In his 2006 memoir, the Audacity of Hope, then-Senator Obama stated clearly his belief that America was desperately lacking a foreign policy strategy.
“Without a well-articulated strategy that the public supports and the world understands, America will lack the legitimacy and ultimately the power it needs to make the world safer than it is today,” Obama wrote.
It is sadly ironic then that despite Obama’s meteoric rise to the presidency, America is less powerful and the world is less safe than it was when he penned those words, and those outcomes are due in no small part to Obama’s lack of a strategy.
The idea that President Obama lacks an effective foreign policy plan, either in his relationship with the world generally, or our enemies specifically, is not just some conservative thesis to undermine the president’s leadership. In fact, he readily admits it himself.
“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse: We don’t have a strategy yet,” Obama said last August while speaking about the US’s effort to combat the Islamic State. “I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggest that folks are getting a little further ahead of what we’re at than what we currently are.”
That admission stunned even the president’s staunchest admirers and served to confirm his critics believe that Obama is a weak commander in chief. Those criticisms seemed to be backed up by behind the scenes reporting that painted Obama as indecisive in the face of overwhelming advice to “expand his air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.”
The reporting, done by Josh Rogin and Eli Lake, found that “there was a deep rooted belief among many” that “the ISIS threat can’t be kicked down the road, that it needs to be confronted now, and in a holistic way.” The president ultimately backed down, opting instead to continue his policy of avoiding intervention, but doing so in a way that would reverberate among our enemies in the region.
“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,” a former Pentagon official told Rogin and Lake. “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.”
Over the last year the warning has proved prescient.
ISIS militants continued their march through Iraq and Syria, taking key places like Kobani, Palmyra, Al-Walid and the Iraqi military base of Saqlawiyah, while repeatedly bombing the major cities that remained outside their grasp. They collected oil, by capturing the Jahar gas field in Homs, they gathered war materiel left behind by retreating Iraqi forces, they augmented their forces by joining with regional terrorist groups like Al Shabab and Boko Haram, and they collected tens of millions of dollars in ransom to fund their campaigns. They beheaded or burned to death numerous journalists and human rights activists. And they destroyed countless relics, manuscripts and archaeological sites.
While ISIS remains focused and tactical, the U.S. response has been lackadaisical and haphazard. To be fair, there have been crucial victories, such as the incapacitation of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but they have been too few and far between to establish momentum. And now, as if to confirm our worst fears, President Obama is back to tell us that we still don’t have a strategy.
“We don’t yet have a complete strategy,” Obama said at a press conference at the G-7 gathering in Germany, “because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis as well about how recruitment takes place, how that training takes place. And so the details of that are not yet worked out.”
Sadly, the statement makes sense in the context of the White House’s internal struggle over how to approach the Middle East. Rather than gamble on progress with ISIS, they’ve decided to simply run out the clock on their term, and hope history doesn’t judge them too unkindly.
“I think this is driven by a sense that this is not our fight and so we are just going to try to contain it and have influence where we can,” one White House official who works closely on military strategy told The Daily Beast. “This is a long fight, and it will be up to the next administration to tackle.”
Whoever that is, they’ll have a low bar to clear. At this point, we’ll just settle for a plan.