Networks Defend Obama as ‘Critics Pounced’ and Took 'Too Literally' His ‘No Strategy Yet’ Remarks on ISIS

On Friday morning, the major broadcast networks were out in full force to defend President Obama after his remarks at a press conference Thursday afternoon in which he said that “we don’t have a strategy yet” in how to militarily address the Islamic terrorist group ISIS in Syria.

Leading the way was NBC’s Today, where co-host Matt Lauer told NBC News political director and moderator of Meet the Press Chuck Todd that “[c]ritics pounced” when Obama made that remark and wondered if they took “his words too literally.” [MP3 audio here; Video below]

Todd agreed with Lauer’s assessment, but said that “[t]he White House certainly is trying to spin back the President's words saying hey, you know, yes, they were a little blunt” and “they wish he would have worded it differently.”

After Lauer said in the show’s tease that “[t]he President taking heat for saying his administration has yet to develop a plan to deal with ISIS militants in Syria,” Lauer first spoke with NBC News foreign correspondent Keir Simmons, who took a completely different angle. Simmons told viewers that, while the President “urged calm,” he said “there is no sign of that this morning” in the Middle East and Ukraine, where Russian forces have crossed the Ukraine-Russia border to aid Russian-backed fighters in eastern Ukraine against the Ukrainian military.

Over on CBS This Morning, co-host Gayle King observed the following during the show’s first segment on the President’s remarks: “This morning, many Republicans are accusing the President of having no plan to deal with the terror group.”

Soon after, CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante said that, while many were expecting Obama to signal or announce air strikes in Syria, his appearance before reporters to “declare that the time is not yet right to strike ISIS or as he calls it, ISIL.” 

As King alluded to criticism from Republicans of the President regarding his “we don’t have a strategy yet” remarks, Plante made similar reference and included a sound bite from the chairman House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who said on CNN Thursday that “[t]o have a press conference to say we don't have a strategy was really shocking given the severity of the threat.” 

Finally, on ABC’s Good Morning America, substitute co-host David Muir declared in that Obama is coming “under fire, facing tough questions this morning about his plan to deal with” the crisis of ISIS in Syria (and Iraq).

ABC News chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz said that Obama yesterday was “toning down his language substantially” against ISIS while he sought to, inference to another propaganda released by ISIS after Obama’s press conference, “tamp down the emotional response to scenes like this and the execution of James Foley.”

In the final seconds of her appearance, Raddatz then finally chose to admit: “You know, the President did say he does not yet have a strategy for Syria and that is creating a lot of concern given that ISIS has been gaining strength for years now.”


The relevant portions of Good Morning America’s full transcript on August 29 are transcribed below.

ABC’s Good Morning America

August 29, 2014

7:00 a.m. Eastern

DAVID MUIR: Good morning, America. And developing now, the Americans heading overseas to join the brutal terror group ISIS. Almost a dozen young men revealed now fighting with the extremists. Brand-new images as President Obama comes under fire, facing tough questions this morning about his plan to deal with the crisis. 

BARACK OBAMA: We don't have a strategy yet. 

(....)

MUIR: But we do have a lot of news to get to this morning and we'll get to that right now. Leading us off this morning that growing threat from ISIS militants. The U.S. now warning about those young, American men joining the brutal group now. President Obama addressing the crisis in the last 24 hours and ABC's Martha Raddatz is live in Washington this morning with the very latest for us. Martha, good morning. 

MARTHA RADDATZ: Good morning, David. Well, the President is toning down his threatening language substantially. ISIS released an alarming new propaganda video once again showing the utter brutality of ISIS which humiliates, kills and celebrates its barbarism. The captured Syrian soldiers, some 150 are stripped to their underwear forced to March across the desert after ISIS fighters, their black flags flying, took control of a Syrian air base. A short time later, the video shows them lying dead, executed. But President Obama is clearly trying to tamp down the emotional response to scenes like this and the execution of James Foley. A strategy for dealing with the terror group in Syria will take time, he said, Thursday. 

BARACK OBAMA: The suggestion seems to have been that, you know, we're about to go full scale on an elaborate strategy for defeating ISIL. I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet. 

