Obama Calls on Congress to Formally Declare War on ISIS in Oval Office Address

Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about counterterrorism and the U.S. fight against the Islamic State during an address to the nation from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., December 6, 2016. Obama's officials sought to secretly preserve evidence of Russian interference, a report says. Yuri Gripas/Reuters

On September 20, 2001, with the rubble of the World Trade Center still smoldering, President George W. Bush stood before Congress and declared war on Islamist terror. America's first target, he said, would be Al-Qaeda, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, as well as the Taliban government in Afghanistan that gave it sanctuary. "But it does not end there," Bush warned. "It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated."

On Sunday evening, President Barack Obama nodded to Bush's bravado, if not his bellicose policies, in an Oval Office speech that sought to reassure the nation that his strategy against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), Al-Qaeda's successor, is working. Just days after what appeared to be an ISIS-inspired attack in San Bernardino, California, that left 14 dead and 21 wounded, Obama played the role of the clear-eyed consoler-in-chief for a nation panicky about the possibility of more homegrown jihadi violence. "The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us," Obama said, using an alternate acronym for the militant group.

Since Obama took office, this is just the third time he's delivered a speech from the Oval Office, which presidents use as a backdrop to address matters of the highest national import. But after the San Bernardino killings—the deadliest Islamist assault on the homeland since the September 11 attacks 14 years ago—and the ISIS massacre last month in Paris that left 130 dead, Obama needed to do something to arrest the erosion of public confidence in his war strategy and make himself heard above the din of the presidential campaign.

Support for Obama's handling of the war against ISIS began to suffer after the November 13 Paris slaughter undercut his boast that his strategy of bombing ISIS positions while supporting Kurdish and Sunni Arab ground forces had "contained" the group in its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria. A CBS News/New York Times poll taken shortly afterward showed less than 25 percent of Americans thought Obama had a clear plan to deal with ISIS militants.

In his speech, Obama responded to Republicans who regularly accuse him of not understanding the dangers posed by Islamist terrorism. "For seven years, I've confronted this evolving threat each morning in my intelligence briefing," he said. "And since the day I took this office, I've authorized U.S. forces to take out terrorists abroad precisely because I know how real the danger is."

Obama defended his strategy of training and equipping thousands of Iraqi and Syrian rebel forces who are fighting ISIS on the ground while the U.S.—and in recent weeks France and Britain—provides close air support and airstrikes. Obama has sent 3,500 military trainers to Iraq and several hundred U.S. special operations forces to Syria.

And he pushed back against Republicans who charge that Obama's strategy is feckless. He denounced the idea of a major role for U.S. combat troops. (Most Republican presidential candidates, with the notable exception of Lindsey Graham, share his view.) "We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq and Syria," Obama said. "That's what groups like ISIL want us to do." He said the jihadis know that under another American occupation, "they can maintain insurgencies for years, killing thousands of our troops, draining our resources and using our presence to draw new recruits."

Turning the tables on his critics, he called on the Republican-controlled House and Senate to authorize the use of military force against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Obama maintains he's already got the authority to wage war against the group under Congress's approval of the war resolution against Al-Qaeda in 2001. But he's asking for a new authorization because it would force Republicans to take some political ownership of a conflict that they've been happy to criticize without consequence.

And he urged Congress to pass legislation that would make it harder to buy powerful assault weapons and prohibit all gun purchases by those listed on the federal government's no-fly register. Republicans, for whom Second Amendment rights are sacrosanct, said neither proposal had any chance of becoming law.

Not surprisingly, Republicans also dismissed Obama's speech as little more than political theater to shore up public support for his war policy. "What we need is not a political sales job but serious, sustained action," said Mac Thornberry of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "The marginal changes in military tactics he has taken since Paris demonstrate that the president continues to be reactive, rather than go on the offensive against a dangerous enemy. He has consistently underestimated this threat and has consistently been a step behind in dealing with it. I see no evidence tonight that he is changing his views or policies."

Arizona Republican John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and perhaps the most voluble congressional critic of Obama's ISIS strategy, says what's needed in Iraq are 10,000 U.S. ground troops to train both government forces and Sunni tribal fighters to retake territory seized by ISIS last summer. Operating from forward positions on the battlefield, the Americans also would call in airstrikes and carry out raids on high-value ISIS targets, McCain says. Once ISIS is gone, several thousand U.S. soldiers would remain as part of a modest but long-term troop presence in Iraq. "If we leave again, the threat will return," McCain said. But it's far from clear whether the Shiite-led Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi or its Iranian patrons would allow that many U.S. troops in the country.

In Syria, McCain proposes an even more aggressive strategy. Because there's no local rebel ground force that is willing or capable of capturing Raqqa, the eastern city that serves as ISIS's capital, McCain says the U.S. should stitch together a multinational force for the job that would include another 10,000 U.S. troops. Once Raqqa was taken, the multinational force would stay behind to administer the city and maintain order—for decades if necessary—to prevent a return of armed groups, McCain says. Most controversial is McCain's proposal to destroy the Syrian air force, establish no-fly zones to protect refugees and punish any Russian forces now backing the government if they interfere. White House officials scoff at McCain's ideas, calling them a "prescription for war" between the U.S. and Russia, both nuclear powers.

In an apparent attempt to burnish his counterterrorism credentials, Obama used his speech to remind Americans that he ordered the 2011 operation that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, as well as hundreds of drone strikes that decimated the upper ranks of the group's leadership. Some terrorism experts now take issue with this boast, noting that new leaders quickly move in as replacements. Moreover, they say, Al-Qaeda appears to be making a comeback of sorts, establishing new affiliates in Syria and India.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, said that in the past few days, while much of the world's attention was focused on ISIS and the San Bernardino shootings, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIP), one of the group's big franchises, captured more territory in Yemen, where a Saudi-led offensive against Houthi insurgents has taken pressure off Al-Qaeda. "If Osama bin Laden were alive today, he'd be smiling," Hoffman says.

Obama echoed Bush once more at the end of his speech when he urged Americans not to tar all Muslims as Islamist extremists because of ISIS's violence. In his 2001 declaration of war against terror, Bush made a point to address the world's Muslims. "We respect your faith," he said. "Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those that commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah."