Analysis: Obama takes big risk in wider airstrikes

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Analysis: Obama takes big risk in wider airstrikes
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a televised address at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. Obama pledged a relentless campaign to destroy Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria, with Middle Eastern allies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan playing crucial supporting roles. Photographer: Saul Loeb/Pool via Bloomberg
US Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft prior to strike operations in Syria against ISIL. (Photo: Sgt. Russ Scalf) http://t.co/lZgUfJ5Nn5
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 10: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a prime time address from the Cross Hall of the White House on September 10, 2014 in Washington, DC. Vowing to target the Islamic State with air strikes 'wherever they exist', Obama pledged to lead a broad coalition to fight IS and work with 'partner forces' on the ground in Syria and Iraq. (Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama leaves after speaking during a televised address at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014. Obama pledged a relentless campaign to destroy Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria, with Middle Eastern allies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan playing crucial supporting roles. Photographer: Saul Loeb/Pool via Bloomberg
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: U.S. President Barack Obama is watched on a television screen at a nail salon as he delivers a speech on his strategy to combat the terrorist group ISIS on September 10, 2014 in San Francisco, California. President Obama delivered a short prime time televised speech to the Nation to outline his strategy to combat the terrorist group ISIS following the beheadings of two American journalists. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
NEWPORT, WALES - SEPTEMBER 05: Aircraft from the British Royal Air Force's (RAF) Red Arrows aerobatic team create coloured vapour trails as they fly over the Celtic Manor resort, the venue for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit on September 5, 2014 in Newport, United Kingdom. Leaders and senior ministers from around 60 countries are meeting on the final day of the two day summit with Afghanistan and Ukraine at the top of the agenda. (Photo by Chris Ratcliffe-Pool/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R) speaks with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama arrives alongside Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (R) ahead of a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama shakes hands with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) during a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister David Cameron (3rd R) speaks alongside US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (5th R) during a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister David Cameron (3rd L) speaks alongside US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) during a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama arrives alongside Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (R) ahead of a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama and France's President Francois Hollande (3rd L) hold a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R) and French President Francois Hollande hold a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (4th R) and French President Francois Hollande (5th L) hold a meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on September 5, 2014. NATO leaders are expected to announce a raft of fresh sanctions against Russia on Friday over its actions in Ukraine, although hopes remain that a ceasefire can be forged at peace talks in Minsk on the same day. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron listen as NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks during a leaders meeting on the future of NATO at Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at a leaders meeting on the future of NATO at Celtic Manor, Newport, Wales, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
U.S. President Barack Obama, center, speaks with U.S. Defense Minister Chuck Hagel as they participate in a round table meeting of the North Atlantic Council during a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
U.S. President Barack Obama, centre right, stands alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron, centre left, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, second left, Croatian President Ivo Josipovic, left, Romanian President Traian Basescu, right, and RAF Group Captain David Bentley, second right, during a flypast at the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
From left, British Prime Minister David Cameron, U.S. President Barack Obama, Romanian President Traian Basescu, Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev and British RAF Group Captain David Bentley watch a flypast on the second day of a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Military jets perform a fly-over during a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, watch a flypast on the second day of a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
U.S. President Barack Obama, right, stands alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron during a flypast at the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
NATO leaders stand on a stage during a group photo opportunity at a NATO summit on the grounds of the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. In a two-day meeting leaders will discuss, among other issues, the situation in Ukraine and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, seen on screen, speaks as President Barack Obama and NATO leaders meet regarding Afghanistan, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, at the NATO summit at Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
U.S. President Barack Obama talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stand at rear before NATO leaders meet regarding Afghanistan at the NATO summit at Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center right, speaks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, center left, as they attend a NATO-Ukraine round table meeting during a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. In a two-day summit leaders will discuss, among other issues, the situation in Ukraine and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
President Barack Obama speaks with British Prime Minister David Cameron as NATO leaders meet regarding Afghanistan at the NATO summit at Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. From left are, Secretary of State John Kerry, the president, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
U.S. President Barack Obama, speaks with a child at Mount Pleasant Primary School in Newport, Wales, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. Obama visited the school with British Prime Minister David Cameron Thursday, before attending a two-day NATO summit at Celtic Manor Resort in Newport. (AP Photo/Christopher Jones Pool)
Secretary of State John Kerry, center, talks with President Barack Obama as British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, finishes speaking at a meeting of NATO leaders regarding Afghanistan at the NATO summit at Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, speaks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as they attend a NATO-Ukraine round table meeting during a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. In a two-day summit leaders will discuss, among other issues, the situation in Ukraine and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, left, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, greet Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo during arrivals for a NATO summit on the grounds of the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. In a two-day meeting leaders will discuss, among other issues, the situation in Ukraine and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Britain's Prince Charles, left, greets U.S. President Barack Obama as he arrives to attend a 'Welcome the World to Wales' reception hosted by the Prince as part of a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. NATO leaders grappled Thursday with whether the alliance has a role in containing a mounting militant threat in the Middle East, as heads of state converged in Wales for a high-stakes summit also focused on the crisis in Ukraine and next steps in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, Pool)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, speaks with British Prime Minister David Cameron as she arrives for the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. NATO leaders grappled Thursday with whether the alliance has a role in containing a mounting militant threat in the Middle East, as heads of state converged in Wales for a high-stakes summit also focused on the crisis in Ukraine and next steps in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, left, speaks with Jordan's King Abdullah before taking their seats at the start of a NATO-Afghanistan round table meeting during a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. In a two-day summit leaders will discuss, among other issues, the situation in Ukraine and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, speak before taking their seats at the start of a NATO-Afghanistan round table meeting during a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. In a two-day summit leaders will discuss, among other issues, the situation in Ukraine and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
US President Barack Obama delivers a statement before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on August 9, 2014 in Washington, DC. France and Britain have agreed to support US humanitarian efforts to help tens of thousands of civilians besieged by militants on a mountain in Iraq, President Obama said Saturday. 'Both leaders expressed strong support for actions and agreed to join us in providing humanitarian assistance to Iraqis suffering so much,' Obama told reporters at the White House after speaking by telephone with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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BY JULIE PACE

