Obama’s Syria Strategy is Still a Mess

President Obama went on offense to attack his critics at a press conference earlier this week to discuss his strategy for fighting the Islamic State following the attacks in Paris. He said his opponents wanted him to make a decision purely for the sake of a “net headline.” “If folks want to pop off and have opinions about what they think they would do, present a specific plan,” he said, clearly annoyed. And he sought to generalize his critics’ plans as one that puts “large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground.”

But while President Obama proved marvelous at setting up and knocking down straw men, he clearly still had no plan to take the fight to ISIS. When asked whether it was “time for your strategy to change” given that the “equation has clearly changed,” Obama said he would stay the course.

“[T]here will be an intensification of the strategy that we put forward, but the strategy that we are putting forward is the strategy that ultimately is going to work,” Obama responded. “But as I said from the start, it’s going to take time.”

And yet later in the briefing the president discussed the strategy as if it was still very much under construction.

“There are going to be some strategies we find that do work, and there are going to be some strategies that don’t work and when we find those strategies that do work, we will double down on those.”

So which is it? Do we have a strategy or don’t we? Unfortunately, the evidence tends toward the latter. More than a year ago, President Obama admitted that, “We don’t have a strategy yet” on battling ISIS. That sentiment was reiterated this June when Obama again said that, “We don’t yet have a complete strategy” to combat ISIS in Syria.

Since those comments, there have only been three discernible tweaks to the approach. First, the Obama administration decided to scrap a too-much, but way-too-late effort to train and equip a large-scale Syrian force (it ended up costing $500 million and only trained 54 recruits, all of which were almost immediately killed or captured). Second, he announced that he would deploy 50 U.S. Special Forces troops to assist Kurdish forces. And third, he has apparently relaxed the rules for air strikes, evidenced by a recent attack on a fleet used to transport oil.

Good on him for doing those things. But keep in mind, they were all measures recommended by military leaders, but ignored by the president until recently. As Eli Lake writes for Bloomberg View, Obama’s decision to rebuff the opinions of his military leaders until the last minute has been a consistent theme in this conflict. For instance, Lake cites Obama’s rejection of a no-fly zone, his decision to abruptly withdraw U.S. soldiers from Iraq, and, most consequentially, his dissent on a plan to train and equip Syrian rebels at the beginning of the crisis. The Washington Post editorial board wrote of that decision:

At the root of what surely will be seen as the greatest failure of his presidency is Mr. Obama’s refusal to commit to a coherent plan for ending President Bashar al-Assad’s murderous assault on his own people. But this is not, as spokesman Josh Earnest contended, “something our critics will have to answer for.” Had Mr. Obama accepted the recommendation of his national security team in 2012 to arm and train Syrian opposition forces, or the many proposals to create safe zones where civilians could be protected from the regime’s barbaric barrel bomb attacks, much of the subsequent carnage, not to mention the flood of refugees now pouring into Europe, could have been prevented.

Could have been, but wasn’t, in no small part because President Obama both underestimated the threat posed by ISIS and his hesitancy to engage in another Middle Eastern conflict.

It’s worth remembering back to January 2014, four days after terrorists seized Fallujah, when Obama dismissed ISIS as a jayvee team.

“The analogy we used around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” he told The New Yorker’s David Remnick.

Even as recently as last Thursday, the day before the ISIS attacks in Paris, the president seemed to miscalculate the group’s power and reach.

When ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos noted in an interview that “ISIS is gaining strength,” Obama objected. “Well, no, I don’t think they’re gaining strength. What is true is that from the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them.”

But in the press conference, Obama seemed angered by questions over whether or not he “really understand[s] this enemy well enough to defeat them.

“No, we haven’t underestimated their abilities,” Obama responded. “This is precisely why we’re in Iraq as we speak, and why we’re operating in Syria as we speak.”

The comment was representative of a troubling tone. Obama simply couldn’t hide his disdain for constantly being questioned about his Syrian strategy and was churlish in his responses to honest questions by the press. But if this administration is ever going to make substantive ground in the fight against ISIS, he needs to stop attacking those who are critical of him and start attacking those who seek to do Americans harm.