TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Warns of Extended Campaign Against ISIS

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks about veterans issues at the American Legion’s 96th National Convention at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Charles Dharapak—AP

The President makes his first public comments on the U.S. military campaign in Iraq since returning from vacation

President Barack Obama pledged Tuesday that the United States would not rest until it brought to justice the killer of American journalist James Foley at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

“Rooting out a cancer like [ISIS] won’t be easy and it won’t be quick,” Obama told an audience of veterans and their families at the American Legion National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. a week after the extremist group released a video showing the graphic execution of Foley by an ISIS fighter. These were Obama’s first public comments on the conflict since returning from vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.

“Our message to anyone who harms our people is simple. America does not forget, our reach is long, we are patient, justice will be done,” Obama said, referencing Foley’s killing. “We have proved time and time again we will do what’s necessary to capture those who harm Americans to go after those who harm Americans. And we’ll continue to take direct action where needed to protect our people and to defend our homeland.”

As he weighs expanding the fight against ISIS into Syria, Obama warned that “history teaches us of the dangers of overreaching and spreading ourselves too thin and trying to go it alone without international support, or rushing into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that Obama has yet to decide whether to authorize the expansion of the weeks-long American air campaign in Iraq against the group.

Obama said that the strikes against ISIS have been limited to protecting U.S. forces and diplomats in Iraq, reaffirming that U.S. troops would not be sent back on the ground beyond an advisory capacity.

“Let me say it again: American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq,” he said. “We’ll not allow the United States to be dragged back into another ground war in Iraq because, ultimately, it is up to the Iraqis to bridge their differences and secure themselves.”

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Says ‘Entire World Is Appalled’ by ISIS Beheading of Journalist

"No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day"

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President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the “entire world is appalled” by the death of American journalist James Foley, who was kidnapped in Syria more than 18 months ago and whose death was depicted in a video Tuesday.

The militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) posted the graphic video of the execution on Tuesday, calling it retribution for American airstrikes against Sunni extremist forces in Iraq. The U.S. intelligence community has authenticated the video, National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said.

“Today the entire world is appalled by the murder of journalist Jim Foley,” Obama said Wednesday in an emotional statement from Martha’s Vineyard.

Obama said the Middle East must work to “extract this cancer” that threatens the stability of Iraq and the region. “[ISIS] speaks for no religion,” Obama said. “Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim.”

“No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day,” he added.

Obama called Foley’s family on Wednesday morning to express his condolences on the loss of their son.

“Jim was taken from us in an act of violence that shocked the conscience of the entire world,” Obama said.

The video also includes a threat to kill Steven Sotloff, a freelance journalist who has written for TIME and other outlets, and has been missing since August 2013. “We keep in our prayers those other Americans who are separated from their families,” Obama said. “We will do everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for.”

Obama said the United States would continue its efforts to confront ISIS. “The United States of America will do what we must to protect our people,” he said. “We will be vigilant, and we will be relentless.”

A Facebook page affiliated with the Foley family’s campaign for his release posted a message Tuesday evening from his mother, Diane Foley.

“We have never been prouder of our son Jim,” she wrote. “He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people. …We thank Jim for all the joy he gave us. He was an extraordinary son, brother, journalist and person. Please respect our privacy in the days ahead as we mourn and cherish Jim.”

Foley “was taken by an organized gang after departing from an internet café in Binesh, Syria,” near the Turkish border, the FBI said in an alert following the Nov. 22, 2012, kidnapping. He was in Binesh covering the Syrian civil war for the GlobalPost website and AFP.

Foley, 40, grew up in New Hampshire, where his parents live.

-Additional reporting by Mark Thompson.

TIME viral

Watch President Obama Sing Ariana Grande’s “Problem” (Sort Of)

With special cameos from Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner

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He already sang “Fancy,” so really, it was only a matter of time until Obama took on “Problem” — you know, the other song of the summer.

Behold, the latest work from the genius known as baracksdubs, who splices together snippets from Obama’s speeches to make it sound like he’s singing pop songs.

Barry O. does all the singing, of course, but watch out for special appearances from Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, both of whom really add an extra something special here.

TIME career

Watch John Oliver’s Hilarious Take on the Gender Pay Gap

The monkey part is priceless

John Oliver’s on a roll these days. After his spot-on critique of the situation in Ferguson in Sunday’s episode, he eviscerated all the excuses given for gender pay gap, and the insanity about nitpicking over whether the gap was 77 cents or 88 cents or 96 cents or whatever. His point is that any pay gap is a problem, even if it’s only four cents.

