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What President Obama really said about his ISIS strategy

President Obama listens to a reporter's question as he speaks to the media at the conclusion of the summit of G7 nations at Schloss Elmau on June 8, 2015, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
President Obama listens to a reporter's question as he speaks to the media at the conclusion of the summit of G7 nations at Schloss Elmau on June 8, 2015, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

It's been widely reported that President Obama said Monday that he doesn't have a strategy for defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Some news outlets have played it as a gaffe that reveals Obama's own doubts about his ability to defeat ISIS. And he may well have such doubts — many Americans do. But that's not what he said.

Here's the headline-ready excerpt from a Monday Q&A session with reporters at the G7 economic summit in Germany that set the Internet atwitter:

"We don't yet have a complete strategy"

Sometimes context is meaningless. This time it's meaningful. So let's hit the instant replay button.

Obama called on Justin Sink of Bloomberg, who asked:

"You said yesterday, ahead of your meeting with Prime Minister Cameron, that you’d assess what was working and what wasn’t," Sink said. "So I’m wondering, bluntly, what is not working in the fight against the Islamic State?"

The president, who has stumbled when talking about ISIS in the past, gave a lengthy response that revealed absolutely nothing new.

"With respect to ISIL, we have made significant progress in pushing back ISIL from areas in which they had occupied or disrupted local populations, but we’ve also seen areas like in Ramadi where they’re displaced in one place and then they come back in, in another. And they’re nimble, and they’re aggressive, and they’re opportunistic.

Obama goes on:

So we’re reviewing a range of plans for how we might do that, essentially accelerating the number of Iraqi forces that are properly trained and equipped and have a focused strategy and good leadership. And when a finalized plan is presented to me by the Pentagon, then I will share it with the American people. We don’t yet have a complete strategy because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis, as well, about how recruitment takes place, how that training takes place. And so the details of that are not yet worked out."

What Obama said is that there's no full strategy yet for training and equipping Iraqi soldiers because "it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis." That shouldn't come as a surprise, since Obama was meeting on the sidelines of the conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the US has been calling for improvements in the Iraqi military.

It's also different than saying he has no strategy for ISIS. We know the difference because Obama has actually said before, at a September 4 news conference, that he wasn't ready to seek approval from Congress for an ISIS plan because he didn't have one.

"I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet."

The language is strikingly similar, but Obama's remarks on Monday were limited to the plan for the Iraqi army. Back in September, the question was whether he had any plan at all to take to Capitol Hill.

Here's how Sink, the reporter who asked the question, played Obama's response in his story:

"Obama said the U.S. doesn’t yet 'have a complete strategy' to accelerate recruitment and training of Iraqi forces."

Monday's comment, and the one from September, ranks high on the list of politically inept things Obama has said in his tenure as president. But both are still far behind the remark he made in comparing ISIS to a junior varsity sports team in an interview with the New Yorker's David Remnick that was published in January 2014.

"The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant."

There's a reason reporters quickly jumped on the truncated quotation Monday, and it isn't that they're all out to get Obama. It's because they know Obama doesn't yet have a winning strategy for fighting ISIS. It doesn't take a chopped-up quotation to make that point.