A funny thing happened on the way to President Barack Obama’s Thursday news conference: The Washington press corps came in convinced that the commander in chief was about to launch airstrikes on Islamic State militants in Syria. But Obama furiously pumped the brakes: "We don’t have a strategy yet," he said. "I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at than we currently are."
It’s not often that the president engages in media criticism, but he has a point. The runup was filled with breathless speculation about how the United States will counter the Sunni militant group, treating the question not as one of if Obama would give the "go" order to strike the Islamic State in Syria but when. The president, it seems, hasn’t quite caught up with the foreign-policy commentariat.
Didn’t you hear, Obama? The Washington establishment decided it was time for war days ago.
The week began with news that the Pentagon was preparing to send surveillance aircraft over Syrian airspace, laying the groundwork for a possible air campaign against militants there. U.S. forces are already striking Islamic State targets in Iraq. Military officials say they need better intelligence on the situation inside Syria before expanding the air campaign. The surveillance flight news was treated in some quarters as verification of impending military action
Looks like we are bombing Syria. Wonder if we got an OK from Assad for the flights, or promise not to fire on US jets http://t.co/D6XVoZvI8Y
— Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) August 25, 2014
The same day, the Washington Post declared that America should deploy ground troops in Iraq. "The extremists treat Iraq and Syria as one area of operations, and the United States must do the same," the paper argued.
Two days later, the Daily Beast reported that Obama wanted a war plan on his desk by the end of the week. The purpose of that effort, one official told the outlet, was "to convince one man, Barack Obama," to hit the Islamic State in Syria. The same day, Bloomberg reported that "Obama will probably order at least limited strikes against Islamic State fighters."
Instead of ordering immediate strikes on Islamic State militants, Obama has adopted a more cautious approach, dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to secure the support of regional governments and allies against the militant group. Obama has instructed his top military brass to present him with options for military operations.
Obama’s refusal to pursue a more aggressive course of action has led to a palpable sense of frustration with the White House. In a front page article for the Post Friday, reporter Karen DeYoung raked Obama over the coals. In explaining why Obama has not yet, in her words "implemented a comprehensive U.S. response to the Islamist insurgency that is rapidly spreading across the Middle East," DeYoung quoted a series of dismayed regional officials. "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 reportedly said.
In the aftermath of American journalist James Foley’s beheading, the debate over what to do about the Islamic State’s brutality and territorial gains took on something of a desperate tone. But no one advocating the group’s defeat has presented a credible strategy that doesn’t include a significant U.S. ground troops. As his answer about his lack of strategy reveals, Obama is aware of this. Even if he believes the group is dangerous enough to warrant deploying ground troops, doing so is all but politically impossible.
Here, Obama has been singularly ill-served by his administration’s rhetoric. A week earlier, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bluntly declared that defeating the Islamic State required countering it on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. "To your question, can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no," Dempsey said. "That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border."
Kerry has also contributed to boxing in Obama:
ISIL must be destroyed/will be crushed.
— John Kerry (@JohnKerry) August 20, 2014
Statements like these have bolstered criticism toward the White House among the press, whose outrage has only been further fueled by the brutal death of one of their own. But Obama has resolutely rejected these calls to take more aggressive action across the Syrian border, even as his more hawkish advisors are feeding the media statements about how airstrikes are imminent.
That effort by his advisors — in addition to the comments from the anonymous regional officials quoted by the Post — amount to something of a whisper campaign to create a sense of inevitability around striking the Islamic State in Syria.
But Obama, as his predecessor famously called himself when he was president, remains "the decider.