Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Benjamin Bissell
Thursday, September 11, 2014, 1:48 PM

“If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven,” President Obama said last night in a highly anticipated statement outlining his strategy to “destroy” ISIS militants. The President made it clear that the United States “will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are…That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq."

In case you missed it, you can watch the full speech here or read the remarks here.

In the speech, the President outlined a four-point “counterterrorism campaign” to degrade and ultimately destroy the militant group called the Islamic State: 1) The President plans to expand the scope of airstrikes and go on the offensive, targeting ISIS militants in both Iraq and Syria and authorizing missions that go beyond defense and humanitarian measures (The Washington Post explains how the U.S. could carry out strikes in Syria); 2) The United States will step up its efforts to arm and train Iraqi and Kurdish forces, as well as provide enhanced intelligence and targeting information; 3) The U.S. will work with allies to cut off ISIS funding and stem the flow of foreign fighters; 4) The U.S. and allies will continue to provide humanitarian aid to populations in Iraq and Syria.

As the Wall Street Journal writes, the President’s plan focuses on utilizing local forces to take the fight to ISIS under the cover of overwhelming American air power and intelligence. However, the Journal notes that America has historically had a mixed track record with this approach.

The remarks came one day before the thirteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and Obama was quick to point out that this campaign would be very different from the previous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, likening them to the ongoing missions against suspected terrorists in Yemen and Somalia. In short, it was Obama where he is most comfortable: counterterrorism operations, special forces, air power including drones, coalitions, and humanitarian aid. Even so, Peter Baker in the New York Times notes, “in ordering a sustained military campaign against Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq, President Obama on Wednesday night effectively set a new course for the remainder of his presidency and may have ensured that he would pass his successor a volatile and incomplete war, much as his predecessor left one for him.

He continues: “After years of trying to avoid entangling the United States in another “dumb war,” as he called the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Mr. Obama is now plunging the United States into the middle of one of the world’s bloodiest, most vicious and fratricidal conflicts.”

And while President Obama was resolute in stating that there would be no American combat troops, Defense News points out why “no boots on the ground” does not mean that U.S. service members will not take part in combat in Iraq and Syria. In fact, with the 475 additional troops that President Obama authorized last night, there are now more than 1600 American troops on the ground.

Post Speech Re-actions:

The New York Times editorial board writes that the President’s authorization of force in Syria was a decision in which “he had little choice militarily of politically.” However, contrary to the President's assertions that he has the necessary authority, they say that this “open-ended operation” “demands congressional approval.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board argues “Congress should support Mr. Obama's request for funds to train and equip the moderate opposition to Syria's Assad regime, though the challenge will be far more difficult than if he had done so earlier.”

The Associated Press has an overview of reactions from Congress.

In Politico, Edward-Isaac Dovere and Josh Gerstein report on “the speech that Obama didn’t want to give.”

Fred Kaplan, in Slateasks, “What could go wrong?” He suggests that the coming “battle will take massive political effort, delicate diplomacy, and enormous luck to ward off tragedy.”

Elsewhere, in the Washington Post, David Nakamura says that action against ISIS is a “legacy issue” for Obama, writing that “Obama was either naïve to promise a new chapter in post-9/11 foreign policy, or simply failed to deliver on that vision.”

In the Atlantic, David Frum says that Obama’s reaction to ISIS is “emotional,” asking “where is the U.S. interest in a war between al-Qaeda’s even nastier younger brother, on one side, and the mullahs of Iran on the other?”

In Defense One, Kevin Baron argues that for all his strategy, Obama better have a plan B.

Finally, the Onion hits here and here, saying that the President has assured the nation “that ISIS campaign will be drawn-out ordeal they’re used to” wherein he will “split ISIS into dozens of extremist splinter groups.”

Whether you think ISIS is a threat to the United States or not, and whether you think Obama is pursing the right track, questions loom large regarding the Administration’s authority to exercise expanded strikes in Iraq and Syria.

Last night, President Obama said that he had authority, but would “welcome congressional support.” Charlie Savage in the Times covers exactly what this statement means, while the Guardian reports that the administration will invoke the 2001 Authorization for Use of Force, originally passing Congress just days after 9/11.

BenWellsBobby, and Jack share thoughts on why, if true, that reading of the law is complete nonsense. In Time, Jack writes that “Obama’s breathtaking expansion of a President’s power to make war.” Foreign Policy has more on the impact of these decisions on the War Powers Resolution, while Eli Lake in the Daily Beast proposes that Obama’s new war may be illegal.

Elsewhere, Yishai Schwartz---himself a Lawfare alum---writes that when the Administration says ISIS is “the true inheritor of Osama bin Laden’s legacy,” it seems to have taken the position that it is not the group, but the ideology of it that matters when determining if it is implicated in the 2001 AUMF.

Today we learn that Saudi Arabia will allow the U.S. to use bases in the country to train moderate Syrian opposition fightersaccording to the New York Times. Secretary of State John Kerry is currently in the country, meeting with a number of Arab officials from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq, in an attempt to coordinate strategy against ISIS.

The Times also reports that Britain has announced that it will not take part in airstrikes in Syria.

