In my years of punditry – or, rather, sophisticated application of political science to presidential politics – it has been rare for a president to both confirm my take on his previous actions and to follow my advice on what to do next within hours of my post on the topic. (Please, hold the hate mail – I’m not suggesting he actually read the post!) But we just saw both occur in the president’s recently completed press conference, during which he acknowledged that, as yet, his administration has not settled on a policy for dealing with the Islamic State (IS), much as I suggested was the case in my earlier post.
Of course, the president’s candid confession set off the predictable barrage of criticism on the Twitterverse with comments like this:
“What on earth are we waiting for?”
“Clint Eastwood’s empty chair would have a better strategy to deal with ISIS than Barack Obama.”
“If I have this right, we’ll be taking unspecified action following an unformulated strategy leading a nonexistent coalition.”
As I suggested in my post earlier today, however, it is no surprise that the Obama administration is struggling to formulate a response to IS – this is precisely the type of foreign policy problem that is most difficult to address because it is not immediately clear whether the nature of the IS threat affects US national interests to the degree that warrants a more comprehensive military response, particularly one that may put us on the same side as a dictator we have been trying to remove for some time now. Once again, Obama’s initial response seems dictated by a desire “not to do stupid stuff” – at least, not immediately, and not before he can get Congress involved in the formulation of a response. And while the twits in the Twitterverse panned him for acknowledging that he has no “organizing principle” that would immediately dictate how to respond to IS, my point in my earlier post is that he needed to explain why this was the case, and why deciding what to do was so difficult. Today’s conference was evidently a first step in doing so.
Did he succeed? One of the difficulties any president faces in trying to explain his actions is that his is not the only voice that will be heard. Heading into a midterm election, Republicans are sure to pounce on Obama’s candid statement that his administration is still formulating a strategy as evidence that his foreign policy is reactive and lacks guiding principles. It will be interesting to see how the media reports on what are sure to be dueling narratives, and what the public reaction to these narratives is. This much is certain: Almost every media report will lead with some version of the president’s statement that his administration does not yet have a strategy for dealing with IS. Whether they will provide some context for this statement, however, remains to be seen.
UPDATE 5:50 p.m.: Since I know lots of you don’t follow Twitter, I thought I’d give you a representative sample of the reaction Obama’s admission is getting. Needless to say, heads are exploding and, as far as I can tell, they are exploding on the left as much as on the right.
“I’m baffled. What possesses a president to acknowledge he doesn’t have a strategy against a threat he’s fighting? Answer: Lameduck.”
“Just to point out the obvious, ISIS in its various iterations is at least a decade old. But glad we are still working on the strategy thing.”
Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.