Nation roundup for Aug. 23


United States could be headed for war in Syria

WASHINGTON (AP) — America’s top-ranked military officer says the surging Islamic State group has an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision” in the Middle East and cannot be defeated unless the United States and a coalition of partners confront it head-on in Syria.

“They can be contained, not in perpetuity,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news conference.

The United States so far has restricted a series of airstrikes to Iraq, but concerns have increased as the Islamic militant group has extended its reach from safe havens in civil-war-ravaged Syria across the Iraqi border.

Appearing with Dempsey at the Pentagon Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel credited U.S. bombing as well as U.S. arms supplies to Iraqi and Kurdish forces as key factors in the recapture this week of the Mosul Dam in Iraq that had been in the hands of the Islamic State militants.

Hagel said the U.S. airstrikes have helped Iraqi and Kurdish fighters regain their footing in Iraq. But the secretary also said in a question-and-answer session with reporters that the well-resourced Islamic State militants can be expected to regroup and stage a new offensive.

Dempsey said that taking on the Islamic State more forcefully would not necessarily require airstrikes by the U.S. in Syria, although Hagel appeared to leave open that possibility by saying, “We’re looking at all options.”

Hagel said operations the U.S. military has undertaken so far “have stalled ISIL’s momentum and enabled Iraqi and Kurdish forces to regain their footing and take the initiative.”

ISIL and ISIS are alternate acronyms for the Islamic State group that is an outgrowth of the al-Qaida terrorist network.

The U.S. has restricted its military action to Iraq, but concerns have increased as the Islamic militant group extends its reach from safe havens in Syria across the Iraqi border.

Dempsey, who served multiple tours in Iraq during the 2003-2011 war, was pointed in his comments about what it would take to ultimately defeat the Islamic State group.

Some groups can opt out of birth control

WASHINGTON (AP) — Seeking to quell a politically charged controversy, the Obama administration announced new measures Friday to allow religious nonprofits and some companies to opt out of paying for birth control for female employees while still ensuring those employees have access to contraception.

Even so, the accommodations may not fully satisfy religious groups who oppose any system that makes them complicit in providing coverage they believe is immoral.

Effective immediately, the U.S. will start allowing faith-affiliated charities, colleges and hospitals to notify the government — rather than their insurers — that they object to birth control on religious grounds. A previous accommodation offered by the Obama administration allowed those nonprofits to avoid paying for birth control by submitting a document called Form 700 to their insurers, but Roman Catholic bishops and other religious plaintiffs argued just submitting that form was like signing a permission slip to engage in evil.

In a related move, the administration announced plans to allow for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby Inc. to start using Form 700. The Supreme Court ruled in June that the government can’t force companies like Hobby Lobby to pay for birth control, sending the administration scrambling for a way to ensure their employees can still get birth control one way or another at no added cost.

The dual decisions mark the Obama administration’s latest effort to address a long-running conflict that has pitted the White House against churches and other religious groups. The dispute has sparked dozens of legal challenges, fueling an election-year debate about whether religious liberty should trump a woman’s access to health care options.

Obama vacations less, but too much for some

CHILMARK, Mass. (AP) — President Barack Obama has spent less time away from the White House than his predecessors. But his two-week break on the resort island of Martha’s Vineyard and hours on the golf course have his detractors teeing up as they highlight the slew of foreign policy crises facing the United States.

The criticism has the president’s aides confronting a question it faces whenever Obama gets away: Is there ever a good time for the commander in chief to take a few days off? Since becoming president, Obama has taken 20 vacations lasting two to 15 days. As of Friday, he has spent all or part of 138 days on “vacation.”

By the same point in his second term, President George W. Bush spent 381 partial or complete days at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and another 26 at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, according to CBS News reporter Mark Knoller’s widely respected record keeping on the presidency. Other recent American leaders also spent more time away.

But images of Obama playing leisurely rounds of golf as the U.S. strikes Islamist militants in northern Iraq have been jarring to some, particularly his fiercest national security critics.

After delivering an angry statement Wednesday condemning the beheading of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State group, Obama immediately hit the links.

“Every day, we find new evidence that he’d rather be on the golf course than he would be dealing with the crisis that’s developing rapidly in the Middle East,” former Vice President Dick Cheney told Fox News this week.

Obama, well known for his love of golf, has played eight rounds since arriving on the Massachusetts island 12 days ago. He went golfing last week after addressing the nation from the yard of his vacation home on Iraq and the civil unrest in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, linked to the fatal shooting of a black 18-year-old by a white police officer.

He plays most weekends when he is at the White House, joining many of his predecessors who also enjoyed the game.

Some of the negative reaction reflects that the White House occasionally allows media to photograph the president when he is playing golf. By contrast, there are no photos of him playing basketball or during his regular gym workout.

With the U.S. engaged militarily in Iraq, and struggling to secure a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza and ease tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the White House released photos of Obama early in the vacation being briefed by top aides, including national security adviser Susan Rice and Attorney General Eric Holder. Other images captured him on the telephone with world leaders.

Obama’s aides counter criticism of his vacations by saying he travels with what essentially is a mini-White House. The entourage comes complete with top advisers and senior staff, and communications equipment needed to do the job from wherever he may be.

“Just because the president is in a different location doesn’t mean he’s not doing his job,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, who accompanied Obama on vacation. “He’s been deeply engaged on issues both domestically and abroad.”

Cheney contrasted Obama’s continued vacation with British Prime Minister David Cameron suddenly returning to London during his time off.

Cameron returned from vacation in Portugal to chair an emergency meeting on the humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq. He departed this week on the second part of his scheduled vacation to Cornwall, in southwest England, but headed back just a day later for crisis meetings after Foley’s death. Cameron resumed his vacation the following day.

Obama also interrupted his vacation, returning to the White House for meetings Monday and Tuesday. The break was planned long before U.S. airstrikes in Iraq started or Ferguson, Missouri, became a hotbed of civil disobedience in the days after the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown.

Obama resumed his vacation on Tuesday. He leaves the island Sunday.

Other presidents have vacationed during foreign policy flare-ups.

President George H.W. Bush took a three-week break in Maine in 1990 after ordering the U.S. military to turn back Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces in Kuwait. He swatted away questions about Persian Gulf action while on the golf course, later saying “I just don’t like taking questions on serious matters on my vacation … I hope you’ll understand when I’m recreating, I will recreate. And when we’re working, which I’m trying up here, I’ll work hard.”

In 2002, President George W. Bush also was on the golf course when he reacted to terrorist bombings in Israel, saying: “I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive.”

Bush later gave up playing golf after the U.S. military death toll in Iraq began to rise.

Bush has defended Obama’s fondness for golf.

 

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