Amid conflicting congressional demands, impatient Arab allies, and public concern that he will do too much or too little, President Obama made bluntly clear Thursday why he has not yet implemented a comprehensive U.S. response to the Islamist insurgency that is rapidly spreading across the Middle East.
“We don’t have a strategy yet,” Obama said, in response to questions about when he is prepared to begin military action in Syria, and, if not, why not?
Rarely has a president spoken so plainly.
“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” he said. The suggestion that “we’re about to go full scale on an elaborate strategy for defeating ISIL . . . that we’ll start moving forward imminently and somehow Congress, still out of town, is going to be left in the dark, that’s not what’s going to happen.” ISIL is one of several acronyms referring to the Islamic State.
Instead, the president said in a White House news conference, he has asked the Pentagon to prepare options while he puts together a broad, long-term plan including military, political, economic and diplomatic aspects and continues recruiting partner countries in the region and beyond to help carry it out.
“We’re not going to do that alone,” he said of the still-in-the-works strategy. “We’re going to have to do that with other partners.”
Many of those potential partners said they remain in the dark about what Obama has in mind, and some have expressed impatience about the length of time the administration is taking to figure it out.
“There is definitely more of an attitude [within the administration] to get involved” in the wake of recent militant advances in Syria and Iraq and last week’s execution of an American journalist, said one senior official from the region. But “no one has had a conversation with us as to what that means.”
“When a superpower, the superpower, is reluctant in developing policy, it’s not only about leadership, it’s about having a coherent approach to crises,” said another regional official.
“The ball is in the U.S. court,” said a third.
Senior officials from four Middle Eastern states spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid public indications of disquiet with Obama.
All expressed an eagerness to follow the U.S. lead in Syria, including, in some cases, possible participation in airstrikes against the Islamic State, should that be Obama’s decision. All of their governments have repeatedly expressed concern over the past three years of Syria’s civil war at what they’ve seen as administration reluctance to assert strong leadership in support of moderate rebels battling the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Since then, the war has become a three-way battle among the rebels, Assad and Islamist forces who see an opportunity in the Syrian chaos to establish an Islamic caliphate across the region. The Islamic State group is now the strongest of those forces and this summer extended its reach across northern and eastern Syria and into neighboring Iraq.
Early this month, Obama authorized U.S. airstrikes and other assistance against the Sunni Muslim militants in Iraq. Limited to the protection of U.S. citizens and facilities, they are designed to give the administration time to assess a broader strategy and to give Iraq’s Shiite-led government the opportunity to turn its Sunni constituents against Islamic State with less sectarian, more inclusive policies.
Sunni governments in the region say they approve of U.S. actions in Iraq and will move to persuade their co-religionists there to firmly back the new government as soon as it demonstrates it is headed in the right direction.
But they now fear that the action in Iraq is not enough, and see an aggressively enforced U.S. strategy as the only way to overcome their own differences in the face of the larger Islamist threat, based in Syria, that could overwhelm them.
“In Syria, you have many actors, many moving pieces. There is not a coherent U.S. policy” to bring them all in line, an Arab official said. Countries the United States considers counterterrorism partners are broadly divided into two camps, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan on one side and Qatar and Turkey on the other. The division has led to mixed messages and often divergent actions in support of different rebel factions.
“We’re not inventing the wheel anew here,” the official said. “We’ve all been there. We’ve all tried policies. Some succeeded, some failed. . . . We’re trying to get a coherent policy that not only says Egypt right, Qatar wrong,” or vice versa, “but also tells those countries, okay, we need to agree on three, four or five points.”
“It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s about what we need to do.”
But Obama insisted Thursday that he would not be rushed into the broader strategy.
The president spoke before a meeting with his top national security team Thursday that he said would be limited to the discussion of continuing operations in Iraq.
Next week, he said, he will consult NATO allies on larger plans for Syria, Iraq and the Islamic State at an alliance summit in Wales, Obama said. Immediately afterward, he is sending Secretary of State John F. Kerry to the region to meet with Middle Eastern leaders.
Obama, Kerry and military leaders have spoken repeatedly in recent weeks of the need for a coalition, in the context of a partnership strategy the president outlined more than a year ago to combat terrorist threats beyond al-Qaeda, and potentially far more dangerous.
Once the strategy is determined, Obama said, “it’s going to be important for Congress to know what that is, in part because it may cost some money.”
He rejected criticism from some lawmakers for not seeking congressional approval for the limited Iraq operation. “As commander in chief, I have the authorities to engage in the acts that we are conducting currently,” Obama said.
Beyond that, he said, “there is no point in my asking for action on part of Congress before I know exactly what it is that is going to be required for us to get the job done.”
“It is my intention that Congress has to have some buy in as representatives of the American people,” Obama said. “And by the way, the American people need to hear what that strategy is.”
A majority of American public opinion has been resolutely opposed to U.S. military intervention in Syria. As midterm congressional elections approach in November, lawmakers will be watching to see whether that changes in the wake of Islamic State advances, threats to attack the United States and last week’s videotaped beheading of American journalist James Foley.
Unlike the partisan lines along which they have split on other issues, Congress has been divided on Syria, with many Democrats opposed to any return to war in the Middle East. Some Republicans have shared that concern, while others have pressed for more military action.
But both Republicans and Democrats agree that they want to be asked.