WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama says he will make a speech Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) to lay out his “game plan” to deal with and ultimately defeat Islamic State militants, but warned he was not going to wage another ground war in Iraq.
“I’m preparing the country to make sure that we deal with a threat from ISIL,” Obama said in an interview aired Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” using an alternative name for the jihadist group.
“On Wednesday, I’ll make a speech and describe what our game plan’s going to be going forward,” Obama said in the interview, in which he gave his most explicit rundown yet of his strategy for taking on IS.
The speech will come at a poignant moment — on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in 2001, which pitched America into a confrontation with radical Islam in the Middle East that, despite Obama’s best efforts, shows no sign of ending.
Two days after returning from the NATO summit in Wales, Obama said he was confident he would be able to build a broad-based international coalition to take on Islamic State, which has carved out a stronghold in large areas of Syria and Iraq.
“The next phase is now to start going on some offense,” Obama said.
“But this is not going to be an announcement about US ground troops,” he cautioned.
“This is not the equivalent of the Iraq war. What this is is similar to the kinds of counterterrorism campaigns that we’ve been engaging in consistently over the last five, six, seven years.”
Obama’s appearance appeared to be partly an attempt to defuse a political row set off when he said late last month that he did not yet have a strategy for taking on Islamic State in Syria.
The president, in the interview recorded on Saturday, outlined an approach that would be similar to the one he adopted to neutralize Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and other terror groups.
But he stuck to his position that the United States, exhausted by years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, could no longer deploy huge armies to “serially occupy” hostile nations in the Middle East to tackle extremist groups.
“What I’m going to be asking the American people to understand is, number one, this is a serious threat,” Obama said.
“Number two, we have the capacity to deal with it. Here’s how we’re going to deal with it.
“Over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum of ISIL.
“We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We’re going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we’re going to defeat them,” Obama said, while stressing that there did not appear to be an immediate short-term threat from IS to the US homeland.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are fanning out across the Middle East to put together a coalition to choke IS funding, possibly conduct military action in Syria and to stop the flow of foreign fighters which have boosted the ranks of a group which has killed two US journalists.
Even some of Obama’s political allies have criticized the president for not reacting to the IS surge quickly enough.
“What is the military plan and what is the diplomatic plan,” asked Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein on CNN Sunday.
“Time’s a-wasting, because we’ve now said we’re going to go on the offensive and it’s time for America to project power and strength.”
Republican lawmaker Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee, welcomed signs of fresh clarity from the administration on how to tackle IS.
“There’s been some confusion coming out of the administration — this is the toughest talk that we’ve heard from the president,” Rogers said, also on CNN.
“That’s a good thing, because they are a threat.”
Obama’s interview aired after Washington expanded its month-long air campaign to Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland, hitting Islamic State fighters west of Baghdad as troops and allied tribesmen launched a ground assault.
US warplanes Sunday bombed IS fighters around a strategic dam on the Euphrates River in an area that the jihadists have repeatedly tried to capture from government troops and their Sunni militia allies.
Previous strikes since the campaign began on August 8 had been mainly in support of Kurdish forces in the north.