The ISIS Threat Demands Leadership, Not Dithering

President Obama just can’t seem to find the right words to explain his view of ISIS. Calling them al Qaeda’s “JV team” – a statement that the White House has since tried to bury – made him look clueless to the scope of the threat. Pointing out that the “world has always been messy” and that we’re “just noticing it now because of social media,” makes him seem detached in the face of terror. And admitting that “we don’t have a strategy yet” to combat the extremist threat portrayed him as dithering and divided at a time when decisiveness and unity are key.

Admittedly, President Obama is in a very difficult situation. He campaigned on ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, two positions that were very popular with a war-weary public. But the haste in which those decisions were made is also contributing to the vacuum of power and instability that the region currently suffers from.

So how should the president thread the needle? How can he simultaneously appeal to a populace that wants to be less involved in military conflicts and yet does not want to appear weak on the world stage? It’s a question that Obama needs to answer. As Ron Fournier writes for National Journal:

He tries to manage the world as he hopes it will be, rather than lead the world as it is. Yes, foreign policy is hard. These issues are both historic and existential. The American public is fickle. Congress is all but useless. And our allies in Europe are loathe to lead—or even to pay a fair price for fighting threats closer to their borders than our own.

But that’s why only one person gets to be president of the United States, and, presumably, that’s why Obama asked twice to be elected. He wanted the job. He knew its challenges (including the existence of social media). He thought he could lead. When does he get started?

We hoped that President Obama would take the reins and display some much-needed leadership at a NATO meeting in Estonia. And for the briefest of moments that seemed to be the case.

On Wednesday Vice President Joe Biden said that, “We will follow [ISIS] to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice.” Secretary of State John Kerry tweeted that “ISIL must be destroyed/will be crushed” and has promised to confront ISIS “wherever it tries to spread is despicable hatred.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called ISIS “the most brutal, barbaric forces we’ve ever seen in the world today.”

Even President Obama seemed to come out swinging.

“We will not be intimidated,” the president said in remarks following the beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff. “Those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget and that our reach is long and that justice will be served.”

“We are going to achieve our goal,” Obama continued. “We are going to degrade and ultimately defeat [ISIS].”

And then President Obama started to get weak-kneed. Pressed to expand on what he meant by the word “destroy,” Obama beat a hasty retreat.

“We can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem,” he said.

In the course of just a few sentences President Obama went from wiping the terrorist group from the face of the earth to simply shrinking them down to a reasonable size. But what is a manageable size for a vicious terrorist group that likens itself to a caliphate ready to rule the entirety of the Middle East?

“What this means, he hasn’t spelled out in great specificity,” Rich Lowry writes for POLITICO Magazine. “Presumably fewer beheadings. A slower pace of Western recruiting. Fewer genocidal threats against embattled minorities. A downgrading of the caliphate to a mini-state, or merely a large swath of territory in Syria and Iraq.”

In other words we’re right back to having no strategy. The maddeningly indecisive president is back in the driver’s seat, too cautious to step on the gas, yet worried about slamming on brakes. The result is that we aimlessly lurch forward, which coincidentally might be exactly his true plan. After all, mitigating the political fallout from a wrong choice seems much more worrisome to him than the potential threat of ISIS to American interests.”