Declaring “we don’t have a strategy yet,” President Obama poured cold water Thursday on talk that he was poised to order imminent U.S. military strikes on fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria.
“My priority at this point is to make sure that the gains that ISIL made in Iraq are rolled back and that Iraq has the opportunity to govern itself effectively and secure itself,” Obama told reporters in the White House briefing room.
The president promised to consult lawmakers on the strategy, “in part because it may cost some money,” and Congress holds the federal purse strings. But he repeatedly declined to commit to seeking a vote authorizing expanded military action in either Iraq or Syria.
"I do think that it’ll be important for Congress to weigh in,” he said. “But I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. We don’t have a strategy yet.”
Obama took issue with media reports in which “the suggestion, I guess, has been that we’ll start moving forward imminently, and somehow Congress, still out of town, is going to be left in the dark."
"That’s not what’s going to happen,” he promised.
Obama spoke moments before leading a National Security Council meeting in the White House’s war room.
He confirmed that he had asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Joints Chiefs of Staff for “a range of options” for targeting the brutal Islamist militia.
But “the options that I’m asking for from the Joint Chiefs focus primarily on making sure that ISIL is not overrunning Iraq,” the president told reporters.
Obama declared that he had the authority as president to carry out the current limited military campaign. He said “our core priority right now,” from a military perspective, is protecting American personnel and facilities in Iraq and averting humanitarian disasters.
But the president sketched out an ambitious plan to shore up Iraq’s government and rally nations dominated by Islam’s rival Sunni and Shiite factions behind an international campaign to take on ISIL, also known as ISIS.
“If those things are followed through on and we are able to combine it with a sound military strategy, then I think we can be successful,” he said. “If we can't, then the idea that the United States or any outside power would perpetually defeat ISIS, I think, is unrealistic.”
Obama said he had asked Secretary of State John Kerry to “build the coalition that’s needed to meet this threat,” and he scolded unnamed Sunni nations that he accused of fueling the ISIL fire.
“Stop being ambivalent about these extremist groups,” he said. “The truth is that we've had state actors who, at times, have thought that the way to advance their interests is, well, [that] financing some of these groups as proxies is not such a bad strategy.”