Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Josh Earnest Versus Ben Rhodes on ISIL in Syria and Iraq

    Josh Earnest appeared on MSNBC's Morning Joe Friday in damage-control mode after President Obama's "we don't have a strategy yet" remark during his press conference on Thursday. Almost immediately after the president made the comment in response to a question by Chuck Todd, Earnest took to Twitter to quash the firestorm of criticism that ensued from friend and foe alike:
    Friday, Earnest acknowledged the president's words, but tried to provide additional context to clarify the White House message. CBS's Mark Knoeller tweeted this recap of Earnest's remarks:

     Rather than tamp down criticism, however, Earnest may have exacerbated the president's problem since his explanation contradicts a statement by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes just a week ago. Rhodes appeared with Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz at a press briefing in Edgartown, Massachusetts during the president's vacation. In response to a question about Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey's statement about how to defeat ISIL, Rhodes replied, "[W]e certainly agree that any strategy to deal with the ISIL organization has to deal with both sides of the border, Iraq and Syria." Here is the full exchange:
Q    On Islamic State, yesterday General Dempsey said that Islamic State can only be defeated if the fight is taken to them in Syria.  I wondered, is that -- does the President agree with that?  And if so, how does he intend to undertake it?  And would it mean a significant change in the mission against Islamic State? 
MR. RHODES:  Well, we certainly agree that any strategy to deal with the ISIL organization has to deal with both sides of the border, Iraq and Syria.  The strategy that we are already undertaking does address that in the sense that we are providing training and equipping and assistance to the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish security forces who are fighting them on the ground in Iraq.  We are also providing support and military assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition.  What we would like to see is those efforts squeeze the space where ISIL operates.  
But there are other elements to our strategy.  One is to enlist the support of partners in the region and the international community, because this poses a significant threat not just to the United States and to the Iraqi and Syrian people, but to the entire region.  And there are things that we can do with partners to mobilize communities in places like Iraq to work to expel ISIL.  
Then there’s the question of U.S. military action.  And the President has already authorized U.S. military action on the very specific missions of protecting our people and personnel and our facilities in Baghdad and Erbil.  He’s also authorized military action to deal with the humanitarian crisis on Mount Sinjar.  Again, as we look ahead and look forward, we are going to do what is necessary to protect Americans.  And so if we see plotting against Americans, we see a threat to the United States emanating from anywhere, we stand ready to take action against that threat.  
We’ve made very clear time and again that if you come after Americans, we’re going to come after you wherever you are.  And that’s what’s going to guide our planning in the days to come.
    Earnest has not yet responded to a request to square his remarks this morning with Rhodes's statement from last Friday.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

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