Like a lot of people, I was perplexed by President Obama's decision to talk to the press yesterday. He really had nothing to say, which he made perfectly clear, especially when it came to talking about ISIL and the situation in Iraq and Syria:
"The options that I'm asking for from the Joint Chiefs focuses primarily on making sure that ISIL is not overrunning Iraq," Obama said using another acronym for the militant Islamic group ISIS.
"We don't have a strategy yet. We're seeing some news reports suggesting we are further ahead than we are," he said.
WTF, really? Just a week ago, he was talking about "rooting out a cancer like ISIL," right?
Folks on the right are saying this is because Obama is a foreign-policy wimp who is at best a reluctant warrior. Such a reaction may work politically, at least in the short term. According to a new USA Today/Pew poll, Americans are increasingly saying the U.S. is doing "too little" to fix the world. A plurality still (wisely, IMO) believes that we're "doing too much," but the numbers are shifting compared to a year ago. Something on the order of 54 percent say Obama is "not tough enough" when it comes to foreign policy and national security.
Yet the idea that Obama is slow to military action or willing to go over the top in the name of national security is clearly at odds with his record as president. He tripled troop strength in Afghanistan and only reluctantly pulled out of Iraq in 2011 (according to the schedule originally put in place by George W. Bush). Then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was promising up until the end that a large U.S. military presence was going to stick around for the foreseeable future. However constitutionally dubious U.S. action in Libya was, it happened, and it seemed clear Obama was gung-ho to start bombing Syria to dislodge the Assad regime until public and political opinion fomented by Sen. Rand Paul and others made that too costly. When it comes to surveillance (legal and otherwise) and abrogating civil rights (including claiming he has the right to unilaterally execute American citizens), Obama has taken a back seat to no president.
The problem, then, isn't that the president isn't hawkish enough. It's that he really doesn't have a plan for figuring out if, how, and when to use force effectively in the pursuit of U.S. goals. In this, he is yet again extending the legacy of George W. Bush, who mired the country in two long wars that quickly became aimless.
In the wake of what can only be considered a disastrous appearance yesterday, the Obama administration is already scurrying to do damage control. From the Hill:
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki appeared shortly after Earnest on the network, also looking to clean up the president's remarks.
"I think it's important to note here that the president has already begun implementing his strategy to defeat [ISIL]," Psaki said, noting that the administration was working toward "building international coalitions" to combat the terror group.
This sort of response is just sad. When Jen Psaki—who famously provoked laughter from the press earlier this year when she complained that Obama doesn't get enough credit for all his foreign policy achievements—is contradicting her boss, you know the wheels have totally gone off the bus. Or maybe that there isn't even a bus.
Over at The Daily Beast, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin have an exhaustive piece up about the failure of the Obama administration to come up with a policy and it's about what you would expect from a bunch of people that include John Kerry. Read the whole thing and shudder at what comes next.
A politically weak president who heads a party that since George McGovern has worried about looking weak on defense (and who has been called out as weak by his own former secretary of state). A crap economy at home, disastrous midterms looming. Russia invading Ukraine. The odds of a poorly planned intervention that escalates U.S. involvement in the Middle East are getting better every minute.
From Lake and Rogin's article:
"The whole international community should act against ISIS in Iraq and Syria at the same time. Their advance inside Syria needs to be halted and the only way to do that is to conduct airstrikes against their forces," Hadi AlBahra, the President of the Syrian National Coalition, told The Daily Beast in an interview. "The political process is in a coma…"
Obama, too, is in a coma. Waking up would entail actually building an international coalition to deal with the situation in Iraq and Syria (the idea of the United States unilaterally going into Syria during its civil war would surely rank as one of our country's great strategic blunders; it would either simply strenghten Assad's regime, thus leading to expanded set of problems down the road, or create absolute chaos throughout the region, causing more problems immediately and in the future). And Obama also needs to lead on putting together a coherent, effective, and defensible policy for the war on terror—one that he can sell to Republicans, allies, and especially the American people who he has treated as an afterthought in all this. Despite the claims of hawks and ISIL itself, the terrorist group is hardly an existential threat to the West any more than al Qaeda was. It can and should be contained and squeezed down everywhere as much as possible (this is not something that mandates either an interventionist foreign policy or expansive security state at home).
It's way late in a presidency not to have a strategy yet but that doesn't mean Obama is off the hook for, you know, actually doing his job.