It may have been the most perplexing moment of the Obama presidency: The president’s press conference on Thursday when he declared “we don’t have a strategy yet” on ramping up military action against ISIS. The best that people inclined to give Obama the benefit of the doubt could do was say he was speaking with refreshing candor; the rest of us reacted with varying degrees of dismay.
Four days of news stories since have centered on inside-the-administration conflicts when it comes to ISIS, on the damage the president might have done to international efforts to build an anti-ISIS coalition, and the wound he might have inflicted on his own party in the run-up to the election by sounding so irresolute.
After a few days of head-scratching, I think what happened here is pretty simple: The president should not have given that press conference at all since he didn’t know what to say about ISIS. He didn’t have to. He could have stayed silent. It is perfectly acceptable for the administration to find itself in a quandary about how to handle ISIS. This is a very complicated problem, and a fluid one. The purpose of presidential statements, especially when it comes to foreign and military issues, is to establish American policy. The words the president uses are closely parsed by American observers, but that’s nothing next to what happens outside our borders, where the president’s utterances are studied as though they were Talmud by non-Americans for whom the United States doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus.
The president should only speak when he knows what to say.