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President Barack Obama is set to hit rewind on his approach to foreign policy when he addresses the nation Wednesday.
A president who rode opposition to the Iraq War to the White House will try to convince the American people that, this time, the U.S. must wade back into the much-despised quagmire to eliminate the threat from jihadist group ISIS.
It’s not the first time Obama has retreated from some of his most frequently-played sound bites regarding the terror threat in the Middle East. But with the ISIS threat feeling ever closer to home since the terror group beheaded two Americans, there’s a new urgency to the U.S. approach abroad.
The prime-time address comes amid some good news for the administration: A new NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll shows that a majority - 61 percent - of Americans say that taking military action against ISIS is "in our national interest," while just 13 percent disagree with that statement.
Here’s a look back at some of the key statements that Obama has made about terror groups, military action, and the situations on the ground in Iraq and Syria that you won’t hear from him Wednesday night:
A ‘JV team’
During a January interview with the New Yorker, in the wake of the ISIS capture of Fallujah, Obama referred to militant offshoot groups as “a JV team" compared with Osama bin Laden’s old Al Qaeda network.
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“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama told the magazine’s David Remnick. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”
On Sunday, in his interview with Chuck Todd for NBC’s Meet the Press, Obama insisted that he was not referring to ISIS with that comment. “Keep in mind I wasn’t specifically referring to ISIL. I’ve said that, regionally, there were a whole series of organizations that were focused primarily locally,” he said, adding that ISIS has “evolved” during that time.
Fact-checking organizations say that Obama is stretching the truth to say that he wasn’t referring to ISIS at the time of his comments. Even if you agree with the president’s distinction, though, it’s clear that we’re no longer going to hear that kind of characterization of a group now deemed worthy of proactive American military strikes.
“Of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
The political and foreign policy worlds suffered some whiplash last August, when Obama abruptly pressed the pause button on anticipated airstrikes on Syria. After evidence appeared to show that Syrian President Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people, Obama was widely believed to be ready to pursue a Syrian attack without congressional authorization. But a stroll with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough around the White House grounds changed his mind. In an address on August 31, 2013, the president stated that he would ask for a congressional blessing after all, saying that “our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
(It's worth nothing that Obama's announcement came after Britain voted down a similar authorization, which would have forced the United States to act largely alone.)
The divided Congress balked, and the issue faded after negotiators struck an agreement to destroy Syrian chemical weapons caches.
While Obama has now indicated that he wants “buy-in” from Congress before green-lighting a military strategy to deal with ISIS, he’s made clear that he does believe he has constitutional authority to launch military action on his own. And with midterms fast approaching, leaders on both sides of the aisle are likely to seek to avoid an authorization vote that could be potentially problematic for endangered candidates.
A residual force?
There’s no question that Obama’s campaigns had a firm foundation in his promises to end the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, promises that the president stood by. But critics point out that Obama has now blamed some of the slide back into violence on the Iraqi government, even after having taken broad responsibility for pulling troops out in 2011. During a debate with then-GOP rival Mitt Romney in 2012, for example, Obama appeared to dispute the notion that he wanted a status of forces agreement that would have left some U.S. troops in the region. But he told reporters earlier this year that the decision not to leave a residual force “wasn’t a decision made by me.” “That was a decision made by the Iraqi government,” he said.
In October of 2011, then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made clear that Iraq had rejected American demands that the residual U.S. troops be granted immunity from prosecution, scuttling any deal to keep a force there.
Still, in his remarks to the nation on Wednesday, the president will need to offer an explanation of why Iraq has so quickly slid back into a hotspot for terror and violence, and the issue of a residual force is sure to come up.
“Sovereign, stable and self-reliant”
When Obama marked the end of the war in Iraq in 2011, he acknowledged to an audience of soldiers at Fort Bragg that “Iraq is not a perfect place.”
But, he said, “we're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq with a representative government that was elected by its people.”
Now, nearly three years later, the Obama administration can point to a brand new unity government there after the ouster of Maliki, whose alienation of the Sunni population is widely considered to have exacerbated the country's divisions.
But that new system of leadership had become a prerequisite for sustained air attacks on ISIS, the militant group that swept into the region as the Iraqi military crumbled. As the United States seeks a new international coalition to aid moderate forces in beating back the invasion, “stable” and “self-reliant” remain far from the reality on the ground.
“A red line for us”
Perhaps no foreign policy statement has been referenced as much by Obama’s critics as his assertion that Assad’s possible use of chemical weapons would be “a red line for us.” He said: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation." In August of last year, evidence indicated that the Syrian regime had indeed deployed the weapons, and Obama has since been roundly criticized for his sluggish response. (Syria's chemical weapons have since been neutralized as part of an international agreement.)
As the administration gingerly tries to address ISIS in a nation still controlled by the president it vowed to take out, the White House will be haunted by its previous choice of words.