National Security


President Obama is considering widening military strikes against the Islamic State. That's the militant group that beheaded American journalist James Foley and captured a broad swath of territory in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. has already been bombing the group's positions in Iraq, and may decide to hit them in Syria as well. That story from NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Three years after the killing of Osama bin Laden and a year after Mr. Obama tried to turn the page on the open-ended War on Terror, the U.S. is facing a threat from a group even more extreme than Al Qaeda. Today in a speech to the American Legion, President Obama again called ISIS a cancer. He said routing it out won't be easy or quick, but that it will be done.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our message to anyone who harms are people is simple - America does not forget. Our reach is long. We are patient. Justice will be done. We have proved time and time again we will do what's necessary to capture those who harm Americans.

LIASSON: The president has OK'd surveillance flights over Syria to search for targets for possible airstrikes. Some form of military action against ISIS's safe haven in Syria now seems inevitable, perhaps as soon as next week. The President and his national security team have been preparing the public for action by using harsh, almost apocalyptic rhetoric about ISIS. Here's the Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.


CHUCK HAGEL: They're beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology - a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. Oh, this is beyond anything that we've seen.

LIASSON: White House officials believe if the President decides to strike ISIS in Syria, he has the necessary legal authority. And they're not worried about push-back from Congress, where most lawmakers have no interest in taking a vote on military action. Polls show the public, while weary of foreign interventions, is relatively supportive of striking ISIS. But the public wants something more than just symbolic airstrikes, says Duke University professor Peter Feaver, who worked on the national security staffs of Presidents Clinton and Bush.

PETER FEAVER: In the speech, the President promised that he will avenge the deaths of Americans. And I don't think anyone doubts his commitment there - he's proven he will do so. But what Americans want from him is not just that he will avenge their deaths, but that he will take all reasonable measures to prevent those deaths in the first place.

LIASSON: And that, says Feaver and other Obama critics, will take more proactive military measures than the president has been willing to take. Until just recently in Iraq, when he authorized airstrikes against ISIS before the Iraqi government had made the changes President Obama had asked them to make. Peter Feaver.

FEAVER: When he gave up leaving from behind and - and tried acting first, it produced the very actions on the part of the Iraqis that he had been trying to catalyze in the first place.

LIASSON: But that might not be enough in Syria, says Rosa Brooks, a former Obama Defense Department official.

ROSA BROOKS: Over the past six or seven or eight years, we have had many, many, many tactical successes where we - we get the guy we're trying to get, it appears to temporarily disrupt an organization, and then we discover one month later or one year later that the threat has just changed and it's as bad as ever. I think that's the dilemma he faces and there isn't an easy answer.

LIASSON: But, adds Brooks, the Obama White House could have focused more aggressively on the problem of Al Qaeda offshoots.

BROOKS: The administration has given only somewhat episodic attention to this issue. And I do think that - that episodic attention has been triggered more by a perception of domestic pressure than by events on the ground outside of the U.S.

LIASSON: The President talks about needing a comprehensive strategy against ISIS, but he hasn't articulated one yet. And it's not clear how much time he has to find one. Although administration officials say ISIS is not currently capable of mounting a 9/11-style attack, it needs to be stopped before it can. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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