Obama Seeks to Reassure Skeptical Public on ISIS Fight (New York Times)
WASHINGTON — After meeting with his national security team, President Obama headed from the Situation Room upstairs to a bank of waiting cameras to reassure the nation on Wednesday that it had nothing to fear as it headed into the Thanksgiving weekend.
But there was a subtext to his televised statement as well. He wanted the country to know that he does, in fact, feel its anxiety in the wake of theattacks in Paris and that he does, in fact, have a plan for defeating the terrorists of the Islamic State and that it will work if given enough time.
Mr. Obama understood if the audience was skeptical. Although he once enjoyed the benefit of the doubt as the nation’s commander in chief, he does not anymore. His response to the Paris attacks has been criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike. New polls show that most of the American public has lost confidence in Mr. Obama’s handling of the terrorist threat.
Sixty-six percent of Americans in a new CBS News survey said the president has no clear road map for combating the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL. Just 36 percent approved of his overall handling of terrorism, an all-time low for Mr. Obama on an issue that once earned him some of his highest ratings.
Beyond Republican presidential candidates and congressional leaders, who could be expected to disparage Mr. Obama’s leadership as the nominating campaign season accelerates, many Democratic political figures now are also criticizing it, distancing themselves from it, or pressing him to make changes.
Among them are Democratic lawmakers like Senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Mark R. Warner of Virginia and Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, not to mention others who worked for Mr. Obama, like former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Michael G. Vickers, who was the former under secretary of defense for intelligence. And then there is the Democrat best positioned to succeed him, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“The president’s greatest admirers will not say that his Syria policy has been his finest hour — they won’t because they can’t,” said William A. Galston, a former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton who is now at the Brookings Institution. Syria, he added, “is a problem from hell, but we haven’t done our best.”
Peter D. Feaver, a former national security aide to Mr. Clinton and President George W. Bush, said former Obama advisers are either openly critical or “willing to be off-message with the White House” about the nature of the threat.
“What is interesting is that it is hard to find any experienced Democratic national security expert echoing the current White House line,” said Mr. Feaver, a professor at Duke University.
Some Democrats have pushed back against the blame heaped on Mr. Obama, applauding his willingness to resist political pressure to escalate militarily in a way that they fear would lead to another Iraq war.
“He’s not running for re-election, so he’s not getting involved in the bidding war over how much he can beat his chest on ISIS,” said Daniel Benjamin, who was Mr. Obama’s counterterrorism chief at the State Department and is now at Dartmouth College. “Maybe that’s not very satisfying from a public relations perspective, but it’s good to know that there’s a grown-up in the conversation.”
Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and Democratic Party chairman who ran for president in 2004 on an antiwar platform, urged Mr. Obama to resist the popular tide. “I think the president is doing well,” he said. “Much of the criticism is political in nature. I think he is right to stay the course.”
But even defenders like Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Dean argue for more action. Mr. Dean, like Mrs. Clinton, said he supported creating a no-fly zone in Syria to protect refugees fleeing the civil war, something Mr. Obama has consistently rejected. Mr. Benjamin, like Mr. Vickers, said “the tempo” of the air campaign should be increased. Others call for more special forces on the ground.
“It’s important to have some victories on the ground in Syria and Iraq,” Thomas E. Donilon, the former national security adviser to Mr. Obama,said at a forum with Mr. Feaver at Duke last week. “ISIS is able to attract followers from all across the world because of a narrative of success, so we need to show them losing.”
Mr. Obama seemed to be addressing that with his statement on Wednesday. His comments while traveling in Asia last week struck even some Democrats as off-key, exhibiting more passion in arguing with Republicans over refugee policy than in taking on the terrorists who had ravaged Paris. While President François Hollande vowed “merciless” retaliation, Mr. Obama defended his current strategy.
“We needed to hear a more forceful statement about the barbarity of these attacks and the fact that America is committed to destroying and eradicating ISIL,” Senator Warner said on MSNBC this week.
Mr. Schiff, the California representative, told the radio host Warren Olney that Mr. Obama needed to be more aggressive. “The president’s strategy will simply take too long,” he said, “and the longer that ISIS is allowed to control territory and develop resources from that territory and plot and plan, the more vulnerable we become to a Paris-type attack.”
At the White House on Wednesday, Mr. Obama said that “it’s understandable” that Americans feel anxious about the prospect of such an attack, and he reassured them that there was no credible, specific threat to the United States at the moment. “We’re stepping up the pressure on ISIL where it lives, and we will not let up, adjusting our tactics where necessary, until they are beaten,” he said.
The president’s public standing on terrorism is a far cry from the days after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, when 72 percent of Americans supported his handling of the threat. But he has grown frustrated at what he sees as shallow suggestions or blustery critiques. Operating from a philosophy of “don’t do stupid stuff,” Mr. Obama long ago concluded that the various ideas pressed on him would either not work or result in undesirable consequences.
“Anyone has to acknowledge that we’re not solving the ISIS problem with what we’re currently doing,” said Philip H. Gordon, who stepped down recently as Mr. Obama’s White House adviser on the Middle East. “But the president has always been focused on what comes next and does that next step actually help you solve the problem or create new problems.”
Others said Mr. Obama had become like the proverbial general fighting the last war. “He’s so preoccupied with not making the mistakes of the past that he’s making new ones all his own,” Mr. Galston said. “The president is giving the impression that at this point he’s almost paralyzed by analysis.”
Rosa Brooks, a Pentagon adviser in Mr. Obama’s first term, said that she was glad Mr. Obama was resisting pressure to do more militarily, but that the problem was that the president’s goals were in conflict — halting the Syrian civil war, toppling Syria’s brutal president, defeating the Islamic State and staying out of another quagmire.
“The policy is still fundamentally incoherent,” she said, “but if we start from the premise that we have a fundamentally incoherent policy, maybe that’s the best we can do in a terrible situation.”
Source: New York Times
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