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'We don't have a strategy yet': What everyone gets wrong about the quote that will haunt Obama

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

When President Obama gave a press conference Thursday afternoon on Iraq and Ukraine, he mostly reiterated things he or his aides had already said. But there was one line that'll be quoted again and again, particularly by critics.

When asked about whether his future plans for combating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) required congressional authorization, Obama ducked. "I don't want to put the cart before the horse," he said, before uttering the line that'll likely haunt him for the rest of his presidency.

"We don't have a strategy yet."

On one level, it's an absolutely devastating indictment of the administration's approach to Iraq and Syria. The president took pains to emphasize the fact that his administration had been warning the Iraqi government, for at least a year, about the threat from ISIS. If his administration was so concerned about ISIS, why didn't it have a plan for dealing with its advance in place? Why do they seemingly have no plan for kicking ISIS, perhaps the most dangerous extremist group in the world, out of the Maryland-sized territory it controls?

Hitting Obama for dithering in the face of a crisis is a pretty venerable line of attack, dating back to Obama's lengthy review of Afghanistan policy at the beginning of his first administration. It pairs well with another common criticism: that the president simply has no vision for handling the major challenges in world politics, and simply lurches from crisis to crisis without any vision of how to string them together.

"We don't have a strategy yet" seems to vindicate both at the same time. It sounds like Obama is admitting that he has no idea what he's doing in Iraq.

There's also a more sympathetic interpretation.

Viewed in context with the rest of his remarks, Obama's point might be that there is no good strategy available for fully defeating ISIS in both Iraq and Syria — which is both consistent with his approach the crisis in those countries, in which he has primarily avoided risky escalation, and perhaps true.

Throughout Obama's addresses on ISIS, including this press conference, he's emphasized the need for a political strategy to defeat ISIS, one that focuses not on Washington but on Baghdad and, in an ideal world, Damascus. Barring political reform in the Iraqi government, and the development of some sort of peace in Syria, it'll be really hard to fully defeat ISIS. In a changing, complicated situation, Obama's thinking has long seemed to be, it's better not to prematurely commit to a specific problem that might not fit the changing situation.

You can't have a strategy for what can't be done, in other words.

Whether you're inclined to be charitable to Obama here depends on whether you think Obama's assessment of the ISIS situation is correct. If you agree with him, and think the the US can't plausibly defeat ISIS on its own, then you also probably don't think the US needs a comprehensive strategy for ISIS — the regional actors of the Middle East do.

If, on the other hand, you think the United States could make, or could have made, a real difference on the ground, then "we don't have a strategy" vindicates everything you've ever suspected about the president's foreign policy.

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