National Journal columnist Ron Fournier distorted President Obama's comments on his strategy toward the Islamic State in order to accuse the president of failed leadership.
During a joint press conference Wednesday with the president of Estonia, Obama defined his objective regarding the Islamic State: “to degrade and destroy ISIL so that it's no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States.”
Responding to a follow up question, Obama reiterated that goal: “Our objective is to make sure that ISIL is not an ongoing threat to the region.” Asked a third time to lay out his strategy, Obama stressed the need to degrade the terrorist group to what he called “a manageable problem.” This was based on the observation that even after the core of a terrorist organization has been decimated, “a few individuals” might still be able to commit acts of terror.
Calling the president “maddeningly indecisive, unclear, and defensive,” Fournier said he found himself “puzzled” after Obama's comments.
The observation at the center of Obama's much parsed statement is so noncontroversial, even Ron Fournier thinks it probably represents the best possible outcome in the actual world: “While containing ISIS may be the best realistic outcome, 'Let's Manage the Situation!' is hardly a national rallying cry.”
Who needs realistic outcomes guiding strategy when we haven't even come up with a good slogan yet!
But note the subtle way in which Fournier distorted what Obama actually said:
We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL's sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities, to the point where it's a manageable problem. [emphasis added]
Obama is not describing tactics, as Fournier alleges (“Let's Manage the Situation!”). He's describing outcomes -- turning the Islamic State from a regional threat into a manageable problem. Fournier essentially agrees that Obama's stated goal of a “manageable problem” might be the best possible outcome. Instead of taking issue with what Obama actually said, Fournier shifts the meaning and declares himself “puzzled by Obama.”
“This doesn't strike me as an issue that can be merely managed,” Fournier wrote. Touting a call for an international coalition pushed by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, he concluded, “it's Obama's job to lead.”
Fournier's column, despite its shortcomings, raises what amounts to a central issue for journalists dissecting the meaning of “a manageable problem” and failures of leadership. What are the best possible outcomes in dealing with the Islamic State, and what are the best tactics to achieve them?
They are pretty important questions to answer before weighing in on the need for better slogans.