Thirty years ago this summer, commentator Michael Kinsley set the bar when it comes to defining a political gaffe. Kinsley wrote, “a ‘gaffe’ occurs not when a politician lies, but when he tells the truth.”
President Barack Obama’s candid remarks Thursday on combating the Islamic State were quickly labelled as a “gaffe.” From the looks of it, the president’s remarks fit neatly into Kinsley’s definition — the accidental acknowledgement of something uncomfortable.
Let’s review what the president said regarding the terrorists who recently beheaded an American journalist and have left a wake of death and destruction across Syria and Iraq.
“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse: we don’t have a strategy yet,” Obama said. “I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggest that folks are getting a little further ahead of what we’re at than what we currently are.”
No strategy to deal with these bloodthirsty barbarians? Is that what the president just said? Cue the freakout. History shows that Americans prefer chief executives who can talk confidently about plans and strategies, even if those schemes fall apart. Ambiguity doesn’t play well in the United States.
Josh Earnest, the president’s top spokesman, went on CNN later Thursday to clear up a few things.
According to Earnest, “the president was asked a specific question about what approach he was going to pursue when it came to possible military action in Syria against ISIL. That was the specific question he was asked and the president was explicit, that he is still waiting for plans that are being developed by the Pentagon for military options that he has for going into Syria.”
Meanwhile, he continued, “the president has been very clear for months about what our comprehensive strategy is for confronting the ISIL threat in Iraq.”
None of this slowed down the president’s opposition in the Congress. “The fact that the president admitted he doesn’t have [a strategy] should alarm every American,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, “The threat from ISIL is real and it’s growing — and it is time for President Obama to exercise some leadership in launching a response.”
According to results of a Pew Research Center poll released last week, a majority of Americans agree with McConnell and Boehner. The poll found 54 percent agree that Obama is “not tough enough” in defending the United States or executing foreign policy.
In 2009, Obama addressed the Muslim world in a speech in Egypt. The United States, he vowed, will “relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security. Because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children. And it is my first duty as president to protect the American people.”
It’s hard to imagine any American who would object to this goal. The application is problematic when it comes to confronting the jihadists with U.S. firepower and/or committing America’s sons and daughters to a Middle Eastern battlefield.
While it’s easy to find critics of Obama’s “no strategy” remark, it’s much more difficult to find those who offer their own workable strategy for confronting the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, where there are really no good options.