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President Obama To Outline Strategy For Confronting ISIS


President Obama is preparing to address the nation in just a few hours. He'll spell out his plan to combat the militant group known as the Islamic State. The president drew heavy criticism two weeks ago when he said the U.S. did not yet have a strategy for battling those militants inside Syria. Tonight, he is expected to present what the White House calls a comprehensive strategy designed to degrade and ultimately destroy the group responsible for beheading two American journalists. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us from the White House where the president met today with his National Security Council. And Scott, there's been a lot of buildup to this speech. The White House raised the stakes by scheduling the address during prime-time. What do you expect to hear from the president?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, the president is speaking from the State Floor, which is the biggest stage here at the White House. It, for example, is where back in 2011 Obama announced that U.S. Special Forces has killed Osama bin Laden. Now he's dealing with a new terror group. And while the White House does not believe Islamic State is plotting a near-term attack on U.S. soil, it is a threat to the Middle East and could potentially be a threat here in the West eventually. So the president will communicate that the Administration is taking this threat seriously and also that he now has a strategy to deal with it.

SIEGEL: And what is that strategy?

HORSLEY: Well, Obama's going to take pains to say what it's not. It's not, he says, a repeat of the Iraq War with tens of thousands of U.S. troops. It's more like the early stages of the Afghan War with a relatively small number of U.S. troops and working with local fighters in Afghanistan. They work for the Northern Alliance in Iraq today. It's the Kurdish Peshmerga. The big question is who will they work with in Syria? The Administration could extend airstrikes into Syria, but it needs partners on the ground. And President Obama himself has long been reluctant to get dragged into the Syrian civil war, though back in May he did suggest a modest half-billion dollar investment in training and backing some moderate Syrian opposition forces. He's now putting some new urgency behind that request. And the White House is pushing Congress to OK that money quickly. He's facing skepticism, though. Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said today it's time for Obama to rethink this light footprint approach.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Americans don't want a lecture. They want a plan - a credible, comprehensive plan to deal with this menace that clearly wants to harm us here at home. And that is only becoming stronger by the day.

SIEGEL: So Scott, it sounds like the president has some work to do on Capitol Hill. How much help is the White House asking for from Congress?

HORSLEY: Well, the main thing the Administration wants from lawmakers is that authorization to train and equip the moderate opposition in Syria. That's an important piece of business. And the president himself has been calling lawmakers to lobby for that OK. That said, the White House is trying very hard to avoid a rerun of what happened a year ago when it put all of its eggs in the congressional basket and watched them go splat. It was one year ago tonight that the president delivered a prime-time address calling for authorization to strike Syria. And it quickly became clear Congress had no stomach for that, and Obama had to back down. That was a real body-blow to the president's prestige. And so while they'd like to have support from Congress, the White House is trying hard not to let squabbling on the Hill be an anchor around the president's waist.

SIEGEL: But in rejecting airstrikes against Syria last year, Congress was arguably reflecting the wishes of the American public - a war-weary public. What is the public saying about this new prospect of a fight?

HORSLEY: Well, there has been a big shift. The beheading of those two American journalists, naturally, got people's attention. And just over the last few weeks we've seen a big increase in public support for taking the fight to the Islamic State. That's limited, though. Americans are still weary. After years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, they don't want to get too deeply mired in another long-running Middle Eastern warn.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House. We'll carry live special coverage of the president's speech tonight at 9 o'clock Eastern time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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