White House Again Confronts the ISIS 'Strategy' Question

The president's aides want you to know that Wednesday's announcement is part of a genuine, actual, long-established strategy.

President Barack Obama listens to a reporter's question as he speaks to the media at the conclusion of the summit of G7 nations at Schloss Elmau on June 8, 2015 near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. (National Journal)

Let the word go out to friend and foe, terrorist and ally, at home and abroad: President Obama has a strategy to counter the terrorists who call themselves the Islamic State. Really. All previous presidential musings are inoperative.

That seemed to be the main message to emerge from a flurry of White House public relations efforts Wednesday. Whatever else you may take from the announcement of modest steps to be taken in the battle against ISIS, the president's aides wanted you to know that this was all part of a genuine, actual, long-established strategy.

It was no surprise that the flurry came only two days after the president gave his critics more ammunition by rather inartfully saying in Germany that when it comes to a plan to equip and train Iraqi forces "we don't yet have a complete strategy." Though he clearly was only talking about how to fortify Iraq's military, the verbal stumble was a godsend to those trying to make a broader point about the administration's overall approach to the battle.

Stung by the criticism, the White House needed something to advance the discussion. So—just as they did in a very similar situation 10 months ago—new steps were announced. On Sept. 4, at a press conference, Obama said, "We don't have a strategy yet" for defeating ISIS. After several days of sustained criticism of the remark, the president delivered an address to the nation from the White House. Its message could be boiled down to two sentences early in the speech: "Our objective is clear. We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy."

His tone grew tougher with each terrorist beheading of innocents. But the criticism also grew with each captured city and with each sign of the ineffectiveness of any strategy grounded on faith that Iraq's soldiers are willing to fight for their own country. So it was no surprise when Obama's statements triggered more criticism.

Substantively, little in what the administration announced Wednesday will quell criticism from those in Congress who want a much more robust American response than sending 450 more military advisors and providing $8.3 million to a fund to help areas liberated from ISIS. At the least, they were hoping for American personnel to better select targets for airstrikes and the insertion of U.S. troops where needed.

But, for now, they will have to settle for assurances that there is a strategy—many reassurances. They began with the first sentence of the statement announcing the new steps, in which press secretary Josh Earnest stated that the president had approved "in furtherance of his comprehensive strategy to degrade and destroy the ISIL terrorist group."

There would be 20 more references to the president having a strategy—12 from Earnest during his regular briefing and eight from a group of four senior administration officials who talked to reporters.

Earnest cast the strategy as something constantly evolving as the situation in the Middle East changes. One of the questions always being asked, he said, is "what can we do to capitalize on those elements of our strategy that have proved effective in Iraq?" Later, he added that, "the strategy that the president has laid out has yielded important progress." He stressed that the president has told his national security team to "regularly be in the process of evaluating the strategy and looking for refinements and ways to optimize that strategy."

The steps announced earlier in the day, he said, were part of that. And, lest any reporter miss the message, Earnest concluded his briefing by reminding them that there is a "military strategy that the president has outlined for degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL."

It wasn't enough for some of the critics, though. Interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Idaho Republican Sen. James Risch was clearly frustrated and wanted more. "Our problem is we can't get a clear definition of what the strategy is in the Middle East, let alone what the specific strategy is for Iraq," he said. A member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, Risch said it isn't enough to say the strategy is to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorists. "We all want to do that," he said. "We all want to defeat ISIS, ISIL ... Our difficulty is, how do you do that?"