White House struggles to sell long-term strategy against ISIS

The Obama administration is struggling to explain its strategy for confronting forces for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), undermining confidence in its ability to vanquish the fast-rising terrorist group.

Congress this week came together in a rare show of bipartisanship to grant President Obama new authority to train Syrian rebels fighting the militants representing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — one piece of a broader strategy for taking on the ISIS threat.

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Yet top officials have been openly contradictory in outlining their long-term plans in the region, raising concerns on Capitol Hill, among even some of those who supported the new train-and-equip powers, that the administration lacks a cohesive strategy for addressing the well-armed ISIS fighters.

Many of those raising concerns are Democrats.

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) confronted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on that very issue.

“I find it pretty disturbing that we are having this hearing after we've taken a vote, because I don't think that the plan that I have seen was detailed enough to make me believe that your plan will work,” said Sanchez. “And I hope the other members of this committee believe that it's important for us to understand exactly what this plan is, because I'm not so sure of it, and I haven't heard the details as I'd like to hear them.”

Sanchez is hardly alone.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Iraq War veteran, said Thursday that “Congress has not done our job in looking over what the overall long-term plan is.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said, “they have a plan to have a plan, but they're not there yet.”

And Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who backed the Syria training provision, said he finds the president's plan “coherent,” but emphasized that “it doesn’t seem sufficient” to reach the goal of defeating ISIS.

“The president outlined four pieces to a strategy. It’s coherent,” Connolly said. “But what is their mission? With respect to that piece we ought to be thinking more modestly.

“You’re hearing a lot of unease, even among those of us who supported it that the goals not be so heroic that they’re unreachable,” Connolly added.

The White House on Thursday defended Obama's handling of the ISIS threat, with spokesman Josh Earnest saying Obama feels a “strong commitment to ensuring that we're communicating clearly … about what our policy is and about what our policy isn't.”

That view is shared by many lawmakers who backed the new training powers this week, including top Democratic leaders. Those lawmakers are quick to dispute the notion that Obama has no cohesive plan, pointing to the president's efforts to build a coalition of allies; train the “moderate” rebels outside of Syria; provide humanitarian aid to civilians; and establish a stable Iraqi government to help anchor the region.

“I support this because I weigh heavily the equity that [Obama] has put forth a strong initiative founded on nonmilitary strength … and that this discrete piece of training moderates outside of Syria … is worthy of support,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said just before the House vote. “The bill that people are being asked to vote for has every — have you read it? — it has every check and balance in it along the way in terms of who, what, when and why.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Thursday that the criticisms of Obama's plans are unfair.

“There are only tough decisions, or bad decisions, to make in Syria and Iraq. But I think the worst decision of all would be to do nothing,” Engel said. “Based on the situation now, the administration's plan is the best course of action to take. … I think that it's something to rally around.”

Still, top administration officials have complicated the debate by offering what seem to be at-odds statements about the president's plans for confronting ISIS.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, raised plenty of eyebrows this week, when he told a Senate panel that he wasn't ruling out the use of U.S. combat troops in the fight against ISIS, a statement running directly counter to earlier vows from Obama that no U.S. troops will be on the ground.

Secretary of State John Kerry initially insisted in a round of interviews last week that the action against ISIS was not a war, but a “very significant counterterrorism operation,” only to reverse course after Earnest called the effort a war the next day.

And Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby told reporters he agreed with Sen. Carl Levin's (D-Mich.) assessment that Obama already had the authority for training and equipping Syrian rebels without a congressional vote, only to be corrected by the White House.

Earnest on Thursday denied any contradictions, arguing that, while talk of “complex issues” could lend itself to “a dissection of words” requiring clarification, the various statements are “completely consistent with the policy that has been laid out” by Obama.

“I am confident that the senior members of the president's national security team are on the same page as the commander in chief,” Earnest said.

Still, while Earnest insisted publicly there was no distance between the president and his foreign policy staff, the White House has made it apparent when they believe administration officials have strayed off message. 

Earlier in the week, Kerry said in an interview with CNN that the U.S. was communicating with the Assad regime over the threat — in apparent contradiction with the White House, which maintained no coordination with Damascus. 

Asked about the apparent discrepancy, one senior administration official dryly told reporters to ask the secretary of State what he meant.

It’s those types of exchanges that have fueled the concerns of Capitol Hill critics, as they head home to their districts for a long, seven-week break.

“The president … essentially declared war,” DeFazio said. “And he needs, then, to come to Congress, ask for an authorization for use of military force, lay out the scope, objective, expected duration … give us time for significant debate and see what Congress thinks of his plan.

“A number of people justified it by saying, 'Well, it's only temporary, and maybe we'll know more by Dec. 11,’ ” he added, referring to the new Syria training powers, which expire on that date. “Well, I fear what might happen between now and Dec. 11 that would get us further enmeshed in this whole thing.”