RADDATZ: A stark admission since the threat of Isis has increased at an astonishing rate in the last year, seizing large swaths of territory in Iraq while establishing a safe haven in nearby Syria. The Foley execution prompting the President to authorize spy planes over Syria just this week, But President Obama is now making clear that military action in Syria is not imminent. 

BARACK OBAMA: I want to make sure everybody is clear on what we're doing now, because it is limited. The options that I'm asking for from the joint chiefs focuses primarily on making sure that ISILis not overrunning Iraq. 

RADDATZ: But the President's own Secretary of Defense says the threat from ISIS is imminent to every interest we have and not just in Iraq, anywhere, David. 

MUIR: And Martha, as you know we were talking about this. I was just back from the Syrian border in Lebanon, documenting the children, the refugees. We'll have that on World News Tonight next week. But these violent skirmishes with ISIS, even there, is there any concern about this message to ISIS, to the world, that the President doesn't have a strategy yet? 

RADDATZ: Well, there is, indeed. You know, the President did say he does not yet have a strategy for Syria and that is creating a lot of concern given that ISIS has been gaining strength for years now, David. 

The complete transcripts from the two segments on President Obama from CBS This Morning on August 29 are transcribed below.

CBS This Morning

August 29, 2014

7:00 a.m. Eastern

ANTHONY MASON: Good morning. It's Friday, August 29, 2014. Welcome to CBS This Morning. President Obama admits we don't have a strategy yet to fight the terror group ISIS. 

(....)

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: “We Don’t Have a Strategy”; In Fight Against ISIS, Obama Admits to No Set Plan]

GAYLE KING: We begin here with President Obama, who says he is considering action against ISIS and Syria, but he says there will be no attacks right away. This morning, many Republicans are accusing the President of having no plan to deal with the terror group. 

[ON-SCREEN NEWSPAPER HEADLINES: The Telegraph - “Barack Obama Talks Down Prospect of Imminent Strikes in Syria,” The Wall Street Journal - “Obama Says No Plans for Imminent Escalation of Operations Against Islamic State,” The Washington Post - “Obama: U.S. Doesn’t ‘Have a Strategy Yet’ to Comprehensively Respond to Islamic State”]

ANTHONY MASON: Secretary of State John Kerry will go to the Middle East next week. His job is to build a regional coalition willing to back military force in Iraq and possible attacks in Syria. Bill Plante's at the White House where the President met last night with his top security aides. Bill, good morning. 

BILL PLANTE: Well, good morning. The expectation around here was building that the President was on the verge of ordering air strikes against the Islamic militants inside Syria, so he made his unscheduled appearance Thursday to declare that the time is not yet right to strike ISIS or as he calls it, ISIL. 

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We don't have a strategy yet. 

PLANTE: After more than 100 air strikes aimed at stopping the ISIS charge in northern Iraq, President Obama conceded that defeating militants there is not enough. 

OBAMA: The violence that's been taking place in Syria has obviously given ISIL a safe haven there. 

PLANTE: Before a two-hour meeting with national security staff to consider options in Syria, the President told reporters that any U.S. response will require the use of force, but just as important, the support of both other nations in the Middle East and Congress. 

OBAMA: In order for us to degrade ISIL over the long term, we're going to have to build a regional strategy. Now, we're not going to do that alone. There will be a military aspect to that and it's going to be important for Congress to know what that is, in part because it may cost some money. 

PLANTE: But he denied reports that any decision to carry the fight against ISIL into Syria was imminent. 

OBAMA: The suggestion seems to have been that, you know, we're about to go full-scale on an elaborate strategy for defeating ISIL, and the suggestion, I guess, has been that we'll start moving forward imminently and somehow Congress, still out of town, is going to be left in the dark. That's not what's going to happen. 

PLANTE: Congressional Republicans were quick to criticize the president's remarks. 

CONGRESSMAN MIKE ROGERS (R-MICH.): To have a press conference to say we don't have a strategy was really shocking given the severity of the threat. 

