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Each week, I hope for a brief reprieve from my position as Vox’s ombudsman. Each week I am sorely disappointed. Like Sisyphus, I am doomed to repeatedly deal with the same boulder and hill. Only in my case, I watch the wonks at Vox tirelessly roll the immense boulder uphill towards me, only to gently poke it back down, spoiling their efforts.
Following President Obama’s admission that his administration has no strategy for dealing with ISIS, Zack Beauchamp (he of Gaza bridge fame) published a defense of our rudderless Commander in Chief. It’s vapidity is matched only by the rapidity with which he contrived it.
When asked about whether his future plans for combating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) required congressional authorization, Obama ducked. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” he said, before uttering the line that’ll likely haunt him for the rest of his presidency.
“We don’t have a strategy yet.”
On one level, it’s an absolutely devastating indictment of the administration’s approach to Iraq and Syria.
Rather than going with an appropriate and time-saving “full stop”, Beauchamp decided to follow up this sentence with a demonstration that there is no blunder too large for him to spin when his preferred party holds the White House.
Throughout Obama’s addresses on ISIS, including this press conference, he’s emphasized the need for a political strategy to defeat ISIS, one that focuses not on Washington but on Baghdad and, in an ideal world, Damascus. Barring political reform in the Iraqi government, and the development of some sort of peace in Syria, it’ll be really hard to fully defeat ISIS. In a changing, complicated situation, Obama’s thinking has long seemed to be, it’s better not to prematurely commit to a specific problem that might not fit the changing situation.
You can’t have a strategy for what can’t be done, in other words.
The President was merely being honest when he said there is no strategy, because even men as brilliant as he cannot do the impossible. Powerless does he sit, armed only with the most powerful military in the history of mankind. His enemy awaits, nigh invulnerable in their caves and impoverished desert towns.
Though our foe is unable to appear in any significant numbers without being transmuted into a large crater, Beauchamp is certain it is impossible to defeat them. No military leader in history has ever faced such odds. Surely, Alexander of Macedon would not envy the task before us. Defeating 250,000 men while outnumbered 5-1 on a desert plain? A trifle when compared to teenagers wielding Ak-47s and riding around in Toyota pickup trucks.
Zack appears to believe that asymmetric warfare is a magical elixir of recent invention, to which there are no military solutions. Hence the only available strategies are political ones. Those with eyes however may have noticed that ISIS appeared in force in Iraq after all U.S. combat troops had been removed from the ground. They moved from city to city in large columns of vehicles, as you cannot conquer and rule people without appearing in force.
Rather than obliterate these columns, and mocking ISIS for having the nerve to pop their heads out from their caves, the president went with the somewhat less effective strategy of testing the political waters before announcing to the world that we would intercede to aid the Yazidi. That ISIS has since dispersed, and no longer make easy targets is further evidence of their invulnerability, not a sign that our president squandered an opportunity to demonstrate definitively that any aims ISIS had at ruling a nation were a pipe dream.
Even under the most charitable interpretation of his statements, the President is a fool for announcing that he doesn’t have a plan. Despite appearances to the contrary, people aside from his sycophants in the media do watch his press conferences. Announcing to the enemy that they’ve caught you with your beige pants down is a completely unforced error with consequences beyond the political inconvenience it may cause Obama.
Swagger is half the battle when it comes to tests of will. Those old enough may remember a certain president spooking the Soviet Union with the promise of a ballistic missile defense system which the U.S. had no prayer of actually constructing for decades to come.
Unaware that he can simply bluff the Islamic extremists while his advisers come up with a strategy, Obama decided to lay his cards on the table before the dealer had even finished handing them out.
Whether you’re inclined to be charitable to Obama here depends on whether you think Obama’s assessment of the ISIS situation is correct. If you agree with him, and think the the US can’t plausibly defeat ISIS on its own, then you also probably don’t think the US needs a comprehensive strategy for ISIS — the regional actors of the Middle East do.
This is a sentiment that under achievers everywhere can get behind: If something is really hard to do, why not just label it impossible and call it a day? It’s not like ISIS is planning on taking the fight to us or anything.