Is Obama Overly Cautious Regarding the Islamic State?

The president of the United States, Barack Obama, has promised a campaign to “destroy” the Islamic State, but the cautious tone of his statements has led to increased suspicion among politicians and experts who see reflected in his words a lack of any clear strategy against the jihadi.

The murder of American journalist Steven Sotloff, 13 days after fellow citizen James Foley was also killed, has boosted the U.S. consensus that airstrikes in Iraq are not enough to defeat the Islamic State. Every day more and more people are becoming increasingly impatient faced with the delay of the White House in updating its strategy.

“I think I’ve learned one thing about this president, and that is he’s very cautious. Maybe in this instance, too cautious,” said Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Obama’s reaction to the death of Sotloff — “justice will be served” — contrasted with Vice President Joe Biden’s reaction a few hours later. Biden was much more decisive as he threatened to pursue all those who would harm Americans, following them “to the gates of hell … because hell is where they’ll reside.”

The head of state also confused the press upon affirming that his plan was to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, only to indicate shortly after that he in fact hoped to reduce the Islamic jihadi group to a “manageable” threat. This prompted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to clarify that the objective was to put an end to the jihadi threats.

Obama, known for being typically pensive, has defined a large part of his foreign policy as being in contrast with what is seen as being the catastrophic downfall of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who led the country into war with Iraq without any clear strategy.

“I think that Obama is deliberately changing his words,” Gordon Adams, an expert in American diplomacy at the American University in Washington, told EFE.*

“Having war rhetoric would convert the U.S. into a main actor in a conflict that began centuries ago and won’t be resolved any time soon,” added Adams, for which reason Obama “is doing well to be cautious.”*

But Democrats like Feinstein are demanding more and more that a strategy be established to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and suspect that the government is not taking the jihadi threat seriously enough.

Last January, in an interview with the magazine The New Yorker, Obama compared the jihadi in Iraq to “junior varsity” basketball players, and said that “if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” distinguishing between a general threat and that which bin Laden formerly imposed.

Since then, the White House has denied the fact that Obama was explicitly referring to the Islamic State, but these words together with Obama’s recent affirmation that he still does not have a “strategy” against the jihadi group in Syria, has conditioned the way in which many people now interpret the government’s response to the extremist group.

While more and more Republicans in Congress were urging the president to carry out attacks in Syria, too, Obama has been trying to counteract alarming messages about the scope of the extremist group.

“Yes, the Middle East is challenging, but the truth is it’s been challenging for quite a while. I promise you things are much less dangerous now than they were 20 years ago, 25 years ago or 30 years ago. This is not something that is comparable to the challenges we faced during the Cold War,” said Obama when he spoke to donors at a fundraiser last Thursday.

For Dana Milbank, a columnist for The Washington Post, this message does not achieve its aim of “reassuring” Americans. “In short, Americans would worry less if Obama worried more” he said about Islamic State advances.

“It’s probably true that the threat of domestic radicalization is greater in Europe than in the United States but Obama’s sanguinity is jarring compared with the mood of NATO allies Obama is meeting in Europe this week,” Milbank wrote this Wednesday in the daily newspaper.

For Obama, his priorities seem to lie mostly in building a worldwide coalition against the Islamic State, with allies such as Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia as principal agents. He seems convinced that the solution to the conflict is not solely a military one, nor does it depend entirely on the United States.

This conclusion cannot be deduced solely from the conflict in Iraq, we must also take into account the attacks in Afghanistan and Vietnam, which, according to Gordon Adams, demonstrate that “the random use of force will not put an end to the rebellion.”*

“This is a theme that will end up partly defining Obama’s presidency, and the worst part is that the United States cannot determine the result. It’s an internal struggle in the Middle East, and the solution can only be found in the Middle East. Obama’s reputation will remain marked by events that he could not control,” added Adams.*

*Editor’s Note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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