President Barack Obama played down the prospect of imminent U.S. military action in Syria on Thursday, saying "we don't have a strategy yet" for degrading the violent militant group seeking to establish a caliphate in the Middle East.
The president spoke shortly before convening a meeting of his national security advisers on a range of Pentagon options for confronting the Islamic State group. However, he said his strategy would require more than military action and called for a regional strategy that includes political support from other countries in the region.
In blunt terms, the president said it was time for Middle Eastern nations to "stop being ambivalent" about the aims of extremist groups like the Islamic State.
"They have no ideology beyond violence and chaos and the slaughter of innocent people," Obama said, alluding to the group's announcement last week that it had killed American journalist James Foley. The militants also have threatened to kill other U.S. hostages.
The U.S. already is striking Islamic State targets in Iraq, and officials have said the president is considering similar action in neighboring Syria in the wake of Foley's death. The militants have moved with ease between the two countries, effectively blurring the border.
However, the president said Thursday that his top priority remains rolling back the militants' gains in Iraq, where he has said they pose a threat to U.S. personnel in Erbil and Baghdad. Obama said that if he were to expand that military mission, he would consult with members of Congress, who are due to return to Washington in early September.
"The suggestion has been that we'll start moving forward imminently and somehow Congress, still out of town, will be left in the dark," Obama said. "That's not what's going to happen."
However, the president did not commit to seeking a vote from Congress if he were to decide to proceed with military action. One year ago, Obama was on the verge of taking strikes against the Syrian government it retaliation for its use of chemical weapons, but abruptly shifted course and decided to seek congressional approval.
The surprise move threw his policy into chaos. Congress balked at Obama's request for a vote, contributing to his decision to ultimately scrap the strikes. The White House said it also abandoned plans to take military action after Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles.
This time, with the midterm elections just over two months away, lawmakers may be even less inclined to take a politically risky vote on military action.
"I see no reason to come to Congress because, if he does, it'll just become a circus," Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said this week.
There are some notable exceptions in both parties. Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, a frequent critic of the administration's foreign policy, has said Congress should "certainly" authorize any military action in Syria. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat and White House ally, has also called for a vote on the president's broader strategy for going after the Islamic State.
"I am calling for the mission and objectives for this current significant military action against ISIL to be made clear to Congress, the American people, and our men and women in uniform," said Kaine, using one of the acronyms for the militant group. "Congress should vote up or down on it."
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