You may have heard the explosive news that President Obama wore a tan suit yesterday, but did you know he gave a press conference in that tan suit? It was a fairly wide-ranging affair, but to hear the media tell it, the only takeaway is that tan-suited Obama said “We don’t have a strategy yet” for fighting ISIS in Syria. After delivering opening remarks on the economy (which grew at levels that exceeded estimates in the 2nd quarter), the situation in Ukraine (Russia is invading incursioning), and the fight against ISIS (or ISIL, or the Islamic State, or Islamic State-Diddy), the President took questions from reporters, beginning with freshly-minted Meet the Press host Chuck Todd.
Keeping in mind that President Obama had just finished describing a “comprehensive strategy” to deal with ISIS in Syria, here’s the money quote, in response to Todd, asking “Do you need Congress’s approval to go into Syria?”
“But I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. We don’t have a strategy yet. I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at than we currently are. And I think that’s not just my assessment, but the assessment of our military as well.”
As Press Secretary Josh Earnest quickly pointed out on Twitter, the President wasn’t referring to an overall strategy to fight ISIS in Syria, but to a specific set of military plans, which should be obvious. Even if he did have one (he likely has dozens), I doubt anyone would expect him to pull down a map in the briefing room and go “Well, Chuck, we’re going to launch airstrikes from here, here, and here.”
But that’s the quote that everyone seized on, and which Earnest went on to defend in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes Thursday night, an interview which Hayes comically prefaced by deriding the critics who seized on it to “blast the President on foreign policy.”
That bit of scolding was so comical because here is what was happening on MSNBC literally seconds after the President finished his press conference:
Yes, there are deranged right-wingers Ezra Klein and Andrea Mitchell seizing on the quote to blast Obama on foreign policy. It’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between MSNBC and Fox News, save the better vocabulary.
Soundbite journalism is irritating, to be sure, but what’s really frustrating is that these reporters and analysts, who are supposed to serve the public by clarifying these issues, are missing the real story from that same exact paragraph. The real news here is the President’s insistence that the press is going way overboard in assuming there will be bombing in Syria, when that’s exactly what the administration has wanted them to do. Since his remarks on the murder of James Foley, the President and his administration have been going around all but saying “E-way ill-way omb-bay Yria-say!” (Just Google the phrase “regardless of borders.”)
That’s where the real strategy is. As I’ve said before, President Obama is a poker player, strategically, and what he’s doing here is a classic betting maneuver. For the past week or so, he’s been getting all of the other players at the table to anticipate airstrikes on ISIS in Syria. Pretty much all of those players, the other countries in the region, Congress, even Assad, to some degree, really want this to happen, but really don’t want to have anything to do with making it happen. They all want a piece of the pot, while risking a minimal number of chips.
Now that the President has everyone wanting to see his cards, he’s trying to draw them into the pot with the first half of a check-raise. By backing off of his strong opening bet, the President is trying to draw the other players into pushing some more chips in. If the other countries in the middle east want to see those aces, they’ve got to pony up, and so do the President’s Congressional critics. But the bottom line is that the President is pot-committed; he can’t fold now. Chuck Todd was right when he speculated that it’s a matter of “when,” and not “if,” we strike ISIS in Syria.
Here’s the full video of President Obama’s press conference: