The Gaffe Heard Round the World

President Obama’s surprising admission that his administration had “no strategy” to deal with ISIS was a messaging nightmare – not only did it confirm American’s fears of the president’s lack of foreign policy chops, but it could also have significant repercussions for our interests abroad.

Almost as soon as the words left President Obama’s mouth the White House spin machine kicked in to high gear to try and message their way out of the problem. White House spokesman Josh Earnest immediately jumped on CNN to say that Obama had already described a “comprehensive strategy” to deal with ISIS (he hasn’t) and later tweeted that Obama’s “was explicit” in his remarks “about the comprehensive strategy we’ll use to confront ISIL threat” (he wasn’t).

The sad attempt at spin notwithstanding, the president’s gaffe reverberated throughout the media. Aaron Blake writes for the Washington Post:

As with all gaffes, the worst ones are the ones that confirm people’s preexisting suspicions or fit into an easy narrative. That’s why “47 percent” stung Mitt Romney so much, and it’s why “don’t have a strategy” hurts Obama today.

Polls have increasingly shown that Americans view Obama as a weak commander in chief without much direction or heft to his foreign policy. The latest is a Pew Research Center survey, released shortly before Obama’s errant statement Thursday, that showed 54 percent of Americans say he’s “not tough enough” when it comes to foreign policy and national security.

And that poll came after the president’s decision to launch airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq in order to protect the Kurdish city of Erbil.

Over the past year it has become clear that this administration is in over its head when it comes to world affairs. Obama’s “red-line” in Syria was followed by a string of verbal gaffes from Secretary of State John Kerry. Israel’s relationship with Palestine continues to devolve. Russia’s Vladimir Putin appears to be emboldened by the global vacuum of power, filling the void by kickstarting his expansionary vision. The “pivot to Asia,” which was meant to hedge against growing Chinese power, has been about as effective as his many pivots to the economy. And our feckless policy in Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and Iran—among other places—will no doubt continue to sow discord well beyond Obama’s presidency.

Now, if the approach to ISIS is any indication, those failures are less the result of flawed decisionmaking than an unwillingness to make a decision at all. Josh Rogin and Eli Lake, reporting for the Daily Beast, got an inside view of the chaotic approach to foreign policy that led up to the “we don’t have a strategy yet” debacle.

“There was a deep rooted belief among many – especially among military circles – that the ISIS threat can’t be kicked down the road, that it needs to be confronted now, and in a holistic way,” one Obama administration official told Rogin and Lake.

But despite a week of meetings between Obama administration officials that served “as an effort to convince Obama to expand his air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” the president waffled.

While the verbal gaffe may impact the November election, the more important impact is the seismic effect it could have on the conflict. As CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, tweeted, “Let me be very clear, ISIS heard all of this.”

That sentiment was shared by White House insiders. Rogin and Lake report:

To many outside the administration who have worked on Syria and the ISIS problem, Obama’s decision not to decide on a broader course of action will have negative implications for the war against ISIS. The administration raised expectations about altering its three-year policy of avoiding intervention in Syria, before Obama dashed those expectations Thursday.

“One has to wonder what sort of signal this administration is sending to ISIS by using tough rhetoric on one hand and then contravening what top officials just said,” said a former Pentagon official who served in Iraq. “It’s not just demoralizing to those who want to stop ISIS in its tracks, but ISIS is just going to act with greater impunity now if they believe they got a free pass. Every single ISIS leader was watching that.”

The world is watching. ISIS is watching. The question now is, how will President Obama respond to the spotlight. If the past is any guide, we’re not hopeful.