Over the past month, President Obama has weathered frequent criticism for his comments about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Most notable was his “gaffe” on August 28 when he said, “We don’t have a strategy yet.” Two weeks later, the president announced a plan to strike ISIS in Syria and provide military aid to moderate rebels. But those days in between were a devastating blow to our place in the world. Or, you know, maybe Washington pundits were overstating the significance of Obama’s comments.
In fact, though, Obama did make a serious error on ISIS recently. They weren’t public comments and they didn’t garner huge coverage, but they represent a dangerous mindset as the country embarks on another multi-year military engagement in the Middle East.
President Obama made the comment in a private, off-the-record meeting with a select group of journalists before his prime-time speech last week. On Sunday, Peter Baker, who was not at the meeting, reported in the New York Times about what was said there. Among other things, Obama was reportedly asked how he would adjust his strategy if his new plan proved unsuccessful. “I’m not going to anticipate failure at this point,” Obama responded, according to Baker’s report.
Second-hand accounts of these meetings often unintentionally warp the true meaning of the president’s statement. But if Baker’s reporting is correct, it represents a dangerous mentality from the Obama administration. If we’ve learned anything from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is that we should anticipate failure. There’s almost a zero percent chance that Obama’s plan will be perfectly successful—or even somewhat successful. Already, over the weekend, there are reports that the Free Syrian Army—one of the factions of moderate rebels that Obama wants to arm—will not take part in the new coalition to defeat ISIS. Those reports could prove false, but they demonstrate just how fraught the conditions are in the Middle East.
If true, Obama’s comment would demonstrate a remarkable ignorance of the past 15 years of American policy in the Middle East. And to his credit, Obama noted in his speech last week that, “any time we take military action, there are risks involved—especially to the servicemen and women who carry out these missions.” One of those risks is that this strategy fails in a way that requires escalating military action. The administration may be planning for failure behind-the-scenes, while framing the strategy in the most positive light. But now that Obama’s comments are public, his response that he is “not going to anticipate failure” deserves a full explanation. If he’s not preparing for failure, then we shouldn’t be preparing for war.