Republicans, lacking any actual coherent policy arguments, love to dwell on taking comments from Democrats out of context, often distorting what was said. They made such an distorted quote the centerpiece of their last national convention. We are bound to hear another out of context quote over and over from Republicans. In response to a question from Chuck Todd, Obama explained why it is premature to take a plan to Congress before specific military targets are determined and arranging a regional coalition to fight ISIS. Republicans are ignoring the substance of what Obama said and taking a few unfortunate words out of context: “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
Follow up discussion by Chuck Todd on The Daily Rundown this morning (his last as host before taking over at Meet the Press), placed this in context. Todd and Andrea Mitchell were supportive about Obama’s transparency on the issue and consideration of the ramifications of military intervention (video above). It was good to see a news report provide the full context. The failure of other news outlets to do the same has placed the Obama administration in damage-control mode.
Steve Benen has a a good take on this “gaffe”
To see deliberate thought and planning as the object of criticism is a mistake – delaying military intervention in the Middle East until a firm strategy is in place is a positive, not a negative.
It’s a feature of the president’s foreign policy, not a bug.
Much of the media seems stunned by the process: “You mean, Obama intends to think this through and then decide whether to pursue military options in Syria?” Why, yes, actually he does. The question isn’t why Obama has adopted such an approach; the question is why so many are outraged by it.
“We don’t have a strategy yet,” without context, lends itself to breathless Beltway chatter. To accommodate the political world’s predispositions, maybe the president should have added the rest of the thought: “We don’t have a strategy yet for possible U.S. military intervention in Syria, which may require congressional approval.”
But that’s effectively all that he said. There is no great “gaffe” here.
If only George Bush had taken the time to develop a comprehensive strategy before going into Iraq.
Peter Beinhart pointed out that Obama does actually have a strategy in the middle east:
President Obama’s critics often claim he doesn’t have a strategy in the greater Middle East. That’s wrong. Like it or loathe it, he does, and he’s beginning to implement it against ISIS. To understand what it is, it’s worth going back seven summers.
In July 2007, at a debate sponsored by CNN and YouTube, Obama said that if elected president, he’d talk directly to the leaders of Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela. Hillary Clinton derided his answer as “irresponsible and frankly naïve.” The altercation fit the larger narrative the media had developed about the two Democratic frontrunners: Obama—who had opposed the Iraq War—was the dove. Hillary—who had supported it—was the hawk.
But less than a week later, a different foreign-policy tussle broke out. Obama said he’d send the U.S. military into Pakistan, against its government’s wishes, to kill members of al-Qaeda. “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf will not act,” he vowed, “we will.” Suddenly, Obama was the hawk and Clinton was the dove. “He basically threatened to bomb Pakistan,” she declared in early 2008, “which I don’t think was a particularly wise position to take.”
So was Obama more dovish than Clinton or more hawkish? The answer is both. On the one hand, Obama has shown a deep reluctance to use military force to try to solve Middle Eastern problems that don’t directly threaten American lives. He’s proved more open to a diplomatic compromise over Iran’s nuclear program than many on Capitol Hill because he’s more reticent about going to war with Tehran. He’s been reluctant to arm Syria’s rebels or bomb Basher al-Assad because he doesn’t want to get sucked into that country’s civil war. After initially giving David Petraeus and company the yellow light to pursue an expanded counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, he’s wound down America’s ground war against the Taliban. Even on Libya, he proved more reluctant to intervene than the leaders of Britain and France.
On the other hand, he’s proven ferocious about using military force to kill suspected terrorists. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, he’s basically adopted the policy Joe Biden proposed at the start of his administration: Don’t focus on fighting the Taliban on the ground, since they don’t really threaten the United States. Just bomb the hell out al-Qaeda from the air. Compared with George W. Bush, he’s dramatically expanded drone strikes, even though they’re unilateral, legally dubious, and morally disturbing. And, as promised, he sent special forces to kill Osama bin Laden without Pakistan’s permission, even though his vice president and secretary of defense feared the risks were too high.
When it comes to the Middle East, in other words, Obama is neither a dove nor a hawk. He’s a fierce minimalist. George W. Bush defined the War on Terror so broadly that in anti-terrorism’s name he spent vast quantities of blood and treasure fighting people who had no capacity or desire to attack the United States. Hillary Clinton and John McCain may not use the “War on Terror” framework anymore, but they’re still more willing to sell arms, dispatch troops, and drop bombs to achieve goals that aren’t directly connected to preventing another 9/11. By contrast, Obama’s strategy—whether you like it or not—is more clearly defined. Hundreds of thousands can die in Syria; the Taliban can menace and destabilize Afghanistan; Iran can move closer to getting a bomb. No matter. With rare exceptions, Obama only unsheathes his sword against people he thinks might kill American civilians.
Understanding Obama’s fierce minimalism helps explain the evolution of his policy toward Syria and Iraq. For years, hawks pushed him to bomb Assad and arm Syria’s rebels. They also urged him to keep more U.S. troops in Iraq to stabilize the country and maintain American leverage there. Obama refused because these efforts—which would have cost money and incurred risks—weren’t directly aimed at fighting terrorism. But now that ISIS has developed a safe haven in Iraq and Syria, amassed lots of weapons and money, killed an American journalist, recruited Westerners, and threatened terrorism against the United States, Obama’s gone from dove to hawk. He’s launched air strikes in Iraq and may expand them to Syria. As the Center for American Progress’s Brian Katulis has noted, the Obama administration is also trying to strengthen regional actors who may be able to weaken ISIS. But the administration is doing all this to prevent ISIS from killing Americans, not to put Syria back together again. Yes, there’s a humanitarian overlay to Obama’s anti-ISIS campaign: He’s authorized air strikes to save Yazidis at risk of slaughter. But the core of his military effort in Iraq and Syria, and throughout the greater Middle East, is narrow but aggressive anti-terrorism…