ISIL to top Obama speech on foreign policy

President's address to Congress comes against background of new and potentially more dangerous chapter in wars abroad.

    ISIL to top Obama speech on foreign policy
    Many Americans view ISIL as the No 1 threat facing the US in Middle East, according to a survey [Reuters]

    WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama faces a difficult foreign-policy challenge in the Middle East when he gives his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.

    Obama’s central theme will be that the US is resurgent, following a long recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s and an end to a costly war in Afghanistan.

    At the same time, however, Obama must explain his plan to defeat the self-described Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)and assure the American people he is countering the potential risk of jihadist threats at home following the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, analysts say.

    "Our combat mission in Afghanistan has come to a responsible end, and more of our heroes are coming home. America’s resurgence is real," Obama said Saturday in radio remarks previewing his State of the Union speech.

    Sergeant Jason Gibson who lost both legs in Afghanistan will be among the president’s guests in the gallery.

    "Our job now is to make sure that every American feels that they're a part of our country's comeback," Obama said.

    Obama, who will be watched by an estimated television audience of 30 million, will make the case that it is time for the American middle class to reap the benefits of peace and prosperity.

    Most of his speech will focus on domestic economic concerns, although the reality is a Republican-controlled Congress will not advance his agenda.

    Focus on diplomacy

    A year ago Obama said he would focus on diplomacy as the primary tool of US foreign policy and indeed it paid off in the historic opening of normal relations with Cuba.

    Still for Obama, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and who spent six years trying to bring an end to US combat deployments, it is an uncomfortable reality that the war that began on 9/11 is not over.

    "Presidents don't like to say things have gotten worse on their watch. Obama's got this circle to square, which is that things in the Middle East haven’t gotten better," Gary Schmitt, director of security studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, told Al Jazeera.

    Presidents don't like to say things have gotten worse on their watch. Obama’s got this circle to square, which is that things in the Middle East haven’t gotten better

    Gary Schmitt, director of security studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute

    The slow but steady withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and Obama’s reluctance to engage early in Syria’s civil war allowed the rise of ISIL, Schmitt argues.

    "The administration has let the situation drift," he said. 

    If anything, the war has entered a new, and potentially more dangerous chapter.

    The rise of ISIL and attacks in France, Belgium and Canada have made it clear the West faces an aggressive and widely dispersed, terrorist threat.

    "The American public is unified in their thinking that ISIL is the No. 1 threat facing the US in the Middle East," Shibley Telhami, a pollster at the University of Maryland, told Al Jazeera.

    ISIL has effectively used the internet and media to gain attention and communicate its jihadist narrative, recruiting thousands of foreign nationals to come and join its ranks.

    It publicly beheaded two American journalists - James Foley and Steven Sotloff - among a litany of other atrocities. Last week, someone claiming to represent ISIL hacked the US Central Command’s Twitter account to post a warning of more terror attacks.

    "This is obviously a threat to the world, not just the United States of America," Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No 2 House Democrat, said on Capitol Hill last week.

    Obama told congressional leaders at a White House meeting last week he would come forward soon with a new request for authorisation of use of military force against ISIL. The US Constitution requires the president obtain authorization from Congress to wage war.

    Whether or how the president may frame the question in his speech Tuesday remains unclear.  Trumpeting the end of the combat mission in Afghanistan while also asking for renewed war authority would send contradictory messages.

    "You will hear about ISIL. You are not going to hear an organising principle for fixing Iraq and Syria," Aaron David Miller, vice president and distinguished scholar at the Wilson Centre, told Al Jazeera.

    US Muslims summit

    Obama has been reluctant to give full voice to the challenge of ISIL and other armed groups.

    His failure to attend the unity walk in Paris with other world leaders drew criticism.

    The White House has, however, announced a date, February 18, for a summit with US Muslim leaders on countering violent extremism.

    After ISIL overran large parts of Iraq, seizing Fallujah, Mosul and threatening Irbil and the areas around Baghdad, Obama sent 2,500 troops to Iraq in Operation Inherent Resolve.

    Since August, coalition partners and the US have dropped 6,000 bombs and missiles on ISIL targets.

    The US plans to send up to 1,000 troops to help train Syrian fighters in camps hosted by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

    The cost to the US, including humanitarian assistance, through the end of 2014 was $1.2bn or about $8.2m a day, according to the US Defence Department.

    "I do wonder whether he will take up the security situation in a serious fashion, or go light and just say this is the plan for going forward," Schmitt said.

    Complicating Obama’s response to ISIL in Iraq and Syria are the international negotiations with Iran on nuclear power and Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military support for Ukrainian rebels.

    The US needs Iran’s cooperation in Iraq where Iranian-backed Shia armed groups are doing most of the fighting against ISIL, and in Syria where the regime of Bashir Assad is supported by financial and military assistance from Iran.

    The US also needs Russia to help keep Iran at the table in the nuclear talks.

    Newly empowered Republicans in the US Senate announced plans to move forward with new sanctions legislation designed to pressure Iran should the talks fail.

    But Obama gave warning on Friday that he would veto any new sanctions on Iran and is urging US politicians to give diplomacy space to succeed.

    Divided opinion

    For now, Obama’s refusal to send US ground troops and limited airstrikes while relying on others to do the fighting on the ground is in sync with the views of most Americans.

    "The country isn’t interested in another massive troop deployment or another social science experiment in an Arab country. The country is interested in prosperity and security," Miller said.

    A 70 percent majority of Americans view ISIL as the No 1 threat facing the United States in the Middle East, according to a surveyconducted by Telhami in November.

    Americans feel strongly the US should confront ISIL with necessary force to defeat the group but they aren’t optimistic that airstrikes alone will succeed, according to the survey.

    Still, according to the poll, the American public is divided on the question of whether to send ground forces. If airstrikes fail, 57 percent of Americans oppose sending ground troops while 41 percent would support it.

    "The public is very much in line with the way the president has been handling it and the president can use that to his advantage in laying out his priorities for the Middle East," Telhami said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


    How different voting systems work around the world

    How different voting systems work around the world

    Nearly two billion voters in 52 countries around the world will head to the polls this year to elect their leaders.

    How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938

    How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938

    Russian-Saudi relations could be very different today, if Stalin hadn't killed the Soviet ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

    The great plunder: Nepal's stolen treasures

    The great plunder: Nepal's stolen treasures

    How the art world's hunger for ancient artefacts is destroying a centuries-old culture. A journey across the Himalayas.