Obama Sees No Rush on Syria Despite Mounting Pressure

Acknowledging there is no military strategy yet against ISIS, the president promises consultations.

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses as he makes a statement at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House August 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. President Obama spoke on various topics including possible action against ISIL and immigration reform. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Aug. 28, 2014, 3:19 p.m.

The im­me­di­ate fo­cus after Pres­id­ent Obama’s press con­fer­ence Thursday was his un­art­ful de­clar­a­tion that he doesn’t yet have a strategy for the ter­ror­ist group sweep­ing through Ir­aq and con­trolling parts of Syr­ia. But the main mes­sage he con­veyed was much lar­ger than any se­mant­ic squabble: This is a pres­id­ent who is not go­ing to be hur­ried in his re­sponse to daily de­vel­op­ments. He is not go­ing to be stam­peded in­to a mil­it­ary strike either by hor­rif­ic videos of ex­e­cu­tions and be­head­ings or by grow­ing com­plaints from polit­ic­al foes who say ac­tion is over­due.

That cau­tion re­flects both the law­yer that Obama is and a con­tinu­ing re­vul­sion to the style of his pre­de­cessor, who saw him­self as “the de­cider” while of­ten not tak­ing the time to weigh all the con­sequences.

In some ways, the flap over what Obama said about strategy is a sideshow. It is clear from his over­all com­ments that he has what he sees as a strategy for de­feat­ing the ter­ror­ists, one that re­lies on close co­ordin­a­tion with oth­er re­gion­al powers and with Amer­ic­an al­lies, all of whom he said he is in­clud­ing in the dis­cus­sions build­ing up to next week’s NATO sum­mit in Wales.

What he doesn’t have yet is the mil­it­ary plan. That, he said, will come after De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel and the Joint Chiefs of Staff pro­duce “a range of op­tions.” He ad­ded, “I’ll be meet­ing with my Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil again this even­ing as we con­tin­ue to de­vel­op that strategy.” When the pres­id­ent re­ceives those op­tions, he will as­sess how they fit in­to the ex­ist­ing over­all strategy for the re­gion, ac­cord­ing to White House aides who scrambled Thursday even­ing to cla­ri­fy what the pres­id­ent said.

Without ques­tion, he could have made that clear­er in his re­marks. Now, after his per­form­ance in the White House Brief­ing Room, the main chal­lenge to the pres­id­ent is to demon­strate that he is not suf­fer­ing from para­lys­is by ana­lys­is, lest he con­firm James Carville’s lament that Demo­crats too of­ten “see six sides to the Pentagon.” Obama must show that con­crete ac­tion will emerge from this pro­cess. But the im­petus for com­ing out to talk to re­port­ers seemed to be to slow down the spec­u­la­tion that any­thing is im­min­ent.

“I don’t want to put the cart be­fore the horse,” he said. “And in some of the me­dia re­ports, the sug­ges­tion seems to have been that, you know, we’re about to go full-scale on an elab­or­ate strategy for de­feat­ing ISIL. And the sug­ges­tion, I guess, has been that we’ll start mov­ing for­ward im­min­ently and some­how Con­gress, still out of town, is go­ing to be left in the dark. That’s not what’s go­ing to hap­pen.”

In­stead, he out­lined a pro­cess that has a place for both Con­gress and the broad­er pub­lic. Be­cause he said what emerges as the re­sponse to the ter­ror­ists will have what he called “a mil­it­ary as­pect” and “may cost some money.” He prom­ised con­tin­ued con­sulta­tions with Con­gress be­cause “it’ll be im­port­ant for Con­gress to weigh in.” And he pledged that he will make sure “that the Amer­ic­an people are part of the de­bate.”

The White House cal­cu­la­tion is that, in the end, both Con­gress and the people will ap­pre­ci­ate a pro­cess that pon­ders the full con­sequences be­fore the bombs fall—in con­trast to a com­ment on Tues­day by one of the neo-con back­ers of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s mil­it­ary plunge in­to Ir­aq. Bill Kris­tol, speak­ing to con­ser­vat­ive com­ment­at­or Laura In­gra­ham, was mock­ing the sug­ges­tion that “we can’t just bomb” the IS­IS rad­ic­als. “Why don’t we just [bomb]? We know where IS­IS is,” said Kris­tol. “What’s the harm of bomb­ing them at least for a few weeks and see­ing what hap­pens?”

However you define the word, that is not Obama’s idea of a strategy.

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