Obama’s Muted Response to the ISIS and Ukraine Crises
Policy + Politics

Obama’s Muted Response to the ISIS and Ukraine Crises

Congress is still waiting for President Obama to spell out the new war powers he needs to defeat ISIS in the Middle East. Anxious lawmakers, however, must settle for a far more general overview of his national security strategy – one containing more platitudes than military prescriptions.

The White House plans to release its second and final blueprint of American global leadership Friday in what one official described as a “compass” for how Obama will lead in a volatile world.

Related: ISIS Outrage Dominates Ash Carter’s Senate Hearing   

The report’s release coincides with ISIS’s claim today that the Jordanian bombing in northern Syria intended to avenge the death of a captured Jordanian pilot had killed an American woman held hostage by the group.

The claim has been dismissed by Jordan as a P.R. stunt and discounted by the White House until there’s proof of her death.

Yet with mounting global outrage over ISIS’s brutal immolation of the Jordanian pilot and the fear of Russian incursions in eastern Ukraine exploding into a wider war, the National Security Strategy offers few clues as to how Obama will manage the  these global crises.

Early reports say he’ll defend his handling of global military and foreign policy crises while arguing that the urgency of combatting ISIS and countering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s encroachment in Ukraine be balanced with concern about long-term challenges like climate change, global health and cyber-attacks, The New York Times has noted.

Related: The Three Hidden Messages Behind ISIS’s Bloody Rampages 

“The question is never whether America should lead, but how we should lead,” Obama says in the report. He argues the U.S. should avoid the deployment of large ground forces like those sent by former president George W. Bush more than a decade ago to Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11.  

“We will lead with purpose, guided by our enduring national interests and values and committed to advancing a balanced portfolio of priorities worthy of a great power,” the report says, according to the White House. “We will lead with strength, harnessing a resurgent economy, increased energy security, and unrivaled military…”

For many Republicans who have wanted a more aggressive strategy for fighting ISIS and containing Russia, the document may strike them as largely pedantic and aspirational.

Indeed, for the first time, a presidential national security strategy makes it a priority to promote the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people around the world. “We will advance respect for universal values at home and around the world by leading the international community to prevent and respond to human rights abuses and mass atrocities as well as gender-based violence and discrimination against LGBT persons,” the White House said.

Related: McCain Moves Center Stage on War and Foreign Policy   

Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ) repeatedly voiced frustration with Obama’s handling of the Middle East crisis at a hearing this week on the nomination of Ashton Carter as defense secretary. “It doesn’t sound like a strategy to me,” McCain snapped after Carter described the administration’s approach to defeating ISIS with a combination of airstrikes and ground action by Iraqi government troops and “moderate” Syrian rebel forces.

Carter didn’t try hard to contradict the criticisms of McCain and other Republicans who will soon vote to confirm Carter to succeed Chuck Hagel. Carter, a former deputy defense secretary who enjoys good relations with Congress, even suggested he might press Obama to take a tougher stand against ISIS if he concluded the war effort wasn’t succeeding.

When asked if he’d favor sending military arms to Ukraine to battle the Russian-backed separatists – something Obama has not been willing to do – Carter replied, “I very much incline in that direction.”

The strategy document doesn’t include a draft or outline of an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS, Defense One reported. Lawmakers await new language from the White House to supplant earlier war powers authorizations to combat terrorism before they take action.  

Related: Can the U.S. Defeat ISIS Without a War Powers Deal?   

During his State of the Union address last month, Obama again indicated he’d like to work with Congress to draft an AUMF, but departed from his prepared text to add, “We need that authority.” That was counter to the administration’s argument since last summer that Obama didn’t need permission to conduct the military operation against ISIS. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said Thursday he expects to see the administration’s proposal for new war powers shortly.

Last December, before Republicans controlled the Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee approved a measure authorizing U.S. military action against ISIS. It had two caveats proposed by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA): First, the U.S. would not send more ground troops to Iraq or Syria except to protect U.S. personnel, gather intelligence, plan operations or direct airstrikes. Second, the next president would need to seek renewed authority if the conflict extends beyond three years.

McCain and other defense hawks say the commander-in-chief should have maximum leeway in fighting ISIS, to counteract a brutal Islamic army that has captured territory and enslaved and murdered scores of people in Iraq and Syria.

The release of a video by ISIS this week showing the 26-year-old Jordanian pilot burned to death evoked outraged around the globe. It also prompted Jordan King Abdullah II to order the execution of two convicted terrorists and stepped up Jordanian air strikes against ISIS strongholds.

Related: 9 ISIS Weapons That Will Shock You

The White House hastily called a meeting between Obama and the king, who was visiting Washington, before Abdullah rushed home to handle the crisis. While many members of the House and Senate armed services committee clamored for a tough response to ISIS, U.S. officials told reporters they did not anticipate any expansion or change in current strategy.

“We’re going to remain committed to this, as we have been, and there’s not going to be any loss of focus,” said Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, Pentagon press secretary.

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