Watch all the way to the end to see a hilarious fake ad for “Ladybucks,” or money for women that’s worth less than money for men. And click here to see our take on how much each bill would be worth if it had a woman on it instead of a man.

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama’s Mission Creep in Iraq

US-POLITICS-OBAMA
US President Barack Obama speaks about the US involvement in Iraq, as well as the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, August 18, 2014. Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

For George W. Bush it was "Mission Accomplished." For Barack Obama, it may be "mission creep."

In 2003, George W. Bush was too quick to declare that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” In 2014, Barack Obama may be too slow to admit that they are just beginning.

On Monday, President Obama boasted to White House reporters that U.S. airstrikes had helped Iraqi forces reclaim the Mosul Dam, which Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters captured in early August. That was great news. A dam breach — from sabotage or poor maintenance — could have drowned thousands and even flooded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

But it was not an objective Obama had publicly mentioned before, even though ISIS had controlled the dam for two weeks. Does Obama worry about “mission creep,” asked a Reuters correspondent? No way, Obama said. “I have been firm from the start that we are not reintroducing thousands of U.S. troops on the ground to re-engage in combat,” the President said.

“Typically what happens with mission creep is we start deciding that we’re the ones who have to do it all ourselves,” Obama added.

Of course, mission creep doesn’t have to mean a huge ground force, or going it alone. (America became mired in Vietnam while fighting in tandem with South Vietnamese forces.) It can simply mean expanding goals that lead to an unexpectedly large military campaign. And we’re already seeing signs of that in Iraq.

Rewind to August 7, when Obama spoke in prime time to announce his first airstrikes in Iraq. He described two limited and discrete operations. One was “targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel” in the Kurdish city of Erbil, which ISIS was threatening to capture. The other was a humanitarian mission to save thousands of Yazidi civilians trapped by ISIS on a mountain and facing what Obama called “an act of genocide.”

Obama can check those boxes: A Kurdish counteroffensive backed by the U.S. and Baghdad has driven ISIS away from Erbil. As for the Yezidis, Obama said on Friday that “the situation on the mountain has greatly improved” thanks to U.S. efforts, and that most have escaped to safety.

But then another item was quietly added to the to-do list: the Mosul Dam. Announced with little fanfare by a Sunday White House statement, the operation entailed 35 airstrikes on ISIS positions in the area.

On Monday Obama justified that action as “directly tied to our objective of protecting Americans in Iraq,” because a dam breach would have “endangered our embassy compound in Baghdad.”

Never mind that Baghdad is more than 250 miles south of Mosul, presumably allowing time for a relocation or evacuation of U.S. personnel. It’s hard to fault a casualty-free operation that might have averted a catastrophe — and killed some ISIS fanatics along the way.

The worry is that Obama’s rationale of “protecting Americans in Iraq” can be stretched to justify almost any kind of military action — especially now that he has more than doubled the U.S. presence in Iraq to nearly 2000 personnel since June. (A key stage of mission creep in Vietnam involved sending troops to protect U.S. air bases in that country.)

But Obama has given himself even broader license than that. When he announced the dispatch of 300 military advisors to Iraq back on June 19, Obama wrote himself something like a blank check.

“[W]e will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action,” Obama said, “if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”

That language covers even more action that Obama’s protect-Americans vow. ISIS is little too close to Baghdad? Boom. Intel about suicide bombers eyeing Erbil? Boom. Imminent slaughter somewhere? Boom, boom, boom.

You can support all those actions and still find Obama’s explanations a little cloudy. After all, Obama has promised “limited” military action before — only to shatter those limits. In March 2011, Obama said he was ordering airstrikes in Libya to prevent a civilian massacre by regime forces in Benghazi. The ensuing air campaign lasted for seven months and involved more than 26,000 air sorties by a multinational coalition.

Could we be at the start of something similar? The Pentagon says the U.S. has already conducted 68 airstrikes in Iraq since August 8, and Obama is talking about more assistance for the new government forming in Baghdad.

Fortunately for Obama, the public isn’t creeped out just yet. Fifty-four percent of Americans approve of his airstrikes so far, according to an August 18 Pew Research Center-USA Today poll.

