President Obama pushed back against media reports of planned U.S. military action against ISIS in Syria on Thursday, stressing that the administration is still determining the next steps to take in the region. "We don't have a strategy yet," Obama said at a Thursday press conference, adding that there would be "military, political, and economic components" to the fight against ISIS.
For good or ill, President Obama sometimes offers candid, shorthand assessments without much regard for how they'll be perceived by the political world -- or how easily the comments might be taken out of context. From a distance, I get the sense he just doesn't care what offhand phrase might send the Beltway into a tizzy and generate a half-dozen Politico items. After nearly six years on the job, Obama just seems to have bigger things on his mind.
But those of us who regularly swim in these waters -- and who've internalized Republican talking points to the point at which we can visualize Fox News segments before they even air -- tend to see the pointless uproars coming.
Take yesterday, for example.
The moment the six-word sound bite was uttered, you could almost feel the manufactured outrage take shape, which is a shame because in context, this latest shocking development wasn't especially shocking.
Look at the transcript. A reporter asked the president, "Do you need Congress' approval to go into Syria?" Obama's obvious point was to challenge the premise of the question -- to assume that the United States is poised to use military force in Syria is premature. The Obama administration has already spent three weeks launching several dozen airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq, but because Syria is a much different story, the White House is still consulting with allies and talking with Pentagon officials about the next step.
And in a nutshell, that's the story. That's the basis for the latest political-world uproar. A reporter asked whether Congress needs to approve a mission in Syria and the president said there is not yet a mission to approve. Why is this scandalous? It isn't.
Indeed, what strikes me as especially bizarre about this latest hullabaloo is how unnecessary it is. Congressional Republicans have spent the last two weeks saying they want to see Obama's strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria. The president said yesterday he's still crafting a strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria. None of this is exactly stop-the-presses material.
Without context, Republicans and much of the media appears to have decided that "We don't have a strategy yet" can effectively be translated to mean "We have no counter-terrorism strategy as it relates to ISIS." Except, we already know that's not the case -- 93 U.S. airstrikes against ISIS targets in two weeks shows otherwise.
In the bigger picture, we see the Bill Kristols of the world insisting that the Obama administration can simply launch a new phase in the conflict and "see what happens." It's the sort of attitude we've seen before -- we can launch a war in Iraq, for example, with no real plan for the consequences, and "see what happens."
Thankfully, the president has a different approach. To see deliberate thought and planning as the object of criticism is a mistake -- delaying military intervention in the Middle East until a firm strategy is in place is a positive, not a negative.
It's a feature of the president's foreign policy, not a bug.
Much of the media seems stunned by the process: "You mean, Obama intends to think this through and then decide whether to pursue military options in Syria?" Why, yes, actually he does. The question isn't why Obama has adopted such an approach; the question is why so many are outraged by it.
"We don't have a strategy yet," without context, lends itself to breathless Beltway chatter. To accommodate the political world's predispositions, maybe the president should have added the rest of the thought: "We don't have a strategy yet for possible U.S. military intervention in Syria, which may require congressional approval."
But that's effectively all that he said. There is no great "gaffe" here.