Why “We Don’t Have A Strategy Yet” Is a Good Strategy For Now

In my years of punditry sophisticated application of political science to presidential politics, it has been rare for a president to both confirm my take on his previous actions and to follow my advice on what to do next within hours of my post on the topic. (Please, hold the hate mail – I’m not suggesting he actually read the post!) But we just saw both occur in the President’s recently completed press conference,  during which he acknowledged that, as yet, his administration has not settled on a policy for dealing with ISIS/ISIL, much as I suggested was the case in my earlier post.

Of course, the President’s candid confession set off the predictable barrage of criticism on the twitterverse with comments like this:

“What on earth are we waiting for?”

“Clint Eastwood’s empty chair would have a better strategy to deal with ISIS than Barack Obama.”

“If I have this right, we’ll be taking unspecified action following an unformulated strategy leading a nonexistent coalition.”

As I suggested in my post earlier today, however, it is no surprise that the Obama administration is struggling to formulate a response to ISIS – this is precisely the type of foreign policy problem that is most difficult to address because it is not immediately clear whether the nature of the ISIS threat affects U.S. national interests to the degree that warrants a more comprehensive military response, particularly one that may put us on the same side as a dictator we have been trying to remove for some time now. Once again, Obama’s initial response seems dictated by a desire “not to do stupid stuff” – at least not immediately, and not before he can get Congress involved in the formulation of a response. And while the twits in the twitterverse panned him for acknowledging that he has no “organizing principle” that would immediately dictate how to respond to ISIS, my point in my earlier post is that he needed to explain why this was the case, and why deciding what to do was so difficult. Today’s conference was evidently a first step in doing so.

Did he succeed? One of the difficulties any president faces in trying to explain his actions is that his is not the only voice that will be heard. Heading into a midterm election, Republicans are sure to pounce on Obama’s candid statement that his administration is still formulating a strategy as evidence that his foreign policy is reactive and lacks guiding principles. It will be interesting to see how the media reports on what are sure to be dueling narratives, and what the public reaction to these narratives is. This much is certain: almost every media report will lead with some version of the President’s statement that his administration does not yet have a strategy for dealing with ISIS.  Whether they will provide some context for this statement, however, remains to be seen.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE 5:50 p.m.: Since I know lots of you don’t follow Twitter, I thought I’d give you a representative sample of the reaction Obama’s admission is getting.  Needless to say, heads are exploding and, as far as I can tell, they are exploding on the Left as much as on the Right.

“I’m baffled. What possesses a president to acknowledge he doesn’t have a strategy against a threat he’s fighting?  Answer: Lameduck”

“Just to point out the obvious, ISIS in its various iterations is at least a decade old. But glad we are still working on the strategy thing.”

UPDATE 6:20:  Understandably, the White House Press Secretary is already trying to clarify the President’s remark: “WH scrambles to explain “we don’t have a strategy yet” remark. on CNN says there is ISIS strategy. Obama meant military in Syria.”

UPDATE 8:00:  And here is the predictable media headline (undoubtedly the first of many):  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/08/28/obama-on-increased-action-against-islamic-state-we-dont-have-a-strategy-yet/


  1. I was flipping channels after the presser.

    Fox had Louie Gohmert.

    If there was ever a personification of the Stupid Party.

  2. Matt:

    I think the problem here is that The President, although possessed of a mellifluous and persuasive delivery when reading from a TelePrompter, is essentially inarticulate when he is on his own and ad libbing it.

    Those of us who have worked in Washington or who have taken the time to watch closely know that the DOD always has a ready response for every situation. That’s what they do. Their job is to have a plan, or alternate plans, to fit every conceivable possible situation.

    What the Present most likely meant to say was that he hadn’t agreed to a strategy as yet and was still considering several alternatives presented to him. I am hardly a fan of this President. But I will concede that it appears to be a Hobson’s Choice when it comes to Syria. And he was right when he pointed out that we can win any military contest; it is when we leave that is the problem. It’s complicated.

    That said, I suggest that we are in this spot because of his inability to be decisive. He is a ditherer. And, it is precisely because we elected a man who was wholly unprepared to be Commander in Chief of the country that leads the world. He lacks the military experience, the lacks the sense of history and he lacks the interest in doing the right thing. He sees every problem through the prism of how it will affect the politics of his party and his Presidency. He is a supreme Narcissist.

    After that serious bungled press conference, did he go to the Situation Room and get briefings on the alternatives available to him? Nope.

    He is on a fundraising tour today, two in Westchester, New York and one in Newport, Rhode Island. The world is burning, 150-250 Syrian troops were marched through the desert in their underwear then killed, and he is fundraising and playing golf.

    Ronald Reagan loved golf. After eight rounds, he declared that he had a job that was more important, and never played again during his Presidency.

  3. Shelly,

    I think you are right that what Obama meant to say was that his administration had not yet decided on a military strategy for confronting ISIS. As to your larger point regarding his inability to make decisions – I wonder how much of that perception is rooted in his tendency to split differences when confronted with choices, which can give the perception that he is not decisive. I’ve talked about this in many previous posts – this is a cautious decisionmaker, one who eschews decisiveness for the sake of appearing decisive when he has the option of proceeding cautiously. (Even the decision to kill Osama Bin Laden was the “safe” choice in that he preferred to send in Seals rather than bomb the premises and incur civilian casualties.) He has a lawyer’s temperament. I think it’s a legitimate question whether this temperament is conducive to effective leadership.

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