Obama on ISIL, immigration, and his regrettable golf game
WASHINGTON, September 7, 2014 — President Obama said Sunday morning that he will meet with congressional leaders on Tuesday, then address America on Wednesday to lay out his administration’s game plan against ISIL.
Obama made his comments to Chuck Todd on this week’s edition of NBC’s Meet the Press. Other points he made during the interview:
Asked about his plan to deal with the Islamic State, Obama said:
I’m preparing the country to make sure that we deal with a threat from ISIL. … This administration has systematically dismantled al Qaeda … We just yesterday announced the fact that we had taken out the top leader of Al-Shabaab the terrorist organization in Somalia. …
So what I have done over the last several months is, first and foremost, make sure that we got eyes on the problem, that we shifted resources, intelligence, reconnaissance. We did an assessment on the ground. The second step was to make sure that we protected American personnel, our embassies, our consulates. That included taking air strikes to ensure that towns like Erbil were not overrun, critical infrastructure, like the Mosul Dam was protected, and that we were able to engage in key humanitarian assistance programs that have saved thousands of lives.
Obama’s comments suggest that he has been slowly, carefully acting against ISIL after destroying al Qaeda, and that his administration is not as lacking in strategy as his comment about not yet having a strategy led everyone to believe.
To brag about the destruction of al Qaeda, a dubious assertion, is like a physician bragging about destroying a primary tumor while ignoring the metastases. The problem with Islamic terrorism is systemic; destroying one organization leads to the appearance of three more, all of them carrying the DNA of the original. If al Qaeda is destroyed but its daughter organization, ISIL, is not, then al Qaeda hasn’t really been destroyed.
This is not the equivalent of the Iraq war. What this is, is similar to the kinds of counterterrorism campaigns that we’ve been engaging in consistently over the last five, six, seven years. And the good news is that because of American leadership, we have, I believe, a broad-based coalition internationally and regionally to be able to deal with the problem.
ISIL is nothing like the terrorist organizations we’ve engaged over the last five years in terms of money, army and organization. Obama denied during the interview that he ever referred specifically to ISIL as a “JV squad,” and admitted that they are now definitely in the varsity.
To deal with ISIL will take more than drones, and Obama promised a major, integrated operation including economic, political and military elements. There will be no American “boots on the ground,” but boots there will be — Syrian and Iraqi boots. How he will cooperate with Syria’s President Assad — without looking as if “we’re doing it on behalf of Assad” — to do this, or create a new government in Iraq by next week, he didn’t explain.
According to Obama, our campaign against ISIL will involve “strategic messaging” in the social media, reaching out to and working with moderate Sunni leaders, finding “millions of decent, good Sunnis, many of whom have been displaced,” reaching out to them, finding “a military and political structure that’ll allow them to express themselves,” and persuading them that ISIL “is an abortion, a distortion, an abomination” of Islam.
Islam may be a “religion of peace,” but that message has not yet effectively penetrated much of the Middle East. Obama must believe that his powers of persuasion are extraordinary if he plans to defeat ISIL by appealing to the better nature of Syrian rebels and Iraqi refugees. America is in no mood to spend the lives or the enormous amount of money required to defeat ISIL with boots on the ground, but since before the “Arab Spring,” political self expression has been a problem in the region, not a solution.
When Todd asked about the decision to delay executive action on immigration until after the election, Obama said that politics was not the reason. Instead, as with Iraq, he emphasized that the delay was a matter of prudence, imposed by the time required to carefully study the problem and prepare a response.
Not only do I want to make sure that the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted, but here’s the thing, and Chuck, and I’m being honest now, about the politics of it. … in terms of these unaccompanied children, we’ve actually systematically worked through the problem, so that the surge in June dropped in July, dropped further in August. It’s now below what it was last year. But that’s not the impression on people’s minds. And what I want to do is, when I take executive action, I want to make sure that it’s sustainable.
… the truth of the matter is that the politics did shift midsummer because of that problem. I want to spend some time, even as we’re getting all our ducks in a row for the executive action, I also want to make sure that the public understands why we’re doing this, why it’s the right thing for the American people, why it’s the right thing for the American economy.
Obama declared that “on almost every economic index that you can think of, America’s better off now than we were five years ago.” The problem is that most Americans are experiencing their own stagnant incomes and rising prices; they aren’t experiencing economic indices.
Poverty isn’t just an index or an income level; it is also a set of beliefs about your circumstances and expectations for the future. It includes a pessimistic frame of mind, and when it comes to the economy, polls tell us that over 70 percent of Americans are pessimistic.
A rising tide that doesn’t raise your boat looks more like a flood. Most American “boats” are stuck in government concrete. An increase in per capita GDP that doesn’t raise your income is just a subject of morbid curiosity, not a cause for celebration.
One of the most widely discussed comments Obama made during the interview was in reference to the golf game he played immediately after his statement about the murder of American journalist James Foley:
But there’s no doubt that, after having talked to the families, where it was hard for me to hold back tears listening to the pain that they were going through, after the statement that I made, that you know, I should’ve anticipated the optics.
This has been interpreted as an expression of regret. If it is regret, it isn’t for golfing, but for not anticipating how others would see it. His heart is in the right place, he says, but he has a hard time convincing us.
But part of this job is also the theatre of it. A part of it is, you know, how are you, how, how are you, well, it’s not something that, that always comes naturally to me. But it matters. And I’m mindful of that. So the important thing is, in addition to that, is am I getting the policies right? Am I protecting the American people? Am I doing what’s necessary?
And when it comes to the policies, when it comes to the actions we’ve taken, I have no higher priority than keeping the American people safe. I think I’ve done a very good job during the course of these last, close to six years, doing so.
Obama’s interview with Chuck Todd was designed to send a message: “I’m careful and thoughtful, but also energized, plans in place, ready to go. I’m doing a great job.”
Obama’s speech on Wednesday should clarify his plans for ISIL. Whether he’s judged as doing a great job will depend on that speech, and on how well he executes — in due course and after careful deliberation — his other plans after November. Even a lame-duck president retains considerable influence and power, and two years is a political eternity. Obama clearly intends to remain relevant. Whether he will remains to be seen.