In the wake of President Obama's surprising comment to reporters that "we don't have a strategy yet" to deal with the surging terrorist threat of the Islamic State threat in Syria and Iraq, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein has observed: "I've learned one thing about this president, and that is he's very cautious. Maybe, in this instance, too cautious."
She has a point, but didn't get it quite right. With such high human stakes involved, a responsible president must proceed with great care in putting our military in harm's way, as he told theAmerican Legion convention days earlier. But he must be just as careful in what he says publicly to avoid suggesting weakness or indecisiveness of intent or purpose in addressing such a threat.
Obama prefaced his remark, in what came off to many as a curt dismissal of urgency, by saying, "I don't want to put the cart before the horse." Some people, he implied, "are getting a little further ahead of where we're at. ... The suggestion seems (to be) ... we'll start moving forward (with military plans) imminently, and somehow with Congress still out of town they'll be left in the dark. That's not going to happen."
He went on to say it was his "sacred duty as commander-in-chief to protect the American people" and "to act fast based on information I receive" from U.S. intelligence.
Well enough. But Barack Obama as been in the public spotlight long enough to know that when he speaks before live television cameras in the White House briefing room, his words will be picked apart and seized for their headline worthiness. And so his remark that "we don't have a strategy yet" was journalistic catnip, quickly snapped up and disseminated in print and pixels around the world.
The president's carelessness in leaving himself open to that treatment was in sharp contrast to the customary cautiousness of which Sen. Feinstein later spoke. White House press secretary Josh Earnest was obliged to try to clean up the residual political doo-doo. He told White House reporters that his boss "was referring to military options for striking" the Islamic State. "The options are still being developed by the Pentagon," he said, and they are the subject of discussions "in the Situation Room at the White House right now."
In many other crisis circumstances under many other presidents, the customary public response has been that the military always has alternative plans at the ready for all conceivable challenges. That contention obviously did not hold up on September 11, 2001, when the Bush White House had to scramble to respond to the terrorist attacks in New York and on the Pentagon.
It was argued then that the hijacking and crashing of commercial aircraft could not have been foreseen, but that experience led to heightened contingency plans thereafter. In light of all that, Obama's offhand remark about no strategy being in place was not only sloppy but politically damaging to him.
He should have realized that the news media, in the room and watching on television and the carnivorous Internet, would pounce, as was their job, along with his opportunistic political opponents. In their reporting it, Obama's slip was much more than an "oops" debate gaffe by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
The president's previous cautious approaches to dispatching military and even humanitarian assistance to Syrian rebels, and his withdrawal of American ground troops from Iraq, had already made him the target of criticism at home, even in his own party.
But Republican hawks Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham are again leading the charge that he is too malleable and inexperienced as a leader in wartime. As they see it, he can't wait to put its burdens behind him. In his understandable desire to do so, however, Obama can't afford to carelessly provide his critics the ammunition with which they undermine his shrinking presidency.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.