“We will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice,” Vice President Joe Biden told an audience at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine about the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) on Wednesday, “because Hell is where they will reside.”
Biden said this to vent his outrage over the videotaped beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff by ISIS, the second such atrocity in two weeks. While Biden threatened to rain hell and destruction on ISIS, however, his boss threatened to shower them with “management” and shrinkage.
At first, Barack Obama sounded tough as he spoke from the NATO summit in Talinn, Estonia, where the Baltic States have new worries over Russian expansionism and Western dithering in response to it. America’s goal, Obama declared, was to “degrade and destroy” ISIS. In the same press conference, Obama then backed away from that declaration.
“Our objective is to make sure they aren’t an ongoing threat to the region,” he replied after ABC’s Ann Compton asked directly whether Obama had committed himself to the destruction of ISIS.
After another question, Obama retreated from his initial statement even further. “We know that if we are joined by the international community,” Obama continued, “we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its military capability to the point where it is a manageable problem.” Within the space of a few minutes, the US position shifted from “destruction” to “manageable problem.
CBS’ Major Garrett noted that Obama had “softened that language” within “moments,” while ABC News pointed out that “making ISIS a ‘manageable problem’ sounds like a far cry from destroying it.”
Indeed, it does; but this incoherence has become a familiar quality within the Obama administration. Wednesday’s juxtaposition of the divergent character of remarks within the White House provided the closest proximity of contradictory indicators for the Obama administration’s policies in regard to ISIS in particular, and its regional foreign policy in general. Cabinet officials have belatedly sounded the alarm on ISIS over the last few weeks, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calling the terrorist army an “imminent threat.”
Obama, on the other hand, talked at the same time as though nothing in particular was amiss. Days after both statements from his own handpicked national security team members, Obama told the audience at a DNC fundraiser that “the Middle East … is less dangerous now than [it was] 20 years ago, 25 years ago, or 30 years ago.” Obama argued that the only thing that has changed is that “we’re just noticing now in part because of social media.”
Even after ramping up his rhetoric by pledging to be “vigilant and relentless” after the Foley beheading, Obama punctuated it by returning to the golf course immediately afterward.
This disconnect between President and Vice President was even starker, however. Obama has spent the last two weeks talking tough but proposing no action at all, other than the tactical strikes necessary to keep ISIS away from Irbil and the Mosul Dam. The President has repeatedly rejected the option of putting American troops on the ground to fight ISIS, even while Kerry calls for an international coalition to stop their aggression.
The White House has offered contradictory signals on whether it wants to conduct air strikes on ISIS targets in Syria as well as the tactical strikes in Iraq, which makes Biden’s statement yesterday sound even more futile and empty than it otherwise would. We will follow ISIS to the gates of hell, but not to Syria? We will confront the evil of ISIS wherever it spreads, except every place it already resides?
Just a few hours after Obama’s comments in Talinn, CNN’s Jim Sciutto asked the Defense Secretary to explain the contradictory declarations of the Commander in Chief made just a few hours earlier. “Which it is?” Sciutto asked. “Is the mission goal to contain or destroy?” Hagel ended up citing Biden in discarding the “manageable threat” goal, saying that he hadn’t heard the exchanges with the media but had only read Obama’s written remarks. “The mission is very clearly, and we’re providing the President with these options, to degrade and destroy ISIS’ capability,” Hagel emphasized. “It’s not to contain them.”
The failure demonstrated by Obama and his administration over the last several weeks and months as the ISIS threat grew and metastasized is, at its core, a leadership crisis. Forget being the leader of the free world; this President can’t even lead his own team within one coherent message and strategy. As ABC’s State Department reporter, Ali Weinberg remarked yesterday, this was the message just from one single day: “We're going to destroy ISIS. Or manage them. Or shrink their sphere of influence. Or follow them to the gates of hell.”
With that failure to generate a united and coherent approach to ISIS among his own team, how could anyone expect the President to lead the world against this new terrorist army and the threat it poses to the region and the world? Obama insists that the “international community” has to unite to do one of the above – which one depends on the moment one asks Obama. But the international community looks to America to lead on global security. Instead of acting to take control of the situation, Obama has returned to “leading from behind” again, this time behind even his own Cabinet.
Obama has promised to shrink the ISIS threat, but it’s Obama who appears to be shrinking in stature with each passing day and with each new crisis. The West has a leadership vacuum, and that may be more dangerous in the long run than the power vacuum Obama left in Iraq.
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