During Thursday’s press conference from the White House briefing room, President Barack Obama focused on the growing international crises in Ukraine and the Middle East. Unfortunately, he chose to wear a tan suit. Obama’s clothing choice ignited a wave of tweets and covered newspapers. The Los Angeles Times titled a piece “Obama’s tan suit: Stop freaking out, Internet, it’s actually stylish,” while the Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Grier wrote “Confessions of a Washington tan suit wearer” and CNN published “That time Obama wore a tan suit and Twitter freaked out.”
But little of what the president discussed concerning Russia’s financing and arming of separatists in Ukraine, the condition of migrant children in the United States, and his strategy for defeating the Islamic State in Syria outshone his fashion choice. And it was not even the first time the president wore a tan suit, although he typically chooses blue or gray in order to “pare down [the] decisions” he has to make.
— The Wire (@TheWire) August 28, 2014
Had he stuck with a suit of a more traditional color, Obama’s press conference would have been noteworthy for its focus on the crucial decisions facing the United States and the president. Lawmakers, including the president, must decide whether to expand U.S. airstrikes into Syria, consider possible solutions for the country’s immigration mess, and formulate some response to Russia’s overt incursion into Ukraine. These issues are vastly complex, and for the United States to deal with them as a country, debate is needed.
Here’s what Obama talked about.
The Islamic State in Iraq
Broadly, Obama’s comments indicated the president has no immediate plans to escalate military operations against the Islamic State. His speech began with assurances that U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Iraq were achieving the president’s goals. “Because of our strikes, the terrorists of ISIL are losing arms and equipment,” he said. “In some areas, Iraqi government and Kurdish forces have begun to push them back.” Several towns and an important dam have recaptured from ISIS. And, as The New Yorker’s John Cassidy noted, “the fact that ISIS has resorted to killing hostages may be another indication that the U.S. air strikes are tilting the military balance.”
Obama also reminded the American public of why his administration began bombing the militant Islamic group. Two and a half years after the Obama administration withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq — fulfilling one of the president’s campaign promises — the American military reengaged in combat operations when two F/A-18 jets dropped 500-pound bombs on Islamic militants earlier this month. The mission was “to protect American personnel on the ground in Iraq; to protect our embassy, to protect our consulates, to make sure that critical infrastructure that could adversely affect our personnel is protected.”
But, at the same time, Obama acknowledged that the airstrikes can only do so much to stabilize Iraq. “Our military action in Iraq has to be part of a broader, comprehensive strategy to protect our people and to support our partners who are taking the fight to ISIL. And that starts with Iraq’s leaders building on the progress that they’ve made so far and forming an inclusive government that will unite their country and strengthen their security forces to confront ISIL. Any successful strategy, though, also needs strong regional partners,” he explained.
Secretary of State John Kerry will be sent to the Middle East to build a coalition of states, the president added, without explaining what exactly that partnership will aim to accomplish. Obviously, the ultimate goal is maintaining stability in Iraq once the bombing campaign concludes. ”We can route ISIS on the ground and keep a lid on things temporarily. But then as soon as we leave, the same problems come back again,” Obama said. “So we’ve got to make sure that Iraqis understand in the end they’re going to be responsible for their own security.”
Of course, the president’s statements on U.S. military operations have glossed over the details.
The Islamic State in Syria
Eliminating the threat of ISIS is “going to require us to stabilize Syria in some fashion, and stabilizing Syria in some fashion means that we’ve got to get moderate Sunnis who are able to govern and offer a real alternative and competition to what ISIL has been doing in some of these spaces,” Obama commented. Stabilizing Syria presents an even more complexities than attacking ISIS positions in Iraq; the biggest obstacle is fragmentation of the forces fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s brutal Alawite regime. The United States needs allies on the ground, and the fact that the moderate Syrian opposition fighting ISIS and al-Assad is not much or an army and possibly not that moderate makes stability a difficult proposition. And joining forces with al-Assad is not much of an option either, given Obama called for him to step down three years ago and almost bombed him last year for using chemical weapons.
The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart examined the difficulties of stabilizing Syria, arguing that becoming involved requires the United States to chose been less than perfect allies. “From Somalia to Kosovo to Libya, the problem with America’s humanitarian interventions has never been ascertaining the nastiness of the people we’re fighting against. It’s been ascertaining the efficacy and decency of the people we’re fighting for,” he wrote. “That’s a particular challenge in the case of ISIS in Syria.”
Yet Obama does not believe “this is a situation where we have to choose between Assad or the kinds of people who carry on the incredible violence that we’ve been seeing there.” The United States will “continue to support a moderate opposition inside of Syria, in part because we have to give people inside of Syria a choice other than ISIL or Assad,” he added.
But despite the continued airstrikes and his calls for partnerships, Obama said the United States still does not have a strategy for how to neutralize the threat of the Islamic State militants who still control large tracts of land in Iraq and Syria. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” Obama said Thursday, avoiding a reporter’s question on whether he would seek congressional approval to go into Syria. “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
“We are not taking military action to solve the Ukrainian problem,” Obama stated. “What we’re doing is to mobilize the international community to apply pressure on Russia.”
Although both Iraq and Syria require more U.S. attention, Russia was also a key topic of conversation Thursday after Moscow allegedly sent hundreds of troops and equipment to Ukraine to strengthen the pro-Moscow rebels in the eastern part of the country. “Russia is responsible for the violence in eastern Ukraine,” Obama stated. “The violence is encouraged by Russia. The separatists are trained by Russia. They are armed by Russia. They are funded by Russia. Russia has deliberately and repeatedly violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. And the new images of Russian forces inside Ukraine make that plain for the world to see. This comes as Ukrainian forces are making progress against the separatists.”
Obama claimed that western sanctions on Russia have left the country more isolated than any time since the end of the Cold War. “Capital is fleeing. Investors are increasingly staying out. Its economy is in decline. And this ongoing Russian incursion into Ukraine will only bring more costs and consequences for Russia,” he said. “Our intelligence shows that the Russians know they’ve been effective, even though it may not appear on Russian television. And I think there are ways for us to deepen or expand the scope of some of that work.”
The president will travel to Europe next week to discuss the options with United States allies. And reportedly, the European Union is considering another round of sanctions.
“Last year, you said that you believe our democracy is stronger when the president acts with the support of Congress,” asked one reporter. “But why didn’t you go to Congress before this current round of strikes in Iraq? Do you not believe that that’s the case anymore, what you said last year? And throughout your career you’ve also said that — you raised concerns with the expansion of powers of the executive. Are you concerned that your recent actions, unilaterally, had maybe — have cut against that?” And Obama answered “no,” noting that “the feedback I’ve gotten from Congress is, is that we’re doing the right thing.”
Obama’s Thursday comments suggested that he will not make any changes to the U.S. deportation policy until after November’s congressional midterm elections, even though he has said he will use his executive authority to address immigration reform.
“Let me just say this: I’ve been very clear about the fact that our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed. And my preference continues to be that Congress act,” the president stated. “I don’t think anybody thinks that Congress is going to act in the short term, but hope springs eternal that after the midterm elections they may act.”
More from Politics Cheat Sheet:
- Why Economics Might Lose to Politics on Immigration Reform
- Millennials: Young, Broke, and Dangerously Uninsured
- If the Jobs Recovery Is ‘Real,’ Why Are Economic Fears Lingering?
Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS