President Obama acknowledged Thursday that "we don't have a strategy yet" when it comes to fighting the terrorist organization ISIL, which now controls large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria.
The surprising admission was met with widespread criticism. Politico called it a "misfire" and the Washington Post referred to it as a "gaffe" that "stings." Obama had already drawn criticism for previously dismissing ISIL as a mere "JV team" compared to al Qaeda.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest went into full spin mode starting on The Situation Room Thursday night, going on to make multiple appearances on CNN, MSNBC and Bloomberg over the next 18 hours to explain what Obama meant.
A consistent theme: Earnest assured skeptical hosts that the president has been "clear" on a comprehensive strategy for battling ISIL. But, as CNN host John Berman pointed out on New Day Friday, "I think the fact that you're still out this morning talking about it shows that it wasn't exactly a clear message that was sent on Syria."
As a report by The Daily Beast‘s Josh Rogin and Eli Lake laid out Friday morning, Obama disappointed administration officials when he announced there would be no plans to "expand the war against the Islamic extremist movement" in the immediate future:
His remarks came after days of heated debate inside the top levels of his own national security bureaucracy about how, where, and whether to strike ISIS in Syria. But those deliberations – which included a bleak intelligence assessment of America's potential allies in Syria — failed to produce a consensus battle plan. And so Obama, who has long been reluctant to enter into the Syrian conflict, told reporters Thursday that "we don’t have a strategy yet" for confronting ISIS on a regional level.
Those inside the administration advocating for going after ISIS in both Iraq and Syria were sorely disappointed – and lamented their boss's lack of urgency in rooting out a threat that only days before was being described in near-apocalyptic terms.
The report detailed "deep divisions" within the White House on its deliberations over Syria:
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To many outside the administration who have worked on Syria and the ISIS problem, Obama’s decision not to decide on a broader course of action will have negative implications for the war against ISIS. The administration raised expectations about altering its three-year policy of avoiding intervention in Syria, before Obama dashed those expectations Thursday.
"One has to wonder what sort of signal this administration is sending to ISIS by using tough rhetoric on one hand and then contravening what top officials just said," said a former Pentagon official who served in Iraq. "It’s not just demoralizing to those who want to stop ISIS in its tracks, but ISIS is just going to act with greater impunity now if they believe they got a free pass. Every single ISIS leader was watching that."