WASHINGTON — Hours before President Barack Obama's prime-time address on a strategy for fighting Islamic State militants, the Senate's Democratic leader urged quick authorization of the president's request to help arm moderate opposition forces in Syria. The Republican Senate leader called Obama "a rather reluctant commander in chief."
One of Obama's most urgent priorities to combat the growing terrorist threat is authorization from Congress to arm more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition fighting President Bashar Assad. The president asked lawmakers earlier this year for a $500 million train-and-equip program, but the plan has stalled on Capitol Hill.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday that Congress should give Obama the authority to help build an international coalition. "Going it alone is not going to work," Reid said. "We must have the support of the international community if we're to rid the world of ISIS" — an acronym for the Islamic State group.
Hours before his speech, to be aired from the White House, Obama met with his national security advisers. He also spoke by phone with Saudi King Abdullah, ahead of a gathering of Arab leaders on their contributions to a global coalition against the Islamic State.
In the address, Obama planned to outline an expanded military and political effort to combat Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, possibly including airstrikes in Syria, officials said in advance. The president has already begun assembling an international coalition to take on the militants, who have overrun parts of Iraq and Syria and beheaded two American journalists they had held.
Administration officials said Obama would press forward without formal authorization from lawmakers. Besides increased airstrikes, other elements of Obama's plan include greater support for Iraqi security forces, accompanied by military and diplomatic commitments from partners in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.
After the president's hour-long discussion with congressional leaders Tuesday, the White House said Obama told lawmakers that he "has the authority he needs to take action" against the Islamic State militants. The White House added that the president still would welcome action from Congress that would "aid the overall effort and demonstrate to the world that the United States is united in defeating the threat."
On Wednesday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called Obama "a rather reluctant commander in chief" who needs a plan to defeat Islamic State terrorists. He said Obama should lay out a military strategy to defeat the terrorists, outline any funding and authorization he needs from Congress and rally public support.
"It's pretty clear to me at least that the American people fully appreciate the nature of this threat," McConnell said. "After the beheadings of two American citizens, they don't want an explanation of what's happening. They want a plan. They want some presidential leadership."
In supporting the president, Reid was critical of former Vice President Dick Cheney and Republicans he said take their advice from him. He said Cheney is more responsible than anyone else for the invasion of Iraq, which Reid called the worst foreign policy decision in the history of the United States.
"Now that Republicans are taking advice from Dick Cheney on foreign policy, I'm concerned that they once again will rush to commit U.S. troops to a ground war in the Middle East," Reid said.
Meanwhile, Francis Taylor, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, told lawmakers U.S. officials are currently unaware of any credible threat of a potential attack in the United States by the Islamic State. But Taylor testified that the militants are a serious threat to the Middle East and could attack U.S. targets overseas with little or no warning.
For Obama, a sustained U.S. intervention in the Middle East is at odds with the vision he had for the region when he ran for president on a pledge to end the war in Iraq, where the role of American fighting forces drew to a close nearly three years ago. The timing of his announcement Wednesday night was all the more striking, scheduled just hours before anniversary commemorations of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The U.S. already has been running a smaller CIA program to train the rebels, but Obama is seeking approval for a more overt military effort that could involve staging training locations in countries near Syria.
With Obama ruling out sending U.S. ground troops into combat in Iraq or Syria, bolstering the capacity of the Iraqi security forces and Syrian opposition will be crucial to efforts to root out the Islamic State militant group, which has moved freely across the blurred border between the two countries. U.S. airstrikes could help give the forces in both countries the space to make gains against the extremists.
Administration officials said Obama also sees a congressional authorization for a Syrian train-and-equip message as sending a strong signal to allies who are considering similar efforts. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to the Middle East on Wednesday for discussions in Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Germany has decided to send assault rifles, ammunition, anti-tank weapons and armored vehicles to Kurdish forces in Iraq fighting the Islamic State, breaking with Berlin's previous reluctance to send weapons into conflicts. The deliveries haven't started, but last week Germany sent a first planeload of military equipment such as helmets, protective vests, field glasses and mine-searching devices to Iraq.
On Capitol Hill, there was little consensus on the scope of Obama's authority to broaden the campaign against the Islamic State extremists. While some lawmakers said the president has the power he needs under the Constitution, others were seeking a more central congressional role in the effort.
"I think it is to his advantage and the country's advantage to have Congress buy into that," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said before joining other Republican and Democratic leaders in the Oval Office on Tuesday for a meeting with Obama.
An aide to House Speaker John Boehner said the Ohio Republican expressed support for efforts to increase the effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces and for equipping the Syrian opposition. Boehner also said he would support the deployment of U.S. military personnel to Iraq in a training and advisory role and to "assist with lethal targeting" of Islamic State leadership, according to the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the private meeting by name.
The U.S. is already launching airstrikes against Islamic State targets inside Iraq, undertaken at the invitation of the Iraqi government and without formal authorization from Congress. But the mission has been limited to strikes that help protect American interests in the region and prevent humanitarian crises.
U.S. officials said Obama was expected to loosen those limitations and open a broader counterterrorism campaign against the militants in Iraq. Following the Islamic State group's shocking beheading of two American journalists in Syria, Obama began more seriously considering extending strikes into that country.
People who have spoken with Obama in recent days said it appeared likely he would take that step. At a private dinner Monday with foreign policy experts, Obama emphasized the importance of viewing the Islamic State as one organization, not two groups separated by a border. Administration officials and others familiar with Obama's thinking spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be identified.
Obama's spokesman has said the president is willing "to go wherever is necessary to strike those who are threatening Americans." However, Obama has continued to rule out sending U.S. troops into ground combat operations in the Middle East.
In a shift for a war-weary nation, new polls suggest the American people would support a sustained air campaign. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday showed 71 percent of Americans support airstrikes in Iraq, up from 54 percent just three weeks ago. And 65 percent say they support extending airstrikes into Syria.
Taking that latter step would raise legal and geopolitical issues that Obama has long sought to avoid, particularly without formal congressional authorization.
Unlike in Iraq, Obama would not be acting at the invitation of a host government. However, some international law experts say airstrikes could be justified as a matter of self-defense if Obama argues the Islamic State group poses a threat to the U.S. and its allies from inside Syria, whose government is unwilling or unable to stop it.
Another possibility: Although the U.S. has said it will not coordinate with Assad, his government could give back-channel consent to American attacks. Obama would still have to contend with the notion that American airstrikes against the militants were helping Assad, who has overseen Syria's bloody civil war. The U.S. has long called for Assad to leave power, and the Islamic State group is one of the groups inside Syria that is seeking to oust him.
Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler, Donna Cassata, Bradley Klapper, David Espo, Alan Fram and Robert Burns contributed to this report.
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