elections in eight weeks. House Republicans have called an emergency meeting for this morning to discuss their options, and leaders are leaning toward a vote to express some support for a broader campaign against ISIS.
The political atmosphere on Capitol Hill was further roiled by the sudden reappearance of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who implored Republicans to support military action and attributed the chaos in Iraq to what he called an "arbitrary and hasty" withdrawal in 2011 by Obama.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., rejected Cheney's critique, saying, "I think we want to be careful that we don't engage ourselves for a long period of time in a long-term war involving the vulnerability of our troops for a long period of time."
Three key points from the speech
Authorizes airstrikes in syria
Obama vowed to carry out a systematic airstrike campaign against the extremists irrespective of international borders, a major shift for the president. more troops going to iraq
Obama announced he is sending 475 more U.S. troops to Iraq to assist besieged security forces. This brings the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to about 1,000.
train and arm rebels in syria
Obama called on Congress to authorize a $500 million program to train and arm rebels in Syria who are fighting both ISIS and Syrian President Bashar Assad.