When President Barack Obama acknowledged in September 2014 that “we don’t have a strategy yet” to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), he stunned his supporters and detractors alike. Obama was similarly candid nine months later, when he announced in a June 2015 statement, “we don’t yet have a complete strategy.” But why not?
Three reasons appear paramount. The first is the president’s defensive approach to foreign policy. On too many issues, President Obama seems primarily motivated by what he wants to avoid rather than what he wants to achieve. Consider Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Iran, where Obama has sought to avoid military operations in recent years. Libya is the exception that proves the rule, in that the American role in deposing Muammar el-Qaddafi seems to have validated the president’s instincts about the perils of what he terms “military adventures.”
Secondly, Obama too often resembles a pedantic law professor: he is clearly quite skilled at pointing out the flaws in his subordinates’ proposals. The problem is this: a professor’s job ends at that point; a president’s starts. Yet this president’s avoidant foreign policy seems to prevent him from going further. Finally, Obama does not intuitively understand the exercise of power—not just how and when to use it, but its foundations, its psychology and its consequences. The result of these three factors is a “none-of-the-above” policy assembled from the shards of discarded options.