Turkey has also backed off its earlier commitment to allow the U.S. coalition to use its air bases to launch attacks in Iraq and Syria, and has announced that it will not take part in combat operations against militantsreports AFP. The turnaround is significant for logistical as well as symbolic purposes: Turkey was the only Muslim country in a coalition of 10 states who agreed to fight ISIS at the NATO summit.

Yesterday, U.S. counterterrorism officials testified that at this moment, the Islamic State is not a terror threat on U.S. soil. The Wall Street Journal quoted Nicholas Rasmussen, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, saying,"The greatest threat from ISIL to the U.S. and its interests is inside Iraq right now.” Republicans were quick to challenge this assessment. The New York Times writes of the ongoing challenge of identifying and gauging the ISIS threat, even as the U.S. prepares to launch attacks.

Elsewhere, in the AP, Zeina Karam and Vivian Salama ask, “has the world been bamboozled by the ISIS PR machine?”

The BBC announces that an explosion in northern Syria killed the leader of one of the most powerful Islamist rebel groups operating in the country. Hassan Abboud, political head of the Islamic Front alliance, was killed in the blast in the northwestern province of Idlib, along with dozens of other senior figures. Sources report at least 28 people died. No group has claimed responsibility yet, but ISIS was accused of killing a leader of Ahrar Al-Sham earlier this year, which is the strongest component group of the Islamic Front alliance.

Elsewhere in Syria’s north, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reported it found “compelling confirmation” that chlorine gas had been used in attacks in the region this year. The attacks reportedly took place in villages where rebels have been locked in battle with pro-Assad forces. The BBC has more.

The BBC also has sobering news out of northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram militants have begun laying siege to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. The city of 2 million is completely surrounded by the Islamist group’s fighters, with Boko Haram announcing that they had “annexed” areas about 30 miles from the city into the group’s new caliphate.

While tensions between China and Japan have been high for some time now, there is a new poll now that quantifies how strained their bilateral ties have become. According to Time, a full 93% of Japanese have a negative image of China, the highest on record. 87% of Chinese have a bad impression of Japan, a slight drop from 93% the year before. Perhaps more ominously, 53% of Chinese and 29% of Japanese expect war to erupt between the countries before 2020.

Japan isn’t the only country China is locked in dispute with; in the latest installment of the parallel Philippines-China saga, the Filipino government today unveiled dozens of ancient maps that it says debunks China’s “ancestral” claims to the South China Sea. Reuters has more.

And Beijing just got blunt with Hong Kong democracy activists. Reuters reports that in a meeting between Beijing’s most senior official in the autonomous city, Zhang Xiaoming, and several local lawmakers, democracy lawmaker Leung Yiu-Chung asked Zhang whether the CCP would allow any democrat to control the city. Zhang reportedly replied, “the fact that you are allowed to stay alive, already shows the country’s inclusiveness.”

In Ukraine, President Poroshenko offered on Wednesday more independence for rebel areas in the eastern portion of the country. The Washington Post reports that despite this promise, rebels continue to demand full-scale independence from Kiev.

Speaking of independence, the impacts of Scotland’s September 18th referendum on whether to split from the UK is attracting the attention, and imagination, of separatists from Kurdistan to Texas. The New York Times has more.

Poland’s state gas firm, PGNiG, says that Russia reduced gas supplies to the country over tensions in Ukraine. The news came hours after Poland halted its own gas supplies to Ukraine. According to PGNiG, gas imports from Russia were 24% lower on Tuesday and 20% lower on Monday, prompting Poland to stop sending gas to Kiev. Gazprom denied the allegations, saying the normal amount had been sent.

45 Fijian peacekeepers were freed in the Syrian Golan Heights yesterday, ending a saga that began with their capture by Islamist militants in Syria. The Times of Israel writes that the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda-linked group involved in the internecine Syrian Civil War, captured the peacekeepers late last month and returned them near the city of Quneitra unharmed.

In response to popular pressure among ordinary Gazans, Hamas may break longstanding policy and debate directly with the Israeli government. So says the deputy head of Hamas’ political arm, Moussa Abu Marzouk. Also, in the wake of the conflict with Israel, Hamas seems to be struggling to fill a power vacuum. Sources inside the Gaza Strip say military leader Muhammed Deif was badly injured in an Israeli assassination attempt on his life, and the posts of three other senior leaders slain in the conflict remain unfilled. The Times of Israel has more details here and here.

According to the Washington Post, the Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday announced that it will conduct criminal investigations into two incidents that resulted in mass Palestinian civilian casualties during the recent conflict in Gaza.

Former U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, emissary to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations under President Bush, and his family can now access their previously-frozen bank accounts, an Austrian court ruled. Reuters reports that a judge found Vienna prosecutors overstepped their power in freezing the accounts, an action that was initially taken amid investigations by U.S. authorities into allegations the family was involved in money laundering.

A Colorado woman has plead guilty to attempting to support the Islamic State militant group, under a bargain that will require her to assist federal authorities and provide more information about other Americans with similar ambitions. The AP has the story.

Forget Tuscany or Machu Picchu: spend your next vacation in exotic North Korea! So hopes the North Korean government, who recently set a goal of attracting 1 million foreign tourists. But if you are American, don’t pack your bag just yet - the Washington Post reports that just this April, two American tourists were imprisoned by the government there for “hostile acts,” and await trial.

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