Is US ‘At War’ With ISIS? State’s Psaki: ‘I’m Not Going to Put New Labels On It’

Patrick Goodenough | September 2, 2014 | 9:20pm EDT
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U.S. sailors guide an F/A-18C Hornet on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Arabian Gulf on Aug. 8, 2014, the day U.S. airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq began. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lorelei Vander Griend)

( – State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki acknowledged Tuesday that President Obama was acting under “war powers” legislation in authorizing airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL), but declined to say that the U.S. was “at war” with the group.

Asked during a daily press briefing whether the administration considered the reported beheading of Steven Sotloff – the second American journalist killed in that manner by ISIS in two weeks – to be an act of war, Psaki said, “I’m not going to put new labels on it.”

She added that the killing of the journalists was “a horrific terrorist act” that “has been one of the motivating factors in the effort to undergo the creation of international coalition to address this threat.”

“So now we have on the books two American journalists beheaded by this group,” said Fox News’ James Rosen. “Is there any doubt on your part or the part of this administration that, in fact, the United States is at war with ISIS?”

“I’m not going to, again, put new labels on it,” Psaki replied. “I think it’s clear that we are concerned about the threat of ISIL to Western interests, to interests in the region. That’s why the Secretary [of State John Kerry], the president, Secretary [of Defense Chuck] Hagel are all going to be working every contact they have to continue to build a coalition to address this threat.”

Rosen tried again: “A lot of Americans sit at home and they see Americans – who are not even combatants but who are journalists – being beheaded by this group overseas. And from a sort of common sense point of view, the average American will say to himself, ‘This group is at war with us.’

“Why does our president or our secretary of state not recognize that and say, ‘Indeed, we are at war with this group and we will destroy them?’”

Psaki said that the administration’s “actions speak for our commitment to this,” noting that Obama has authorized more than 100 airstrikes in Iraq

“There are a range of reasons [for the strikes], but part of it is to take on the threat of ISIL,” she continued.

“So I think any American sitting at home should sit and look at the actions that we’re taking. I don’t think it’s a useful exercise to go back and forth about new terms. What’s important is what we’re doing about it. And the president’s authorization, what the secretary will be doing over the next couple of weeks, is action in that regard.”

Rosen subsequently asked Psaki under what statute Obama had authorized those airstrikes, and she confirmed it was under the War Powers Resolution (the 1973 measure that requires the president, in the absence of a declaration of war, to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action.)

“So we have a commander-in-chief who has launched more than 100 airstrikes at a given enemy, who is reporting to the Congress under the aegis of the War Powers Act, who is watching our people beheaded by this enemy, but who, for some reason, feels queasy about saying that we are, in fact, at war with this enemy?” he asked.

“I think I’m not going to put new words into the mouth of the president of the United States,” Psaki said. “My point is that his actions to authorize these strikes, his effort to send Secretary Kerry, Secretary Hagel, any resource we have in the United States to lead the building of a coalition, speak to his commitment to taking on this threat. And of course we want to see ISIL destroyed, but that is not an overnight effort.”

Despite Psaki’s assertion that reasons for the airstrikes included to “take on the threat of ISIL,” the president’s narrow authorization when first announced did not cover that, except insofar as the threat of ISIS relates directly to the humanitarian crisis and protecting U.S. personnel and facilities.

The U.S. Central Command said Tuesday the U.S. has now carried out a total of 124 airstrikes since August 8. The authority provided by the president, it reiterated, was “to protect U.S. personnel and facilities, support humanitarian efforts, and support Iraqi forces that are acting in furtherance of these objectives.”

A Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster strategic airlift aircraft is seen at the weekend loaded with ammunition destined for Erbil, northern Iraq, where it aims to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces confront ISIS. (Photo: Australian Department of Defense)

Building a coalition

Asked how the coalition-building efforts were going, Psaki pointed to countries like Canada providing humanitarian supplies for Iraqis victimized by ISIS; Britain, France and Australia partnering with the U.S. in delivering assistance; and countries like France providing military aid to Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in northern Iraq.

“There are a number of countries who are also concerned, share our concern about the threat of ISIL. We want to engage with them and build a coordinated effort to take on this threat,” she said. “There are different capabilities different countries will have. It may be humanitarian, it may be military, it may be financial, but that’s what we’re undergoing to discuss.”

Psaki said Kerry and Hagel will co-host a meeting on the issue at the NATO summit in Wales this week.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a perennial critic of Obama’s foreign policy, expressed doubts about the administration’s talk of building a coalition to confront ISIS.

Speaking to Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren, he cited Obama’s rejection of advice from his national security team to arm moderate Syrian rebels early on, and his decision, despite having declared a “red line,” not to go ahead with threatened airstrikes against Assad after the chemical attack a year ago.

“There’s no credibility,” McCain said. “If the president and John Kerry keep talking about coalitions, how are you going to form a coalition with people who do not trust you, who know you are totally unreliable? First there has to be a restoration of American credibility.”

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