No Islamic State strategy? Obama gets lots of unsought advice

President Obama says 'We don’t have a strategy yet' for confronting the Islamic State extremist group in Iraq and Syria. That’s left him open to criticism and unsolicited advice.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
President Barack Obama talks about the economy, Iraq, and Ukraine, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014, in the White House press room.

As the Obama administration works out its strategy for confronting the Islamic State extremist group in Iraq and Syria, President Obama is getting lots of urgent advice.

Obama, of course, left himself open to unsolicited suggestions and criticisms earlier this week when he said, “We don’t have a strategy yet” – a comment that left at least some potential partners in that most dangerous part of the world worried and nervous.

“When a superpower, the superpower, is reluctant in developing policy, it’s not only about leadership, it’s about having a coherent approach to crises,” one regional official told the Washington Post.

The Post also editorialized on what it termed the “dismaying,” “alarming,” and “disturbing” aspects of Obama’s remarks, including those on Russia and Ukraine, which were distinctly milder than those of his own United Nations Ambassador, Samantha Power.

“Throughout his presidency, he has excelled at explaining what the United States cannot do and cannot afford…,” the newspaper’s editorial board warned.

“None of the basic challenges to world order can be met without U.S. leadership: not Russia’s aggression, not the Islamic State’s expansion, not Iran’s nuclear ambition nor China’s territorial bullying," the editorial continues. “Each demands a different policy response, with military action and deterrence only two tools in a basket that includes diplomatic and economic measures. It’s time Mr. Obama started emphasizing what the United States can do instead of what it cannot.”

Meanwhile, in The New York Times Saturday, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham – two of the Senate’s most outspoken hawks – wrote an op-ed column under the headline “Stop Dithering, Confront ISIS.”

Obama’s no-strategy-yet comment McCain and Graham find “startling” and “dangerous.”

“The threat ISIS poses only grows over time,” the senators write. “It cannot be contained. It must be confronted. This requires a comprehensive strategy, presidential leadership and a far greater sense of urgency.”

Confronting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, they say, should include more airstrikes as well as US special forces deployed to the area – not to engage in direct combat but to embed with local boots on the ground, providing arms, training, and intelligence.

“Such a strategy would require our commander in chief to explain to war-weary Americans why we cannot ignore this threat,” McCain and Graham acknowledge. “ISIS is now one of the largest, richest terrorist organizations in history. It occupies a growing safe haven the size of Indiana spanning two countries in the heart of the Middle East, and its ranks are filled with thousands of radicals holding Western passports, including some Americans.”

Secretary of State John Kerry also got the chance to weigh in on the editorial pages of The New York Times in a piece headlined “To Defeat Terror, We Need the World’s Help.”

“ISIS’ cadre of foreign fighters are a rising threat not just in the region, but anywhere they could manage to travel undetected – including to America,” Mr. Kerry acknowledges, echoing warnings voiced by Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.

But rather than rush to a mostly-military response to ISIS, as McCain and Graham apparently urge, Kerry says, “What’s needed to confront its nihilistic vision and genocidal agenda is a global coalition using political, humanitarian, economic, law enforcement and intelligence tools to support military force.”

“Next week, on the sidelines of the NATO summit meeting in Wales, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and I will meet with our counterparts from our European allies. The goal is to enlist the broadest possible assistance. Following the meeting, Mr. Hagel and I plan to travel to the Middle East to develop more support for the coalition among the countries that are most directly threatened,” Kerry continues. “The United States will hold the presidency of the United Nations Security Council in September, and we will use that opportunity to continue to build a broad coalition and highlight the danger posed by foreign terrorist fighters, including those who have joined ISIS. During the General Assembly session, President Obama will lead a summit meeting of the Security Council to put forward a plan to deal with this collective threat.”

To critics, that amounts to “dithering,” and Obama’s approach to ISIS – so far, anyway – is reminiscent of “leading from behind” in Libya (the unfortunate phrase uttered anonymously by an Obama adviser in a New Yorker interview) or of the “red line” on chemical weapons used by the Assad regime on its own people in Syria.

So far, however, Obama resists being pushed on the Islamic State, which may be just fine with the “war-weary Americans” Senators McCain and Graham represent.

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