Everyone’s making fun of the tan suit President Obama wore in Thursday’s press conference. I can’t lie and say I liked it, of course, but neither do I really care. There was something about the content of his remarks, though, that reminded me of this old World War II joke about the Allies giving the Italians a pounding.
The Germans decide to send one of their generals to meet with the Italian general in Sicily to improve matters. The latter is standing in front of his headquarters, filled with anxiety. The German general arrives dressed in a magnificent red tunic. “What a gorgeous tunic!” the Italian says. The German replies, “See! This is what is wrong with you guys. You see this and think of beauty whereas I wear it to improve troop morale!” He explains that if he ever gets wounded, his troops won’t see him bleeding and will continue fighting. The Italian takes this message to heart and shouts, “Giuseppe! Fetch me my brown pants!”
It wasn’t the suit that screamed “brown pants” to me so much as everything else that happened Thursday.
The most obvious error was that President Obama publicly announced something that’s been obvious for months — he has no strategy for how to deal with ISIS/ISIL. I don’t want to completely attack this, although the problems with this public announcement are many. At the very least this comment suggests that President Obama knows that we should have a strategy. We haven’t had a coherent strategy for how to deal with Iraq going back four presidencies.
Note this view from pro-Obama Super PAC adviser Paul Begala:
Shocked that @BarackObama insists on having clear strategy before bombing ISIS in Syria. Wy can't he be like W & just invade without a plan?
— Paul Begala (@PaulBegala) August 28, 2014
Yes, silly partisan clap-trap, but he’s right that our country should always have a plan before we invade or bomb a country. It’s Military 101.
But — and as Pee-Wee Herman says, “Everyone I know has a big ‘but’” — projecting strength is an important part of being a leader and President Obama’s admission did the opposite of that when he said he still doesn’t have a strategy for a deadly serious problem, one the White House claimed was pressing months ago.
War studies professor Lawrence Freedman said:
Better to be tentative about strategy when there are no easy answers than claiming to have strategy when don't.
— Lawrence Freedman (@LawDavF) August 28, 2014
One could hardly disagree with this. But the problem isn’t just the lack of strategy for a situation that should not have caught us by surprise but the decision to be extremely public about being tentative. There is just absolutely no reason to hand that kind of morale boost and public relations victory to all of your enemies.
Even if it's true that POTUS has no strategy – and that's obvious for a while – foolish in the extreme to announce that to the world.
— Stephen Hayes (@stephenfhayes) August 28, 2014
Something tells me “no strategy” will stick to Obama in the same way that “read my lips” did to George H.W. Bush or “heckuva job” did to George W. Bush or “depends on what the meaning of is is” did to Bill Clinton. Sometimes there are phrases that so perfectly encapsulate what’s wrong with a presidency that they are forever linked. And while President Obama has always had clear personal political ambition and strategy for election or re-election, his foreign policy has been confused and aimless for the duration.
Compare, for instance, another president’s rhetoric on strategy:
This was a pretty good strategy. pic.twitter.com/arvxIfpbAL
— Phil Kerpen (@kerpen) August 28, 2014
But the most disturbing thing Obama said was not that he had no strategy, believe it or not. It was this:
All headlines from Obama's presser will be "no strategy". But real significance, he says not US policy to defeat #ISIS, only reverse gains.
— Jon Williams (@WilliamsJon) August 28, 2014
A relevant portion of the transcript of the press conference is here:
I want to make sure everybody's clear on what we're doing now because it is limited.
Our focus right now is to protect American personnel on the ground in Iraq, to protect our embassy, to protect our consulates, to make sure that critical infrastructure that could adversely affect our personnel is protected. Where we see an opportunity that allows us, with very modest risk, to help the humanitarian situation there, as we did in Sinjar Mountain, we will take those opportunities after having consulted with Congress... And the options that I'm asking for from the joint chiefs focuses primarily on making sure that ISIL is not overrunning Iraq.... And so, you know, to cut to the chase in terms of what may be your specific concerns, Chuck, my priority at this point is to make sure that the gains that ISIl made in Iraq are rolled back and that Iraq has the opportunity to govern itself effectively and secure itself.
I’m not advocating, necessarily, that we actually go to war against ISIS but this kind of muddled thinking will never lead to a good strategy. Or, rather, if our goal is not to defeat ISIS, we shouldn’t be going halfway on military action. There’s a reason it’s failed through multiple presidencies. We need to come to a good understanding of precisely what the peace we seek looks like (see: What Exactly Are We Doing In Iraq? What’s The Peace We Seek?). Once we understand the peace we seek, then we can go about doing what is necessary to achieve that peace — and no more and no less. Continuing with the same moderate intervention/nation-building wouldn’t be wise even if we had a Commander-in-Chief who any of the bad guys in the world took seriously.
Our stunning weakness, lack of direction and aimless leadership couldn’t be a better picture of the butt of the joke at the top. But if we’re smart, we’re not laughing.