It is becoming difficult to escape the impression that President Barack Obama heads an administration at war with itself over the appropriate strategy to combat the ISIS threat.
Speaking at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida on Wednesday, the president made a point of conspicuously noting again that American troops sent to Iraq “do not and will not have a combat mission.” The clarification was not unexpected; it came just one day after Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told members of the U.S. Senate in a public hearing that there were circumstances which would lead him to recommend sending American troops to the front along with indigenous forces to serve in a “combat advisory role.”
This was not the first time the president has had to walk back comments from members of his administration. It was not even the first time he has corrected Dempsey.
“This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated,” Dempsey warned in a briefing alongside Defense Sec. Chuck Hagel in mid-August.
Several days later, while on a trip to the Baltics, Obama suggested he disagreed with his advisor’s assessment. “We know that if we are joined by the international community, 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,” the president said.
The president has since walked his own comments back and now emphasizes the need to both “degrade and destroy” ISIS, but savvy reporters have observed that the White House seems to prefer a strategy aimed at rolling back ISIS in Iraq and containing it in Syria – a far cry from utter destruction.
In the wake of the August beheading of journalist James Foley, the public began to settle on the consensus that the nation needed to at last confront the ISIS threat. Obama announced he was considering dealing with ISIS through military means as early as June, and only committed to airstrikes in Iraq in August when the Iraqi Yazidi population faced extinction at the hands of Islamic State fighters.
Once America had been hit with what Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes called a “terrorist attack,” the tempo of the coverage of anticipated American response began to intensify. In conversations with reporters, officials started to indicate that strikes inside Syria were imminent. Reports began to surface in late August which indicated that it was only a matter of days, and some outlets even began listing possible targets inside Syria which could be hit.
It was this frenzy which prompted the president to take to the White House briefing room where he infamously put the brakes on any speculation that a campaign of airstrikes inside Syria was forthcoming. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” Obama said when asked about his plan to target ISIS in its stronghold. “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
It is at times difficult to determine whether the public is seeing an internal debate within the administration over what is the best way to deal with ISIS, or if it is merely witnessing a genuine confusion over what America’s policy is.
“What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counter-terrorism operation,” said Secretary of State John Kerry while on a recent trip to the Middle East. “If somebody wants to think about it as being a war with ISIL they can do so, but the fact is it’s a major counter-terrorism operation.”
Not so, said the White House the following day. “The United States is at war with ISIL in the same way we are at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates,” White House Press Sec. Josh Earnest told reporters.
Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby was also asked to clarify his insistence that the strategy planners envisioned would essentially be an enhanced counter-terrorism operation. “What I said is it’s not the Iraq War of 2002,” Kirby clarified. “But make no mistake, we know we are at war with ISIL in the same way we’re at war and continue to be at al-Qaeda and its affiliates.”
Kirby may have slipped and attributed the 2003 Iraq War to 2002 because he was thinking about the congressional authorization to use military force in Iraq which passed in 2002. Why? The administration is reportedly planning on using that resolution to justify continued military action in Iraq, in spite of the fact that the White House requested Congress repeal that authorization in writing as recently as July.
The administration is not speaking with one voice when discussing the national security threat posed by the Islamic State. That is beyond doubt. It remains to be seen whether the White House can competently conduct a war against ISIS while it also appears to be at war with itself.