- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
Reading the voluminous news and commentary on the Islamic State (IS), I was struck by how the rapidly unfolding events seem to be disrupting many familiar patterns.
Let me note just three.
First, usually administrations figure out what they intend to do about a threat and then calibrate their messaging and description of that threat accordingly. Yes, they first do an even more preliminary step in private: assess the threat to decide what they should do. But once they have decided what to do, the public messaging usually is proportional to the action undertaken. If they are determined to confront the threat with all means necessary, they might call it a "grave threat to peace." If they are not going to take military action against it, they might dismiss the threat as the "jayvee" team. In the latter case, critics of the administration might challenge that assessment and describe the threat in more alarming terms, with the administration pushing back to defend a rhetorical line closer to the actions the administration is willing to undertake. What is more rare is what we are witnessing right now: The most alarming rhetoric about the threat posed by IS is from senior members of the administration itself, beginning with President Obama, yet this is a president (and therefore an administration) that has also repeatedly set very sharp limits about what action it will take. The gap between the administration’s description of the threat and its response to the threat was already wide, but seems to be growing by the day.
The gap problem is compounded by a lack of clarity over objectives. Is the goal to "halt" and "contain" IS’s advances in Iraq? Is it to "degrade" IS’s strength? Is it to "defeat" IS? Or is it to "destroy" it? The administration has referenced all of those goals at one point or other and they mean very different things to the military. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear that the more demanding task of "defeat" would require attacking IS’s Syria sanctuaries. That objective would certainly be proportional to the threat the administration says IS poses, but that is a far more demanding military task than Obama has been willing to embrace until now and so far there is little indication the president himself is willing right now to commit the country to that task. But if President Obama is indeed committed to more modest steps, why does the administration keep describing the threat in apocalyptic terms, and why does it keep describing more ambitious objectives?
Second, it is striking that both one of President Obama’s most consistent supporters and one of his most consistent critics are praising President Obama’s tactical moves in confronting IS. Within inches of each other in today’s newspaper, two of the highest-quality columnists in the business, yet with very different track records of support/critique of the president, David Ignatius and Charles Krauthammer, praised President Obama for withholding military action against IS until now-former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stepped down. That was certainly President Obama’s intention, and he stuck with it for months — much longer than I thought wise. But as I read the chronology, the president did not stick to that conditionality until the Iraqis met the terms. Instead, Obama acted before Maliki stepped down. Yes, he acted even more forcefully afterwards, but the initial airstrikes came before it was clear Maliki would step down. This is not a trivial quibble since it goes to the heart of what catalyzed what: Did American action catalyze Iraqi action or vice versa? How is it that two of my favorite columnists — two of the very best — could miss this?
Third, the mainstream press is now starting to make a bigger deal about the White House’s awkward management of choreography and optics, this time the juxtaposition of his emotional remarks about the gruesome beheading and yet another round of golf. When even the New York Times is writing about it, perhaps it is time for the White House staff to rejigger the schedule so there is more distance in the president’s schedule between the national security events and the social events.
Of course, IS’s disruptions on the geopolitical stage are far more important, but the topsy-turvy in Washington is worth noting, too.