President Barack Obama may have in his mind a very clear picture of what he wants to do with the ISIS, and his critics see him stumbling from one mis-quote to another.
He slipped them a new one on Wednesday: at a news briefing in Tallinn, Estonia, he said his goal was to “shrink” the brutal terrorist outfit ISIS to a “manageable problem”.
“That’s awfully passive language to be using about this kind of brutality we’re seeing,” said columnist Ron Fournier on MSNBC, both liberal and usually supportive of the president.
Conservative commentators were predictably angrier. To be fair to the president, he did use other more forceful phrases — “degrade and destroy”, for instance — but the idea of managing ISIS didn’t cut with a nation thirsting for revenge.
The ISIS posted a video of the beheading of freelance American journalist Steven Sotloff just hours before the president left for Estonia on his way to Wales for a Nato summit.
That was the second American killed on camera and broadcast online by the ISIS to force the United States to cease operations in Iraq, which, however, have continued undeterred.
President Obama, who conducted his first presidential campaign on the promise of ending the Iraq war, has appeared to be extremely reluctant to be drawn back into it.
And he has the American public with him — polls show — weary as they are of wars, primarily the one in Afghanistan, the longest military engagement for the US. Ever.
The president’s reluctance to start another war, however, has frustrated even his own party. “I think I’ve learned one thing about this president, and that is: He’s very cautious—maybe, in this instance, too cautious,” said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who heads the powerful senate intelligence committee, in a television interview on Sunday. Obama’s officials have been demonstrably angrier than their boss — Secretary John Kerry’s first reaction to the killing of James Foley was that the ISIS must be destroyed.
US armed forces boss Martin Dempsey was clear from the start that the only way to deal with the ISIS was to attack its sanctuaries across the border in Syria. The president, who was on vacation at the time of the Foley video, sounded timid in comparison. Senior national security officials, such as Ben Rhodes, tried to make up for it.
Obama’s first comments on retuning from vacation — that “We don’t have a strategy” — played badly for him. And he tried valiantly to correct it from Tallinn. His counter-terrorism czar, Matthew Olson, was clearer.
“As formidable as ISIL (also ISIS) is as a group, it is not invincible,” said Olson, director of the US national counterterrorism centre, at a think tank on Wednesday. “Working in concert with a broad coalition of international partners, we have the tools to defeat ISIL based on a determined and comprehensive all-of-government approach does.”
If it seems clearer than anything heard so far from the White House, it ought to be, coming as it did from the man who begins every counter-terrorism meeting taken by Obama.