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Exactly one year ago, President Barack Obama delivered a prime-time speech to defend his Syria policy. Facing a war-weary public broadly opposed to his call for even limited airstrikes, and a divided Congress not at all eager to risk the political price of giving him the authority to go to war, Obama defended his plan to bomb Bashar Assad’s forces in response to the Syrian strongman’s alleged use of chemical weapons. And then he dramatically turned away from military action in favor of diplomacy.
On Wednesday night, the unpopular president strides to the same spot in the White House to deliver another 15-minute speech. He’s expected to announce that he is poised to escalate America’s campaign against brutal guerrillas from the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL or ISIS) in Iraq, and may strike the group’s strongholds in Syria.
In doing so, the president elected to pull America from its painful overseas military entanglements, notably the Iraq War, may be plunging the United States into a new Middle East conflict that could outlast his presidency and cost untold amounts of American blood and treasure.
“We have the ability to destroy ISIL,” Secretary of State John Kerry declared at a NATO summit in Wales last week. “It may take a year, it may take two years, it may take three years. But we’re determined it has to happen.”
Deputy national security adviser Antony Blinken had the same message in a CNN interview.
"It's going to take time, and it will probably go beyond even this administration to get to the point of defeat," said Blinken.
Obama will announce that the United States is assembling a coalition of countries for the purpose of “degrading and ultimately destroying the terrorist group,” according to the White House.
He is not expected to seek formal authorization from Congress to use force — the White House said late Tuesday that he believes he has the constitutional authority to bypass lawmakers. But he will ask for new funds, a step that may require a vote in the few short weeks before the midterm elections. And he will detail efforts to prop up Syrian rebels from factions less extreme than IS.
One year ago, Obama spent much of his speech assuring Americans wary of another war in the Muslim world that he understood their concerns.
After Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, "the idea of any military action, no matter how limited, is not going to be popular.
"Many of you have asked, ‘Won’t this put us on a slippery slope to another war?’" he noted.
To allay those fears, Obama promised not to send American combat troops into Syria. “I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan,” he vowed. There will be no “prolonged air campaign” like the one against Serbia under President Bill Clinton.
“America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong,” he said. “But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.”
Obama’s speech one year later comes in a somewhat different context.
Fed a media diet of horrific images of violence perpetrated by IS, including the beheadings of two American journalists, the war-weary U.S. public has grown more hawkish — within limits.
A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 61 percent of Americans said they favor military action. But 40 percent said that such action should be limited to airstrikes, while 34 percent said they backed airstrikes and sending in American combat troops.
Obama will step on the podium on Wednesday facing many questions about the newly escalated campaign. How will the United States and its allies know when they have “destroyed” IS? Can Washington trust Persian Gulf nations thought to have fed the terrorist group much of its weapons and cash? Is there such a thing as a “moderate” Syrian opposition that can be molded into an effective fighting force? How can Washington be sure that weapons provided to those rebels don’t fall into extremist hands? How long should Americans be prepared to see this new front last? Could fighting a new war on Muslim soil — even against an enemy as widely reviled as IS — end up counterproductively radicalizing some in the region? Does destroying IS end up shoring up Assad?
On Sunday, Obama hinted at the biggest question of all — how to build a more stable region and break the cycle of U.S. intervention — by saying that American military action alone can never be enough because “at some point, we leave. And then things blow up again.”