But that support may be fragile. Pew also found that 51 percent of Americans worry Obama “will go too far getting involved in the situation.”

Obama’s vow not to commit ground troops to combat will help maintain political support. Still, that number could grow — especially if he doesn’t explain clearly how his mission can be neither accomplished nor creeping.

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Hails Retaking of Mosul Dam in Iraq

US-POLITICS-OBAMA
US President Barack Obama speaks about the US involvement in Iraq, as well as the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, August 18, 2014. Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi and Kurdish forces wrested control of the dam early Monday, with air support from the U.S.

President Barack Obama praised Iraqi gains against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in recent days, as U.S.-backed forces wrested control of a key dam from the militant group.

On Monday, Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. airpower, recaptured the strategic Mosul dam from the Sunni extremist group, both securing a vital source of electricity and preventing a catastrophic release of water that could have inundated parts of northern Iraq.

Speaking from the White House after returning early Monday for a brief interlude from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation, Obama hailed the dam operation as a “major step forward” in the battle against ISIS.

“If that dam was breached, it could have proven catastrophic, with floods that would’ve threatened the lives of thousands of civilians and endanger our embassy compound in Baghdad,” Obama said. “Iraqi and Kurdish forces took the lead on the ground and performed with courage and determination. So this operation demonstrates that Iraqi and Kurdish forces are capable of working together and taking the fight to ISIL. If they continue to do so, they will have the strong support of the United States of America.”

U.S. Central Command has been carrying out strikes against ISIS targets near the dam with fighter, attack, bomber, and unmanned aerial assets since Saturday. On Sunday, Obama informed Congress that he had authorized strikes against ISIS targets near the dam.

“Let’s remember, ISIL poses a threat to all Iraqis and to the entire region,” Obama said, using an alternative acronym for the militant group. “They claim to represent Sunni grievances, but they slaughter Sunni men, women and children. They claim to oppose foreign forces, but they actively recruit foreign fighters to advance their hateful ideology. So the Iraqi people need to reject them and unite to begin to push them out of the lands that they’ve occupied, as we’re seeing at Mosul Dam.”

Obama also announced continued progress in the effort to build an international coalition to provide humanitarian assistance to northern Iraq, as well as working with the newly designated Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Albadi on building a more inclusive government in Iraq.

“This is going to take time,” Obama added. “There are going to be many challenges ahead. But meanwhile, there should be no doubt that the United States military will continue to carry out the limited missions that I’ve authorized: protecting our personnel and facilities in Iraq in both Erbil and Baghdad; and providing humanitarian support as we did on Mount Sinjar.”

TIME Barack Obama

Obama Voices Concerns on Police Militarization in Wake of Ferguson

"There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don’t want those lines blurred"

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President Barack Obama said Monday he is open to reviewing U.S. federal support for local police departments that has been used to purchase military-style equipment, in the wake of intense clashes between protestors and police in Ferguson, Mo.

Speaking from the White House where he returned early Monday for a brief interlude from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation, Obama said it was important to maintain a distinction between police and military, calling it a hallmark of the American system.

“I think it’s probably useful for us to review how the funding has gone, how local law enforcement has used grant dollars to make sure that what they’re purchasing is stuff that they actually need, because there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don’t want those lines blurred,” Obama said.

Obama also announced Attorney General Eric Holder would travel to Ferguson on Wednesday for briefings on the investigation into the death of teenager Michael Brown, whose death has sparked days of protest in the St Louis suburb.

Holder said in a separate statement he would meet with the more than 40 FBI investigators on the ground in Ferguson, as well as with prosecutors from the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and officials from the U.S. Attorney’s office.

The president appealed for calm on the ground in Ferguson, saying that a small group of bad actors are raising tensions. “It is clear that the vast majority of people are peacefully protesting,” he said. “It is also clear that a small minority are not.”

“Let’s seek to heal, rather than to wound each other,” Obama said.

Early Monday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ordered in the National Guard to assist in securing Ferguson after another night of clashes between police and protestors, but lifted a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew on the city which had been in place for two nights. Obama said he raised the issue of ensuring that the Guard’s mission is “limited and appropriate.”

“I’ll be watching over the next several days to assess whether it’s helping rather than hindering progress in Ferguson,” he said.

Obama highlighted his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative to try to reverse generations of challenges noting that “in too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement. In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear.” But in the short term, Obama said the priority is ending the violence and ensuring justice is served fairly.

