Obama opens door to U.S. ground troops in fight against Islamic State

By LESLEY CLARK and WILLIAM DOUGLAS

McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (TNS) — President Barack Obama is asking Congress for authorization to fight Islamic State terrorists in Iraq, Syria and beyond without ruling out ground troops, opening a debate on Capitol Hill over the extent of U.S. military involvement in fighting the group Obama says poses a “grave threat” to U.S. national security.

“With violent groups like this, there is only one option,” Obama said at the White House. “With our allies and partners, we are going to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.”

Obama said his request — which would sunset after his presidential successor takes office — does not call for the deployment of ground troops to Iraq or Syria and is not “authorization of a ground war like Afghanistan or Iraq.”

But he does call for ground troops in “more limited circumstances.” That could include the use of special operations forces to take military action against the group’s leadership, Obama said.

“We need flexibility, but we also have to be careful and deliberate,” he said. “And there’s no heavier decision than asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives on our behalf.”

Obama said the authorization was written after considerable consultation with congressional Democrats and Republicans. He said he believes it can win bipartisan support and show “the world that Americans are united in this mission.”

But the White House faces a daunting task of satisfying disparate factions in Congress over the depth and scope of his request. Several Democrats want to further limit the use of U.S. troops on the ground in the Middle East, while some hawkish Republicans say there should be no restriction on the use of U.S. ground forces.

Obama also faces criticism from nearly every side that the White House hasn’t produced a coherent strategy on how to combat the Islamic State.

“I’m not even quite sure what our policy is,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “The question I keep asking is, ‘How does this all end?’ And I can’t seem to get a satisfactory answer. We’ve been at war in the Middle East for a long, long, long time, and I’m not sure we have very much to show for it.”

“The challenge is not just there between people who want to do something and people who want to do nothing,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s between people who want to do more of something and people who want to do less of something.”

Indeed, while some such as McGovern said the proposed authority was too broad, others said it does not go far enough and appears to handcuff the military.

“Rather than expanding his legal authority to go after (the Islamic State), the president seems determined to ask Congress to further restrict the authority of the U.S. military to confront this threat,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Obama said the authority would allow the U.S. to continue waging airstrikes and provide support and training for Iraqi forces and the moderate Syrian opposition.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged the language was intentionally fuzzy to give Obama and the military flexibility.

But it may prove a sticking point with lawmakers.

“Vague language is going to be a concern for everybody about limiting ground troop introduction,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. “If not for this president, for future presidents.”

The authorization includes no geographic limits, in essence allowing the U.S. to strike members of the group outside of its current theaters in Iraq and Syria.

The administration doesn’t “want to send a signal to ISIL that they may be able to establish a safe haven somewhere else,” Earnest said.

Obama proposes to sunset the provision in three years, unless it’s reauthorized, guaranteeing it will play a role in the 2016 presidential campaign. Obama said the expiration date was not a timetable and called it “conceivable that the mission is completed earlier,” a prospect military officials, who’ve predicted a years-long campaign, have said is unlikely.

Deliberation could take weeks, but lawmakers moved quickly to consider the request. Republican senators were meeting late Wednesday to review Obama’s proposal and the House Foreign Affairs Committee planned a Thursday hearing.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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