CNN's John Berman pressed White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Friday's New Day over President Obama's eyebrow-raising disclosure that "we don't have a strategy yet" to deal with ISIS inside Syria. When Earnest claimed that "we do have a comprehensive strategy for dealing with" ISIS, especially in Iraq, Berman shot back, "ISIS has been in Syria for quite a long time. How can you have a comprehensive strategy for dealing with ISIS at all if it doesn't include Syria?"
The anchor later wondered, "Did the President just announce to ISIS leaders that he has no intention to strike them with military action in Syria in the next few days or weeks?" Earnest asserted that Mr. Obama's remarks sent "a very clear message to everybody around the world." However, Berman wasn't buying his guest's spin: [video below the jump]
JOHN BERMAN: With all due respect, I think the fact you're still out this morning talking about it shows that it wasn't exactly a clear message that was sent on Syria. But it I don't want to let you go before talking-
JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: With all due respect, John, anybody who looked at the news conference and looked at the President's opening remarks saw very clearly that he laid out this strategy. So, you're welcome to focus on whatever aspect of the news conference you would like, but if you want to actually understand what the President's trying to communicate, I would encourage you to take a close look at his words.
The CNN journalist led the interview by reading off several headlines on the subject of the President's admission: "'Obama's Strategy Misfire' from Politico; 'Why Obama's we don't have a strategy gaffe stings' from The Washington Post; 'Obama confesses: We don't have a strategy yet for Islamic State,' Washington Times; 'White House walks back Barack Obama's we don't have the strategy yet' – that is from Business Insider. Josh, you happy with the headlines this morning?"
Earnest answered, in part, by playing up that "when it comes to our strategy for dealing with ISIL in Iraq, the President's been very clear about what that strategy is, and it starts with pushing Iraq's political leaders to take the kinds of steps that are necessary to form an inclusive government to unite that country, to counter the threat that is posed by ISIL in their country....so they can take responsibility for providing for security in their own country."
Berman followed up with his "ISIS has been in Syria for quite a long time" statement and asked, "How can you have a comprehensive strategy for dealing with ISIS at all if it doesn't include Syria?" The White House press secretary stuck to his talking points:
EARNEST: Well, because, John, what the situation is simply this: military action is one component of a broader strategy. The President has authorized military action against ISIL in Iraq. The President has not, at this point, authorized military action against ISIL in Syria. Those plans are currently under development by the Defense Department. The President is not going to authorize military action in Syria without a plan and before we're ready. But what we have been engaged in, for quite some time, is implementing a comprehensive strategy for dealing with ISIL that starts with putting together an Iraqi government that can unite the country to confront that threat....
So, the President has implemented a very comprehensive strategy. The President talked about all of this at the beginning of his news conference yesterday. The one thing that we have not yet determined is exactly what the smartest path is, in terms of pursuing a military strategy in Syria against ISIL. That continues to be an open question. The President was asked yesterday whether or not congressional authorization would be required before authorizing – or before ordering military strikes in Syria, and that's when the President said, we don't have a strategy yet, and that's because we don't yet have plans. We don't yet have military options, in terms of striking ISIL in Syria. That's what the President described as putting the cart before the horse.
The CNN anchor then strongly hinted that the Obama administration's strategy didn't seem to be working, especially in the case of Syria: "We've seen reporter James Foley beheaded last week by ISIS. We've seen many Syrian troops, in the video released by ISIS, massacred over the last several days. They just took over an airbase in northern Syria. They're still operating – albeit, perhaps, on the run – in Iraq. But is this comprehensive strategy you say the White House has – is it working?"
Earnest again tried to skirt the Syria question by zeroing in on Iraq. This ultimately led to Berman making his "it wasn't exactly a clear message" assertion about President Obama's statement:
EARNEST: Well, John, if you take a look at exactly what's happened over the last several weeks, you can see that we've made important progress. Because of the military action that the President authorized, we prevented a humanitarian disaster at Sinjar Mountain, where there were some religious and ethnic minorities that had been cornered by ISIL. Those individuals have been freed. Just in the last few weeks, ISIL was aggressively making an advance on Erbil. Because of the military strikes that the President authorized, that advance was blunted. That insured that American personnel, who are in Erbil, are not in harm's way. Because of the American support for Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, they were able to retake Mosul Dam – a critical piece of infrastructure in Iraq – from ISIL....
So, if you look at – if you look at just the last, like, three weeks or so, John, those four important things have happened, and that is evidence that this strategy that the President has put in place is making progress to try to mitigate the threat that's posed by this situation. But there's no question that there's a lot more work to do, and we are engaged in a strategy to continue it.
BERMAN: Did the President just announce to ISIS leaders that he has no intention to strike them with military action in Syria in the next few days or weeks?
EARNEST: The President made clear that he is not going to authorize military action in Syria before there is a good plan in place for dealing with the military options that we have in Syria. So, I don't know what kind of message this sends to ISIL. I know it sends a very clear message to everybody around the world, and to the American people, that the President is not going to – not going to go off and order military action in Syria without a very specific plan for what that action is going to look like, and what we hope to accomplish. Once a plan is in place....Then, the President will certainly reserve the right to take that action to protect American interests and to protect the American people.
BERMAN: With all due respect, I think the fact you're still out this morning talking about it shows that it wasn't exactly a clear message that was sent on Syria. But it I don't want to let you go before talking-
EARNEST: With all due respect, John, anybody who looked at the news conference and looked at the President's opening remarks saw very clearly that he laid out this strategy. So, you're welcome to focus on whatever aspect of the news conference you would like, but if you want to actually understand what the President's trying to communicate, I would encourage you to take a close look at his words.