“Right now, what we have to do is to make sure that the cause of justice and fair administration of the law is being brought to bear in Ferguson,” Obama said. “In order to do that, we’ve got to make sure that we are able to distinguish between peaceful protestors who may have some legitimate grievances and maybe long-standing grievances and those who are using this tragic death as an excuse to engage in criminal behavior and tossing Molotov cocktails or looting stores. And that is a small minority of folks, and it may not even be residents of Ferguson, but they are damaging the cause, they’re not advancing.”

TIME Iraq

Kurdish Fighters Partially Retake Vital Iraqi Dam

Mideast Iraq
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter patrols near the Mosul Dam at the town of Chamibarakat outside Mosul, Iraq on Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014. Khalid Mohammed—AP

Peshmerga forces appear to have partially captured the Mosul Dam from Sunni extremists, with support from U.S. air strikes and Iraqi commandos

Kurdish forces pushed deeper into territory held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) throughout Sunday and regained partial control over the strategically vital Mosul Dam as U.S. warplanes launched fresh sorties against the Sunni insurgents from the skies.

The U.S. Central Command confirmed that American aircraft launched at least 14 strikes against ISIS-manned armor, checkpoints and heavy weaponry positioned near the dam on the Tigris River in northern Iraq.

“These strikes were conducted under authority to support Iraqi security forces and Kurdish defense forces as they work together to combat [ISIS],” read a statement released by U.S. military officials. The aerial onslaught follows at least nine separate air strikes launched against ISIS positions earlier on Saturday.

It is seen as vital that the dam not be in ISIS hands, because the Sunni insurgents could either use it to choke off water supplies to the capital, Baghdad, and areas south of it, or they could destroy it and unleash catastrophic floods.

President Barack Obama authorized the use of American airpower against ISIS fighters on Aug. 8 following the group’s offensive blitz into Kurdish territory earlier this month. The strikes are the first such military incursion into Iraq since U.S. forces withdrew from the country in 2011 and were successful in alleviating the siege of Mount Sinjar.

However, analysts argue that U.S. involvement in Iraq may not be as limited as the Obama Administration hopes.

“For a President who wanted to leave [Iraq] and had the strong backing of his people, [Obama]’s now very much in Iraq, and I think the U.S. commitment and direct engagement in Iraq is going to be long term,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, tells TIME. “It’s not going to be easy to dislodge [ISIS], both militarily or even in the hearts and minds of Sunni Iraqis.”

Meanwhile, across the border in Syria, forces loyal to embattled President Bashar Assad launched their own strikes against ISIS’s stronghold in Raqqa.

The onslaught by the Syrian air force reportedly killed 31 militants along with eight civilians, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“The regime wants to show the Americans that it is also capable of striking [ISIS],” Rami Abdel Rahman, the group’s director, told AFP.

ISIS forces currently control vast swaths of territory along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers spanning northeastern Syria across the border into western and northern Iraq. The group is currently fighting on multiple fronts against Kurdish militias, the Iraqi army, forces loyal to the Assad regime and opposition rebels in Syria in a bid to consolidate its self-declared Islamic caliphate.

TIME justice

Justice Department Steps Up Ferguson Involvement

President Obama Press Briefing
President Barack Obama speaks about the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. while on vacation in Edgartown, Mass. on Aug. 14, 2014. Rick Friedman—Pool/Getty Images

In an effort to defuse tensions in Ferguson, Mo., the Justice Department has increased its involvement on the ground.

The Justice Department upped its involvement in the situation in Ferguson, Mo. Thursday, deploying advisers to local law enforcement, mediating between local faith leaders and government authorities and deploying the head of the criminal section of the department’s civil rights division to the scene.

Attorney General Eric Holder added rhetorical support to the moves Thursday afternoon from Martha’s Vineyard, where he is vacationing with President Barack Obama. In a statement, Holder suggested local law enforcement might be heightening tensions and that forces in Ferguson are insufficiently diverse.

“The law enforcement response to these demonstrations must seek to reduce tensions, not heighten them,” Holder said. Referring to discussions that took place this morning between civic leaders and law enforcement officials, mediated by members of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, Holder said, “Over time, these conversations should consider the role that increased diversity in law enforcement can play in helping to build trust within communities.”

