We are getting to the stage where the members of this administration spend more time staking out rhetorical positions on the Islamic State and cleaning up each other’s misstatements than they do actually addressing the ISIS threat. It’s almost as if there is no coherent policy.
During a live interview with CNN reporter Jim Sciutto, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was asked to respond to President Barack Obama’s comments on Wednesday morning. Speaking in Estonia, Obama delivered a statement in which he asserted that the United States’ objective is to “degrade and destroy” ISIS. While taking questions from the press, however, Obama said that America could only hope to “shrink” ISIS down to a point at which they become a “manageable problem.”
Hagel suggested that America should focus on Obama’s prepared remarks and ignore the president’s extemporaneous musings on America’s objectives and capabilities.
Obama was “pretty clear,” Hagel insisted. America’s goal is to “degrade and destroy the capability of ISIL to come after U.S. interests all over the world and our allies.”
“However way he addressed that later in the news conference, I wasn’t aware of that,” the secretary added, if you can believe it.
“That’s the end game? Degrade and destroy, not contain?” Sciutto asked.
“No, it’s not contain,” Hagel replied. “It’s exactly what the president said: ‘Degrade and destroy.’”
But that’s not “exactly what the president said.” Reading the statements coming out of this White House has become a form of Kremlinology. Americans are instructed after the fact to ignore some of administration officials’ statements and take others as gospel.
At the closing of this event, Hagel was asked if he could pledge to the American people that the group responsible for what the administration considers a “terrorist attack” on the United States will be destroyed. “We will do everything possible that we can do to destroy their capacity to inflict harm on our people and Western values and our interests,” Hagel replied.
This lawyerly equivocation was hardly inspiring, but the secretary only has so much leeway to make policy for this administration. It was his statements, and those of the Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey two weeks ago, which prompted Obama to say the U.S. doesn’t “have a strategy yet” to take on ISIS in Syria. The Defense Secretary can only be as clear as is his boss, and there is no clarity coming from the man at the top.