PLANTE: Well, White House officials then scrambled immediately after that news conference to explain that what the president meant was not that he didn't have an overall strategy, only that he was waiting for the military to develop a strategy for striking in Syria.

The relevant portions of the transcript from NBC’s Today on President Obama and ISIS on August 29 are transcribed below.

NBC’s Today

August 29, 2014

7:00 a.m. Eastern

MATT LAUER: Good morning. No strategy? The President taking heat for saying his administration has yet to develop a plan to deal with ISIS militants in Syria. This as new video emerges of the terror group carrying out chilling executions. 

(....)

MATT LAUER: Let's start on this Friday morning with our top story. 

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Today’s Top Story: “We Don’t Have a Strategy Yet”; President Taking Heat for Comments on ISIS]

President Obama facing criticism for his administration's handling of two critical situations: ISIS militants and the growing unrest in Ukraine. NBC’s Keir Simmons has the latest on both here. Keir, good morning to you. 

KEIR SIMMONS: Matt, good morning. With tensions rising in Europe and the Middle East, President Obama urged calm, but there is no sign of that this morning. President Putin accusing Ukraine of an assault on eastern Ukraine reminiscent of the Nazi siege of Leningrad in World War II and, at the same time in the Middle East, ISI.S had its own violent message. ISIS's ruthlessness undiminished. Its killers film 250 Syrian soldiers are stripped and executed and within 24 hours of the president speaking, another ISIS propaganda video of Kurdish soldiers. One is killed in the same gruesome manner as James Foley. The Kurds are supported by the U.S. The image is titled "A Second Message to America" as this comment from President Obama echoes around the world. 

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We don't have a strategy yet. 

SIMMONS: But it's clear ISIS has America in its sights. It claims James Foley killers tortured him using water boarding, using the same method the U.S. controversially adopted after 9-11: Waterboarding. The group apparently growing in number.

(....)

LAUER: Chuck, good morning to you. The President says no military action by the U.S. against Russia over Ukraine, but the sanctions we put in place clearly haven't forced Putin to back down. Does the administration think with more time they'll have a greater impact? 

CHUCK TODD: They've always believed in time and that's what they've been preaching patience, patience, patience. 

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Today’s Top Story: President’s Dual Crises; Troops Enter Ukraine as ISIS Terrorizes Mideast]

That said, there are still more sanctions that can be done, particularly by European partners. I'm told they've already got some put together. They had already planned a new round of sanctions even before this latest event of Putin putting troops over the border. Next week, the president goes to Europe, that big NATO conference in Wales. Expect all of the European allies at that conference to be standing together with yet a new round of sanctions. But I can tell you none of them have an appetite for any military confrontation with Russia. That’s why you will just see amped up sanctions.

LAUER: Alright, let's look at the other crisis right now. You asked the president yesterday about the handling of ISIS militants in Syria. Here's what he had to say. 

OBAMA: I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet. I think what I've seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we're at than we currently. 

LAUER: Critics pounced, Chuck. 

TODD: They did. 

LAUER: Did they take his words too literally or did the president admit there's no plan, no vision for dealing with ISIS as an emerging threat? 

TODD: Well, the answer to both question is yes. The White House certainly is trying to spin back the President's words saying hey, you know, yes, they were a little blunt. They wish he would have worded it differently, but they remind all of us, including me, they was responding to a question specifically having to do with the role of Congress. Did he need to go to Congress to get legal authority for this and he's saying we don't have a strategy. They're saying we don't have a plan yet exactly of the targets that we want to do in Syria to then determine which legal course of action was necessary with Congress, but big picture here, Matt, the reason the President went out there, he had three audiences. Audience number one was us in the media, saying “you're hearing a lot of people in my own administration saying we're close to going after Syria. Guess what? We're not close. I’m putting a big pause button this.” Number two, the audience – the second audience was Sunni governments in the middle east. He basically said “we're not going to go into Syria unless you're with us. We're not going it alone” and of course the third audience was his own national security team. Many on his team are pushing him to do something faster in Syria and he is not comfortable doing that just yet, Matt.

Curtis Houck
Curtis Houck
Curtis Houck is a news analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division