Give President Obama credit for one thing. He's accomplished something nobody else could do. In a city long frozen in partisan gridlock, he's done the impossible. He's succeeded in getting Democrats and Republicans to agree on something. Unfortunately for him, what they all agree on is that he's too weak in his response to the growing threat of ISIS.
That's the charge of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who said in an interview on "Meet the Press": "I think I've learned one thing about this president, and that is he's very cautious. Maybe in this instance, too cautious." Her comments were echoed by Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "We cannot dither, we cannot just twiddle our thumbs, or wait and see," Engel told reporters on a conference call this week. "We have to act, and we have to act soon."
Engel and Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, lead many members of both parties in Congress calling for airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria in retaliation for the brutal beheading of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. And they're joined by many in the media, including the two leading New York tabloids, which displayed the same photo of journalist Steven Sotloff and his executioner on the cover. Headline in the New York Post: "This Won't Stop Until We Stop Them." Same day banner tease on the Daily News: "Do You Have a Strategy Now, Mr. President?"
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It's what Huffington Post calls a "media war frenzy" not seen since the media fanned the flames for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And, I admit, it's easy to get caught up in it. I was at the White House Briefing on Tuesday, Sept. 2, when news of Sotloff's beheading broke. Before the end of the briefing, outraged like other fellow journalists, I had tweeted out: "Obama should announce airstrikes against ISIS in Syria before he gets on Air Force One to Estonia."
Meanwhile, despite the clamor from all sides, President Obama is taking a more measured approach. They don't call him "No Drama, Obama" for nothing. He confirms that our mission is not to contain, but "to degrade and destroy ISIS." He notes the success of airstrikes in Iraq so far in slowing down their advance. In addition, he acknowledges that airstrikes inside Syria are under consideration; surveillance flights to identify potential targets are already under way. But, before making any final decision on Syria, he insists he wants to make sure that a new, more inclusive Iraqi government is in place and that other major players in the region, to whom ISIS is a more immediate threat, will join our campaign to destroy them.
The debate over Syria, in other words, breaks down to the hotheads vs. the go-slow crowd. And, as a sometime hothead myself, the more I think about it, the more I believe Obama is right. Yes, it can be frustrating to see a president hesitate before acting in response to something as heinous as the public murder of two Americans. But one of the main reasons the Middle East is in such a mess today is because we just suffered through a president who never hesitated about anything, who believed he got his orders directly from God, and who ordered the invasion of Iraq and destabilized the entire Middle East without taking time to get the facts.
As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a big supporter of the war in Iraq, puts it, George Bush's motto was: Fire, Ready, Aim. Barack Obama gets it right: Ready, Aim, Fire. Indeed, there are important considerations before deciding to expand America's military operation into Syria, including: How to destroy ISIS without at the same time helping Syria's Bashar al-Assad stay in power? Since we know that airstrikes alone won't destroy ISIS, who will provide the necessary ground troops to roll in and finish the job? And most importantly, since 30 years of our bombing Arab nations has resulted in nothing but more violence, more acts of terror and more political unrest, why do we think that one more show of military might will work this time?
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There's so much at stake, there's so much that could go wrong, we've fouled thing up so badly in the past by bombing first and considering the consequences later – maybe it's worth slowing down to make sure we get it right this time.