Regardless of whether Obama's assertion that "we don't have a strategy yet" for confronting ISIS in Syria and potentially beyond (as opposed to in Iraq) was well advised, it was not a gaffe in the sense of an inconvenient truth that slipped out.
It couldn't have just slipped out, because Obama reiterated the point and elaborated it at length. His reasons for describing the strategy as in progress and TBA were multiple: 1) to reassure that he was not beginning a large-scale military operation without consulting Congress; 2) to pressure prospective coalition partners to play their parts and emphasize that US action depends in large part on their cooperation; and 3) to differentiate between immediate, limited military action and a more sustained, multilateral, slower-building and Congressionally authorized effort. That's all in his second iteration of the strategy-to-be:
But throughout this process, we’ve consulted closely with Congress, and the feedback I’ve gotten from Congress is, is that we’re doing the right thing. Now, as we go forward -- as I’ve described to Chuck -- and look at a broader regional strategy with an international coalition and partners to systematically degrade ISIL’s capacity to engage in the terrible violence and disruptions that they’ve been engaging in not just in Syria, not just in Iraq, but potentially elsewhere if we don’t nip this at the bud, then those consultations with Congress for something that is longer term I think become more relevant.Obama did define a strategy for Iraq -- calibrating military aid to the Baghdad government's demonstrated ability to incorporate Sunnis and Kurds -- and an overarching strategy of "cobbling together" a regional coalition of countries threatened by ISIS to do most of the heavy lifting on the ground. Since the motivating factor for the coalition -- ISIS's rapid occupation of swaths of Iraq as well as Syria -- is new, he emphasized that the coalition is not in place yet, and so neither is the middle-ground strategy.
And it is my intention that Congress has to have some buy-in as representatives of the American people. And, by the way, the American people need to hear what that strategy is. But as I said to Chuck, I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. And in some of the media reports the suggestion seems to have been that we’re about to go full scale on an elaborate strategy for defeating ISIL, and the suggestion, I guess, has been that we’ll start moving forward imminently and somehow Congress -- still out of town -- is going to be left in the dark. That’s not what’s going to happen.
We are going to continue to focus on protecting the American people. We’re going to continue, where we can, to engage in the sort of humanitarian acts that saved so many folks who were trapped on a mountain. We are going to work politically and diplomatically with folks in the region. And we’re going to cobble together the kind of coalition that we need for a long-term strategy as soon as we are able to fit together the military, political and economic components of that strategy. There will be a military aspect to that, and it’s going to be important for Congress to know what that is, in part because it may cost some money.
Underlying all these careful distinctions between action to be taken now, in coordination with the Iraqis and Kurds, action to be taken later, in concert with a coalition to be, and action to be taken prior to as opposed to after gaining Congressional approval, is a minimalism with regard to the use of force well articulated by Peter Beinart:
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.
That minimalism was evident in Obama's opening statement yesterday. There he carefully defined American interests, American actions, and the role and implicit responsibility of allies whose actions his are designed to support. Look at how he divvies up responsiblity between "us" and "them" -- as if he's writing a contract and putting out bids:
...in Iraq, our dedicated pilots and crews continue to carry out the targeted strikes that I authorized to protect Americans there and to address the humanitarian situation on the ground.
As Commander-in-Chief, I will always do what is necessary to protect the American people and defend against evolving threats to our homeland. Because of our strikes, the terrorists of ISIL are losing arms and equipment. In some areas, Iraqi government and Kurdish forces have begun to push them back. And we continue to be proud and grateful to our extraordinary personnel serving in this mission.
Now, ISIL poses an immediate threat to the people of Iraq and to people throughout the region. And that’s why our military action in Iraq has to be part of a broader, comprehensive strategy to protect our people and to support our partners who are taking the fight to ISIL. And that starts with Iraq’s leaders building on the progress that they’ve made so far and forming an inclusive government that will unite their country and strengthen their security forces to confront ISIL.
Any successful strategy, though, also needs strong regional partners. I’m encouraged so far that countries in the region -- countries that don’t always agree on many things -- increasingly recognize the primacy of the threat that ISIL poses to all of them. And I’ve asked Secretary Kerry to travel to the region to continue to build the coalition that’s needed to meet this threat. As I’ve said, rooting out a cancer like ISIL will not be quick or easy, but I’m confident that we can -- and we will -- working closely with our allies and our partners.
When a threat metastasizes as ISIS has, minimalism depends on sharing responsibility and risk as broadly as possible. "We don't have a strategy" provokes anxiety in some quarters but it is meant to reassure -- to make it clear that the "strategy" depends on marshaling allies once the threat is manifest to them.
See also: Contain, degrade, destroy ISIS? It's a timeline