- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2014

President Obama for years insisted that the new breed of “local” extremists in the Middle East weren’t really part of al Qaeda, but now claims the Islamic State group is indeed the same as Osama bin Laden’s original network — a rhetorical shift used by the White House to justify its widening war on terrorism without explicit authorization from Congress.

Senior administration officials have used the new characterization of the Islamic State during repeated congressional hearings this week to defend Mr. Obama’s authorization of fresh U.S. military action in Iraq and, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel revealed Thursday, airstrikes inside Syria.

“Our actions will not be restrained by a border that exists in name only,” Mr. Hagel told lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee, asserting that Mr. Obama has full “constitutional and statutory authority” to greenlight targeted attacks on Islamic State positions in Syria.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar who focuses on the Middle East and terrorism studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said the administration’s rhetorical shift is not surprising.

“The issue — and this is a common problem in administrations — is that we will try to calibrate our rhetoric to what’s politically expedient rather than to reality,” Mr. Rubin said.

The administration’s changing storyline and the broad claims of executive power have not sat well with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Several have openly wrung their hands over how, just a year and a half ago, Mr. Obama proclaimed “core al Qaeda” to be “on the path to defeat” and suggested that the U.S. step down from its perennial war footing against the terrorist network.

“We’ve heard that al Qaeda was ‘on the run’ [and] al Qaeda’s affiliate groups were not up to the task,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “Obviously this has been wrong.”

Others suggested that Washington, as a whole, has struggled to keep up with the evolving landscape of al Qaeda-inspired groups.

“We need to act against them, and we are,” said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the intelligence committee’s ranking Democrat.

“But like the fight against al Qaeda — which isn’t over yet — this will not be a short battle; it will be a long campaign,” said Mr. Ruppersberger, who cautioned against moving too quickly toward unbridled U.S. military engagement.

In a major May 2013 speech, the president said offshoot groups in North Africa and the greater Middle East weren’t to be considered part of al Qaeda, but rather local militias interested in winning territory in parochial conflicts. Indeed, he said, extremists were gaining “a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria.”

“But here, too,” Mr. Obama said, “there are differences from 9/11.”

He told an audience at the National Defense University that his administration was being “vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat” and stressed that “most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based, and that means we’ll face more localized threats.”

The recent blitz by the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS, seems to have rendered such claims inaccurate — if only in the manner in which the group has attracted foreign fighters from as far away as Europe, the U.S. and Asia to join its cause in Syria and Iraq.

At a minimum, the arguments laid out by senior Obama administration officials this week suggest that the White House is recharacterizing the statements Mr. Obama made during his 2013 speech.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Wednesday told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Islamic State is essentially the “same people that we were prepared to and were attacking for all those years” after 9/11.

Because of that, Mr. Kerry said, the White House can order U.S. military action under a 13-year-old congressional authorization given to the Bush administration to make war against the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“Good lawyers within the White House, within the State Department,” Mr. Kerry said, have determined that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force clearly applies to the campaign against the Islamic State because the operation was born out of the same al Qaeda organization that carried out the 9/11 attacks.

Debate over the issue has simmered during a series of congressional hearings this week as lawmakers pressured the administration to clarify its evolving strategy for fighting the Islamic State.

“Talking about the threat is one thing,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow focused on national security at the Center for American Progress. “What I think has been a bigger disaster is that we’ve committed perhaps trillions of dollars over the last decade-plus and we’re still surprised when new groups like ISIL emerge and then move forward. I think it’s genuinely a surprise for the government agencies, let alone the White House.”

Mr. Katulis said he is wary of getting mired in the politics behind language used by the Obama administration. “More important,” he said, “is whether we have the capacity to conduct actual strategic threat assessments of the broader range of all these groups.”

The House voted Wednesday to approve Mr. Obama’s plan to train and arm some Syrian rebels in the hope that they will fight Islamic State militants advancing in Syria and Iraq. But lawmakers stopped short of including language authorizing the White House to use direct U.S. military force, including airstrikes and possibly ground troops, inside either nation.

Some lawmakers were skeptical of the president’s insistence that the U.S. will not be drawn into another war.

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