WASHINGTON (AP) -- For a president criticized as overly cautious and reluctant to lead, Barack Obama is taking a huge risk. He is thrusting U.S. fighting forces into a growing military operation with clear dangers, unknown costs, an indefinite length and unpredictable consequences.

After years of resistance, the president who wanted to end America's wars will now oversee a sweeping airstrike campaign in both Iraq and Syria, a country mired in an intractable civil war. He's sending hundreds more U.S. troops to Iraq to help train security forces there. And he's pressing Congress for authority to pour U.S. weaponry into Syria to strengthen opposition forces fighting both the Islamic State militants and President Bashar Assad's government.

All three are precisely the scenarios Obama has assiduously sought to avoid.

For now, the public is with him, with polls showing wide support for airstrikes in Iraq and Syria even as Obama's own approval ratings slump and his foreign policy ratings sink to near record lows.

"This is America's leadership at its best," Obama declared in his address to the nation, as if to answer critics even in his own party who complain he has been too slow to act.

But as determined as Obama sounded Wednesday night, his resolve could be sorely tested by the uncertainties of war and the threat of Americans being killed or captured. "Any time we take military action," Obama said, "there are risks involved, especially to the servicemen and women who carry out these missions."

White House critics have argued for years that Obama's reluctance to take the steps he announced Wednesday reflected a president who prioritized his legacy as a commander in chief who ended wars over warnings about the threat that was building in the Middle East. As a result, critics say he contributed to creating the conditions that allowed the Islamic State militants to thrive and move freely across the border between Iraq and Syria.

"The president is a rather reluctant commander in chief," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday, echoing the comments of other Republicans responding to a vexing foreign policy crisis that is reaching fever pitch just weeks before November's midterm elections.

While Obama's advisers dispute the assertions of their critics, there is little doubt that the president now feels a need to reverse course after resisting the tug of the Middle East.

"If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States," he said in a statement made all the more striking given that it came on the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Obama put no timetable on how long U.S. airstrikes could last, though administration officials have warned that the campaign could be lengthy. Other elements of the president's plan also appeared certain to take months, if not years - most notably his call for Congress to authorize the Pentagon to train and arm Syrian rebels to help them fight the Islamic State extremists.

Even with a sustained military campaign likely to consume much of the remainder of his presidency, Obama emphasized that the mission would be far different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama has insisted he will not send American ground troops into combat in Iraq or Syria and the U.S. is not establishing large-scale military bases in either country.

Instead, the president tried to equate his new strategy to long-running U.S. counterterrorism campaigns in Yemen and Somalia, where his administration has been launching drone strikes against terror targets. But there are important differences, starting with the fact that it marks the first time since 9/11 that a U.S. president has authorized the bombing of terror targets in another nation without seeking permission or at least notifying it in advance.

And unlike in Yemen and Somalia, Obama is sending U.S. troops into Iraq to assist with the mission. Over the course of the summer, he has authorized the deployment of more than 1,500 U.S. troops to advise and assist the Iraq's besieged security forces, conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights, and bolster security at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Obama's strategy was welcomed by some congressional Republicans who have long pressed him to take more aggressive action. But they made clear that he had catching up do after unveiling a strategy that they say came too late.

"A president who has made ending the war on terrorism the central focus of his foreign policy must now make winning it a priority," House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said.

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