On Tuesday, the world was once again shocked by the sickening execution of an American journalist by the terrorist army ISIS, and in a joint press conference in Estonia early this morning, President Obama offered his first public comments on the killing of Steven Sotloff. The president also said that the objective now is to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, but then walked that back a bit on followup.
After opening with remarks on Estonia and the NATO alliance, the president addressed the murder of Steven Sotloff, expressing similar sentiments to those he delivered following the murder of Jim Foley, contrasting Sotloff’s courageous work with the cowardice and barbarism of those who murdered him.
Obama’s message to ISIS was, “We will not be intimidated. Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists. And those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget, and that our reach is long and that justice will be served.”
Whereas the White House has been somewhat cautious in defining the mission against ISIS, the president inched out onto a limb, telling ABC News Radio’s Ann Compton that “the bottom line is this: Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States.”
He also addressed those critics who seized on his “We don’t have a strategy yet” soundbite last week, explaining that he was referring to a specific set of plans for military action within Syria, and not a broader strategy against ISIS.
Compton picked up on the former comment, and asked the president, “Did you just say that the strategy is to destroy ISIS, or to simply contain them or push them back?”
The president seemed to hedge somewhat, responding that “Our objective is to make sure that ISIL is not an ongoing threat to the region,” and explained that as with core al Qaeda, there might be remnants, but that “the kind of systemic and broad-based aggression” ISIS has engaged in can be “degraded to the point where it is no longer the kind of factor that we’ve seen it being over the last several months.”
Toward the end of the press conference, the president circled back on those comments again, in response to Reuters’ Steve Holland:
And to go back to what I said earlier to Ann, 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 is a manageable problem.
On the surface, this all might seem like a hedge against the sort of rhetorical trap that the right wing and the press have tried to spring on him regarding his “junior varsity” comments. The idea is that once the president promises to “destroy” ISIS, his critics will call him a failure if even a shred of ISIS remains, even if it’s just a hot schoolteacher with an amulet.
It’s more likely, though, that the president walked that comment back a little out of a recognition that it is important for the United States not to make a unilateral commitment to destroying ISIS until the regional coalition he’s spoken of is formed, and until Congress gets on board. This is also why he didn’t whip out a chalkboard and go all Madden ’15 last week when he was asked about bombing in Syria. The actions we’ve taken against ISIS, thus far, have been fixed around a narrow set of pretexts that fit comfortably within the president’s war powers. We’ve got personnel in Iraq to protect, and the Iraqi government has asked for air support. Crossing the line into Syria requires more than that.
Here’s the full video of President Obama’s joint press conference with President Toomas Ilves of Estonia: