“We Don’t Have A Strategy Yet”

by Dish Staff

That line from Obama’s address last night is garnering a lot of attention, especially from critics who say it encapsulates the core problem with his foreign policy in general and his approach to ISIS in particular. Ackerman reports on how US officials are interpreting the no-strategy strategy:

Some current and former administration officials, speaking on background, have expressed frustration with Obama for not yet forming a comprehensive approach to Isis, and especially for not attempting to take territory in eastern Syria away from the jihadi group. Others contend that the administration’s options are inherently limited if it seeks not to Americanize yet another Middle Eastern war. Still others have said they expect Obama’s military operations against Isis to eventually expand in scope, mission and geographic reach. Obama was initially reluctant about the Afghanistan surge, the Libya air war and the arming of Syrian rebels, only to eventually embrace all those options.

One reason for the lack of a strategy, Eli Lake And Josh Rogin report, may be that the cabinet can’t agree on one:

There were deep divisions inside the administration’s deliberations over Syria. One set of officials advocated for a campaign to decimate ISIS in both countries by striking ISIS targets across Syria. This camp pushed for hitting near Aleppo where they are advancing, and with at least some coordination with the moderate Syrian rebels. The group, which included officials from State Department, intelligence community and some parts of the military, came up with extensive targeting options for the president that included not only ISIS military assets, but their infrastructure, command and control, and their financial capabilities. Even the oil pipelines they use to export crude for cash were on the target list.

Another group of officials — led by White House and National Security staffers but also including some intelligence and military officials — favored a more cautious approach that spurned any cooperation with the Free Syrian Army and focused strikes inside Syria on targets near the Iraqi border. The objective: cut off ISIS supply lines to Iraq. That strategy would fall more squarely within the existing limited missions that Obama has already outlined for his war.

Mollie Hemingway provides the distilled attack from the right:

[T]he problem isn’t just the lack of strategy for a situation that should not have caught us by surprise but the decision to be extremely public about being tentative. There is just absolutely no reason to hand that kind of morale boost and public relations victory to all of your enemies. … Something tells me “no strategy” will stick to Obama in the same way that “read my lips” did to George H.W. Bush or “heckuva job” did to George W. Bush or “depends on what the meaning of is is” did to Bill Clinton. Sometimes there are phrases that so perfectly encapsulate what’s wrong with a presidency that they are forever linked. And while President Obama has always had clear personal political ambition and strategy for election or re-election, his foreign policy has been confused and aimless for the duration.

But Zack Beauchamp offers a more charitable interpretation of the line:

Viewed in context with the rest of his remarks, Obama’s point might be that there is no good strategy available for fully defeating ISIS in both Iraq and Syria — which is both consistent with his approach the crisis in those countries, in which he has primarily avoided risky escalation, and perhaps true. Throughout Obama’s addresses on ISIS, including this press conference, he’s emphasized the need for a political strategy to defeat ISIS, one that focuses not on Washington but on Baghdad and, in an ideal world, Damascus. Barring political reform in the Iraqi government, and the development of some sort of peace in Syria, it’ll be really hard to fully defeat ISIS. In a changing, complicated situation, Obama’s thinking has long seemed to be, it’s better not to prematurely commit to a specific problem that might not fit the changing situation. You can’t have a strategy for what can’t be done, in other words.

And Beinart argues that Obama does indeed have a strategy, specifically one of “fierce minimalism”:

Understanding Obama’s fierce minimalism helps explain the evolution of his policy toward Syria and Iraq. For years, hawks pushed him to bomb Assad and arm Syria’s rebels. They also urged him to keep more U.S. troops in Iraq to stabilize the country and maintain American leverage there. Obama refused because these efforts—which would have cost money and incurred risks—weren’t directly aimed at fighting terrorism. But now that ISIS has developed a safe haven in Iraq and Syria, amassed lots of weapons and money, killed an American journalist, recruited Westerners, and threatened terrorism against the United States, Obama’s gone from dove to hawk. He’s launched air strikes in Iraq and may expand them to Syria. As the Center for American Progress’s Brian Katulis has noted, the Obama administration is also trying to strengthen regional actors who may be able to weaken ISIS. But the administration is doing all this to prevent ISIS from killing Americans, not to put Syria back together again. Yes, there’s a humanitarian overlay to Obama’s anti-ISIS campaign: He’s authorized air strikes to save Yazidis at risk of slaughter. But the core of his military effort in Iraq and Syria, and throughout the greater Middle East, is narrow but aggressive anti-terrorism.