Obama to foreign policy experts: I'm ready to hit ISIS in Syria

You would think that bombing a new country would require a new authorization to use military force from the national legislature. And in a democratic republic, it would.

Not here.

Obama discussed his plans at a dinner with a bipartisan group of foreign policy experts this week at the White House and made clear his belief that he has the authority to attack the militant Islamist group on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border to protect U.S national security, multiple people who participated in the discussion said. The move to attack in Syria would represent a remarkable escalation in strategy for Obama, who has sought during his presidency to reduce the U.S. military engagement in the Middle East…

One former Obama administration official, who was not at the dinner Monday and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations with the administration, said the president was committed to a strategy to strike the Islamic State “wherever they are.” The ex-official added: “The bar for strikes in eastern Syria is higher than in western Iraq, and if you’re a military planner you have to meet that threshold. But the fact that we’re reportedly doing surveillance flights over Syria already — you’re not doing those things unless the military has already been asked to prepare a targets package.”

Expect that to be the takeaway from tonight’s speech. We know most of what he’s going to say, but the extent of the campaign in Syria, if any, has been unclear until now. And it may not be just an air campaign. This bit from Jon Karl’s preview of O’s address got my attention:

IN SYRIA this means ramping up support for the moderate Syrian rebels – including setting up training camps in the region where U.S. special forces can train the supposedly moderate Syrian Free Army, a group that has been fighting (rather unsuccessfully) both Assad and ISIS. The president told Congressional leaders he needs Congress to vote quickly to give him the authority to do that. He will eventually also need additional funds for this.

I thought Obama’s intelligence team had ended up giving thumbs down to the Free Syrian Army. (“The folks sitting around the table today do not think we can work with them.”) Has something changed in the two weeks since that story appeared? The idea of picking out “moderates” from the horde of Syria’s rebels and trying to build them up at the expense of jihadi rivals was always goofy and likely to fail, argues Marc Lynch, because alliances there are too fluid — but if you were going to try this, the time to do it was three years ago, before ISIS had consolidated power locally.

If Obama’s setting up “training camps” for moderates now, I hope/assume it’s just a pretext to either (a) train spies who can gather intel inside Syria for U.S. air targeting of ISIS or (b) give U.S. special forces a reason to be on the ground and close to the fighting so that they can be quickly deployed for missions inside Syria as needed. It probably helps Obama politically too among Democrats after Hillary tweaked him for not having done more to build up Syrian moderates. O pushed back on that initially but maybe he’s taken enough hits for his foreign policy lately that he’s willing to adopt Clinton’s ostentatiously hawkish policy, however halfheartedly, to turn down the heat.

Oh well. Doesn’t really matter: 65 percent of Americans support U.S. airstrikes in Syria and 58 percent support arming the Kurds, which I suspect will make the thought of arming Syrian “moderates” roughly tolerable to the public too. (Televised beheadings tend to invite a backlash.) That’s one of the weird things about tonight’s speech — ostensibly he’s making these remarks to build support even though practically everyone already supports hitting ISIS. When asked about the new mission, members of Congress are almost uniformly supportive; even self-described socialist Bernie Sanders backs airstrikes. But since there’ll be no vote in the House or Senate and the guy in charge won’t have to face another election, there’s no actual accountability to any of this. Tonight’s speech is a simulacrum of accountability.

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