Using his left hand to punctuate every word of what he called his "bottom line" on the Islamic State, President Obama said at a news conference in Estonia Wednesday, "Our objective is clear—that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so it's no longer a threat, not just to Iraq but also to the region and "¦" Then he paused.
His left hand fell to his side. His tone flattened. He continued: ""¦ to the United States." In that brief moment of reflection may lie the key to whether Obama considers the brutal regime a direct threat to the country he leads.
This is not an insignificant parsing. While members of the president's Cabinet, along with Democratic and Republican lawmakers, consider the Islamic State a danger to the United States, the man most responsible for protecting U.S. interests has suggested that they are overreacting.
ISIS is a junior varsity squad, Obama shrugged last fall.
Social media exaggerates the horrors, he sniffed last week.
Even today, pressed for clarity of his vow to "roll them back," Obama said, "We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL's sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities, to the point where it's a manageable problem."
A manageable problem? While containing ISIS may be the best realistic outcome, "Let's Manage the Situation!" is hardly a national rallying cry,
I'm puzzled by Obama.
A calm, deliberative presence in the aftermath of the rush-to-misjudgment Bush era, Obama can nonetheless choose words that remind Americans of his role in the assassination of Osama bin Laden and countless other terrorists. Denouncing the Islamic State for the beheading of a second American journalist, Obama declared, "Our reach is long, and justice will be served." He's believable.
At the same time, he's maddeningly indecisive, unclear, and defensive—or, as Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said on Sunday, maybe he's "too cautious." Once, early in Wednesday's news conference, Obama mentioned almost in passing the threat posed "to U.S. interests." Much later, he spoke for a third time about dangers to the region, with no mention the United States.
Obama claimed to have been "very clear" from the start that the Islamic State was a major threat, which simply is not true. He took credit for airstrikes to protect U.S. interests inside Iraq (a limited success) and for giving the Iraqis "space" to form a unity government (which hasn't happened).
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reminds readers today that ISIS emerged from a context of three civil wars raging in the Arab world, which makes the U.S. response incredibly complicated. Chastened by his support of the Iraq War, the columnist urged caution. "ISIS is awful," he writes, "but it is not a threat to America's homeland.
I'm all-in on destroying ISIS. It is a sick, destabilizing movement. I support using U.S. air power and special forces to root it out, but only as part of a coalition, where everybody who has a stake in stability there pays their share and where mainstream Sunnis and Shiites take the lead by demonstrating that they hate ISIS more than they hate each other. Otherwise, we'll end up in the middle of a God-awful mess of duplicitous allies and sectarian passions, and nothing good we do will last.
Friedman is channeling Obama, or at least that's what I read into the president's reflective pause. Friedman and Obama are smarter men than I am, which may explain why I can't answer this question: Why is it safe to assume that Islamic State fighters—armed with weapons, money, U.S. passports, and a thirst for American blood—won't take the fight directly to us?
This doesn't strike me as an issue that can be merely managed. As Friedman suggests with his call for an international coalition, it's Obama's job to lead.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.