Obama’s belligerent IS speech seeks to make up lost ground

Sharp change in tone from US president comes as public increasingly hawkish

US president Barack Obama delivers a televised address from the Cross Hall of the White House in Washington. Photograph: Saul Loeb/Pool via The New York Times

US president Barack Obama sought to make up some lost ground with a confident, uncharacteristically belligerent speech televised to the American people last night to show that he does, in fact, have a strategy to deal with a militant group that only nine months ago he flippantly dismissed.

This US Commander-In-Chief, a reluctant military leader - dubbed "Cautioner-In-Chief" by one White House media watcher last night - chose a prime-time television appearance to reassure the American people on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks that, yes, he plans to intensify the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, and that no, this would not amount to another costly ground war like in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The president has gone in a very short space of time from speaking about making the IS threat "manageable" to outlining his plan last night to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the militant group.

The sharp change in tone comes against an American public that has become increasingly hawkish in response to the heightened risk posed by IS as witnessed so disturbingly by the beheading of American journalists Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff by the radical Muslim group over the past month.


Since the threat from IS became apparent in June, this once-obscure group has grown in the fears of the American public to be viewed as one of the biggest threats to US security.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll yesterday found that almost two-thirds of respondents wanted the president to confront the jihadist fighters. A third were even willing to use both airstrikes and commit US ground troops, something regarded as unfathomable a year ago when the president was considering military strikes against the Syrian government over its use of chemical weapons.

With this new wind at his back, a forceful Mr Obama took to a White House podium to announce that the US would, for the first time, launch military strikes against IS in Syria, intensifying a fight that has already seen the US target fighters in Iraq in more than 150 air strikes in a month.

A senior administration official described the campaign so far as being defensive - protecting US personnel in Iraq and supporting humanitarian efforts. The next phase would be more offensive, the official said.

Taking the fight to IS, Mr Obama said he would send another 475 troops sent to Iraq, bringing to 1,600 the number deployed since the summer. But Mr Obama stressed that they would not be going into combat. “We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” he insisted.

His choice of words revealed a change. Out went the stock “no boots on the ground” phrase; in came: “these American forces will not have a combat mission,” suggesting there will in fact be boots on the ground - they just won’t be fighting. This has raised concerns that this could be “mission creep” and a slippery slope to another war.

At the outset of last night’s 2,000-word speech, Mr Obama outlined his anti-war credentials that helped elect him, noting the withdrawal of 140,000 troops from Iraq and the plan to bring the remaining 30,000 troops back from Afghanistan. America’s escalation of the fight against IS is an acceptance by Mr Obama that the threat posed by this militant group requires an open-ended campaign that he has avoided for six years.

The president stressed that this was not just America’s fight but would be a campaign by a “broad coalition of partners.” This is consistent with Mr Obama’s stated foreign policy of conditional, limited engagement when America’s core interests are affected, in partnership with others

Still, this is a conflict that Mr Obama seemed last night to be more than willing to lead. Parts of the speech, coupled with his strong delivery, had echoes of his predecessor. Mr Obama’s threat to “hunt down” terrorists “wherever they are” and “if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven” remark were reminiscent of George W Bush’s post 9-11 bellicose rhetoric.

This was a stronger Obama, buoyed by the benefit of having a clear strategy. The American public, however, won’t be assured by the president comparing the IS fight with the counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen and Somali, two countries that have plagued US foreign policy for years.

At the start of the year, Mr Obama talked about shifting America off “a permanent war footing;” last night’s talk of a “steady, relentless” and “sustained” campaign against IS suggest this latest fight will be anything but temporary.