‘Degrade and destroy’: a look back at Obama’s evolution on Isis
In what will be only the third Oval Office address of his presidency, Barack Obama is expected to lay out his latest thinking – and the country’s latest strategy – for taking on the Islamic State militant group.
The White House says the president will, on Sunday night, “reiterate his firm conviction that ISIL will be destroyed”.
It is a conviction that he has reiterated before. The 17-month-old battle against Isis militants has been marked by presidential statements about the status of the fight, its objectives and achievements.
But the battle has been less marked by tangible signs of progress, as the militant group maintains its grip on northern Syria, Iraq and the Euphrates River Valley, and as foreign fighters continue to move to and from the battlefield unimpeded.
With a major new attack on American soil falling in the last week which the FBI is investigating as an act of terrorism , however, the president will speak Sunday night in a climate of heightened fear and in the face of growing pressure to demonstrate results. Obama’s address is timed to air just before the popular Sunday night football broadcasts.
Here is a brief timeline of past presidential statements on the war against Isis, with key battlefield events noted:
January 2014: ‘The JV Team’
The New Yorker magazine publishes an interview with the president in which the correspondent, David Remnick, asks the president about the takeover, days earlier, of the Iraqi city of Fallujah, by forces flying the previously obscure banner of the Islamic state.
Obama uses a basketball analogy to explain that this new group is junior to al-Qaeda.
“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama replies.
The president later claimed he was not specifically referring to Isis.
May 2014: from ‘war’ to ‘counter-terrorism’
In a graduation speech at West Point military academy, Obama says that “we have been through a long season of war” but that counter-terrorism challenges remain.
While Isis had not yet emerged in the public eye as a brand-name threat, Obama’s West Point speech previewed a framework that he would apply to the group months later. The battle against Isis, he would say , was “not the equivalent of the Iraq war”.
“We must shift our counter-terrorism strategy – drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan – to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold,” Obama says at West Point.
June 2014: Isis fighters sweep out of Syria across northern Iraq, scattering government forces and erasing the international border, in a territorial grab that would bolster the group’s claim to control a “caliphate”.
8 August 2014: American warplanes begin bombing Isis militant targets outside the Kurdish city of Irbil on Friday, in the first offensive action by the US in Iraq since it withdrew ground troops in 2011.
11 August 2014: Obama hails a “promising step forward” in Iraq, as the country nominates a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.
19 August 2014: A video circulates online depicting the beheading by Isis militants of American journalist James Foley.
28 August 2014: ‘We don’t have a strategy yet’
Pressed by reporters at the White House on whether he would expand the bombing campaign in Iraq into Syria, the president says , “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
Obama says he has asked the Pentagon to prepare a “range of options” for confronting Isis in Syria.
We don’t have a strategy yet
Obama on Isis, August 2014
2 September 2014: a video circulates online depicting the beheading by Isis militants of American journalist Steven Sotloff.
10 September 2014: ‘Degrade and destroy’
In a major national address from the White House, Obama announces a strategy to combat Isis.
“My fellow Americans – tonight, I want to speak to you about what the United States will do with our friends and allies to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as Isil,” he begins.
The president twice refers to the fight as a “counter-terrorism” campaign, as opposed to a war.
“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” he says. “And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.”
23 September 2014: first US strikes on Islamic state targets in Syria
24 September 2014: ‘Dismantle this network of death’
In a relatively pugnacious speech before the general assembly of the United Nations, Obama says the US “will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death”.
The United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.
He lays out a list of strategic objectives to combat Isis, including the rallying of global opinion; cutting off flows of cash and the movement of foreign fighters; and uprooting jihadi networks from safe spaces online.
“The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force,” Obama says.
In ensuing months, the United States would step up its air campaign in Iraq in Syria. As of 1 December, the US and coalition partners had conducted a total of 5,639 strikes in Iraq and 2,934 strikes in Syria as part of the effort, according to Pentagon figures.
10 June 2015: Obama authorizes “up to 450 additional military personnel” to be deployed to the eastern Anbar province in Iraq, bringing the number of US military forces in Iraq to 3,550.
8 June 2015: ‘We don’t yet have a complete strategy’
At the G7 summit in Germany , the president says coalition forces have “made significant progress in pushing back” Isis in Iraq, but admits that the group has moved quickly to claim insufficiently defended territory, such as the provincial capital of Ramadi.
Obama also says that efforts to recruit and train fighters to combat Isis had lagged.
“We don’t yet have a complete strategy because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis as well, about how recruitment takes place, how training takes place,” Obama says. “The details of that are not yet worked out. We’ve got more training capacity than we’ve got recruits … It’s not happening as fast as it needs to.”
29 September 2015: ‘Isil will eventually lose’
Back at the United Nations, Obama takes the long view:
17 November 2015: dressing down of Republicans
Obama, speaking in the Philippines at a regional summit, criticizes Republicans for responding to the 13 November attacks in Paris with calls for religious tests for Syrian refugees.
“We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic,” Obama says . “We don’t make good decisions if it’s based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks …
“I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for Isil [Isis] than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate.
“Isil seeks to exploit the idea that there’s war between Islam and the west, and when you see individuals in positions of responsibility suggesting Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims are in a war-torn land, that feeds the Isil narrative. It’s counterproductive. And it needs to stop.”
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