Obama: No Strategy Yet for Combating ISIL

Obama: No Strategy Yet for Combating ISIL

By Alexis Simendinger - August 29, 2014

President Obama said the United States doesn’t have a strategy “yet” to combat Islamic State terrorists, but he will weigh options along with NATO allies at a summit in Wales next week, and consult with Congress “when we’ve got clear plans.”

Before a meeting with his national security advisers Thursday evening, the president delivered a statement in the White House briefing room to describe ongoing U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and to condemn new Russian military offensives in Ukraine.

But it was while answering reporters’ questions that Obama kicked up a dust storm of chatter about the complex vision he has presented for battling a terror group the administration believes poses a serious threat to U.S. personnel and the homeland.

As the U.S. military completed its 106th airstrike against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (known as ISIL or ISIS), Obama said the administration had not yet landed on its strategy to “degrade ISIL over the long term.”

Responding to a question about potential military strikes against ISIL inside Syria and whether he would seek congressional approval for such actions, Obama said consultations with lawmakers would follow decision-making, which has not concluded.

“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. We don’t have a strategy yet,” he said. “I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggest that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at than we currently are. … We need to make sure that we’ve got clear plans, that we’re developing them. At that point, I will consult with Congress to make sure that their voices are heard. But there’s no point in me asking for action on the part of Congress before I know exactly what it is that is going to be required for us to get the job done.”

The president’s “we don’t have a strategy yet” comment sparked an energetic scramble by his worried spokesmen to clarify the comment to all major media, recognizing that Republican critics, including Sen. John McCain, have accused Obama of having “no strategy.” Press Secretary Josh Earnest insisted the president was “explicit.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement within minutes of the president’s appearance, urging him to “develop a regional strategy, working with our allies, to defeat ISIL and to use the full extent of his authorities to attack this enemy force.”

McConnell said Obama should present a plan to Congress and the American people, noting that he believed the administration could garner “significant congressional support” if the president “is prepared to engage Congress with a strategic plan to protect the U.S. and our allies from ISIL.” The Kentucky senator added, “It is time for President Obama to exercise some leadership in launching a response.”

The president said he has dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to travel to the region in an effort to “cobble together the kind of coalition that we need for a long-term strategy as soon as we are able to fit together the military, political and economic components of that strategy. There will be a military aspect to that,” he continued. “And it’s going to be important for Congress to know what that is, in part because it may cost some money.”

Kerry’s outreach in the region will take place after the annual NATO summit Sept. 4-5.  

The president referenced additional appropriations that may be necessary to support a longer-term military and intelligence operation, even if the U.S. secures cost-sharing commitments from NATO countries and regional partners in the battle against ISIL.

One of the prevailing questions since airstrikes began has been nailing down Obama’s goal. In the near term, he said the administration will protect American diplomats and personnel in Iraq, provide assistance to the Iraqi government, and deliver humanitarian and military assistance to Iraqis, including the Kurds.

In the long term, the president suggested the U.S. goal remains murkier because defeating Islamic extremism is an iffy and decidedly long-term proposition that calls for political reforms.

“The idea that the United States or any outside power would perpetually defeat ISIS, I think, is unrealistic,” he said. “The options that I’m asking for from the joint chiefs [of staff] focus primarily on making sure that ISIL is not overrunning Iraq.”

Nonetheless, Obama confirmed that striking ISIL strongholds in Syria is under consideration, and that President Bashar al-Assad is not in control of the territory that allows ISIL fighters to stream across the border into Iraq, opening the possibility of U.S. military action.

“Assad doesn’t seem to have the capability or reach to get into those areas,” he said, adding that the United States would continue to support “moderate opposition” inside war-torn Syria, in part to encourage alternative governance possibilities beyond either ISIL or a brutal dictator.

Separately, Obama said Russia’s military march into Ukraine, which he termed “the violence in Eastern Ukraine” rather than an invasion, is an extension of months of hostilities orchestrated in Moscow, for which Russia will bear “additional costs.” The administration has discussed the prospect of new sanctions in coordination with Western governments, and the president said he spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday. He did not describe new punishments that may be in the offing.

“The sanctions that we’ve already applied have been effective,” the president said, while conceding that those economic measures have not persuaded President Vladimir Putin to retreat. “I think there are ways for us to deepen or expand the scope of some of that work,” he added, arguing that Russia is becoming more isolated from the rest of the world. “They’re doing this to themselves,” he said.

Obama, fielding a question about immigration reform, suggested the timeline he envisioned earlier this summer for related executive action is now more up-in-the-air than advocates for reform may have hoped.

He did not retreat from his earlier vow to take action on his own if Congress will not send him legislation, but his tone was decidedly more cautious, and he sidestepped any description of deadlines or specific options, which he said “are being worked up.”

Glancing at prepared notes in a binder in front of him, Obama explained that the torrent of unaccompanied minors from Central America to the U.S. border has abated each month during the summer. But redeploying federal resources to the border to handle the surge, especially after Congress declined to approve his request for nearly $4 billion, “has kept us busy,” he said.

Although the White House had earlier signaled that Obama’s administrative announcements on immigration might be paired with Labor Day, the timing is less certain.

“Some of these things do affect timelines,” the president said. “And we're just going to be working through as systematically as possible in order to get this done. But have no doubt: In the absence of congressional action, I'm going to do what I can to make sure the system works better.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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