Federal officials investigating the death of Michael Brown, the young man whose shooting Saturday at the hands of local cops triggered the unrest, have interviewed a friend, Dorian Johnson, who says he witnessed the shooting, a person familiar with the investigation says. A lawyer for Johnson told MSNBC that local law enforcement officials weren’t interested in hearing his account of the shooting.

The Justice department has dispatched policy advisers to provide “technical assistance” to local law enforcement, Holder said. The officials will not play a direct role in crowd control, but rather are intended to provide advice and oversight—essentially federal supervision—to local law enforcement as they try to decrease tensions and maintain order.

TIME States

Missouri Governor Stumbles in the Ferguson Spotlight

Outrage In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon listens to residents and community leaders as they discuss unrest in the town of Ferguson following the shooting death of Michael Brown during a forum held at Christ the King UCC Church on August 14, 2014 in Florissant, Mo. Scott Olson—Getty Images

Jay Nixon seems tone-deaf in crisis to many observers

If the citizens of Ferguson, Mo., were looking Thursday for a voice that reflected the grave situation facing their city after days of violence, they did not find it in their governor, Jay Nixon.

The Democrat stumbled and mumbled his way through a 38-minute news conference Thursday, when he announced that the Missouri Highway Patrol would replace the aggressive St. Louis County police department as the lead agency for securing Ferguson after nights of confrontations between protesters and police.

“I try to put gasoline into the engine of fire engines when I see them and not on the fires that are existing,” he said haltingly, when asked about his lack of visibility for most of this week.

Nixon had been silent on Saturday’s shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown for 72 hours, until delivering brief comments at a local community meeting Tuesday evening. But his pleas for prayer and patience went unheeded, as violence and the heavy-handed police response escalated. Rubber bullets and tear gas were aimed at mostly peaceful protesters, as law enforcement officers armed in tactical gear aimed scoped rifles from the tops of military surplus vehicles.

By Wednesday, the situation drew additional national attention after the arrest of two journalists and images that resembled a domestic war zone on television screens across the country. Meanwhile, Nixon was on the other side of the state preparing to attend the 62nd Annual Governor’s Ham Breakfast at the State Fair. Political activists, journalists, and community leaders blasted Nixon’s silence, and by 11:45 p.m. Wednesday, the governor was playing defense.

“The immediate security responsibilities will now be directed by the Missouri highway patrol,” he announced at a news conference after canceling the state fair appearance to travel to Ferguson to meet with residents and law enforcement.

This was not Nixon’s first time under fire from the state’s black community. The local NAACP criticized him in the mid-1990s as state Attorney General for efforts to undo Missouri’s desegregation school busing program. A longtime political observer told TIME that Nixon appeared gun-shy and lacked warmth when dealing with the state’s black community and St. Louis county in general.

Asked Thursday about his relationship with the state’s black community before and during this crisis, Nixon reached for an answer before saying he “[appreciates] the relationship” he has with them but expects criticism in his job. Asked whether a special prosecutor should be appointed he chuckled, adding “We’ve got two already.” State and federal prosecutors are investigating the circumstances of Brown’s death, as the credibility of local officials has been put in doubt.

That was better than an earlier appearance Thursday at a meeting with residents at a church, where Nixon tried his hand at comedy to defuse the tense situation, cracking a joke about being late because he had just gotten off the phone with President Barack Obama, and quipping that he didn’t mind that he looked heavy on television.

Obama, meanwhile, defended Nixon. “He is a good man and a fine governor, and I’m confident that working together, he’s going to be able to communicate his desire to make sure that justice is done and his desire to make sure that public safety is maintained in an appropriate way,” the President said.

Nixon had long been seen to have national ambitions, declining to rule out a presidential run in 2016 as recently as February. Democratic operatives had seen him as a short-list contender for the role of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s running mate. But his handling of the Ferguson crisis could hinder his national prospects.

Nixon spoke in faux mil-speak as he tried to project command of the situation, saying the new police efforts would be geared at toward “maintaining the peace but allowing more movement, trying to bring in different tone of the amplitude of the protective force.”

Meanwhile, St. Louis County Executive Charles Dooley and Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson delivered impassioned pleas for calm and promised a new approach that respects the rights of the people of Ferguson. “We can do better than this,” Dooley said. “Calm down, stand down, and let’s be reasonable.”

Johnson, a native of the area, promised a more peaceful demeanor from the officers now under his command. “We are going to have a different approach and have the approach that we’re in this together,” he said.

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