President Barack Obama said Monday his top national security advisers were still working to solidify training plans for Iraqi defense forces battling ISIS in their own country.
“We don’t yet have a complete strategy because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis,” Obama said during concluding remarks at the G7 conference in Germany, citing recruitment as a key stumbling block facing the central government in Iraq.
Critics of the administration’s strategy in Iraq seized upon the President’s comments Monday, claiming they indicated a policy failure and referencing similar comments Obama made in August.
“What has President Obama been doing for the last 10 months?” the Republican National Committee wrote Monday. House Speaker John Boehner took the attack another step, responding to Obama with a tweet of a popular emoticon of a person shrugging (“¯\_(ツ)_/¯ “) as a shorter summary of Obama’s strategy.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Arizona, hammered Obama on the Senate floor Monday, saying the lack of a strategy is alarming “while ISIS goes from house to house in Ramadi with lists of names and they execute people and they kill 3-year-old children, and they burn their bodies in the streets and the atrocities in Syria continue as Bashar Assad barrel bombs innocent men, women and children.”
“One can wonder, one has to wonder, whether this President just wants to wait out the next year and a half and basically do nothing to stop this genocide, bloodletting, horrible things that are happening throughout the Middle East,” McCain said.
Obama said during an August press conference his administration was still devising a way to fight ISIS.
“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. We don’t have a strategy yet,” he said at the time.
Boosting the fighting power of Iraqi forces has proven difficult for the U.S., which is relying on local forces to beat back ISIS terrorists who have gained ground in places like Ramadi and Mosul.
After last month’s ISIS siege in Ramadi, the U.S. defense secretary Ash Carter blamed a “lack of will” within Iraqi’s military for the setback. Since then, local Sunni fighters and Shia militias have joined the fight.
The situation in Iraq has also become a political issue on the presidential trail. 2016 hopefuls on the Republican side – including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker who would not rule out bringing in more boots on the ground – have tried to walk the line of appearing stronger on foreign policy than the President while at the same time being cognizant of a war wary country. Both former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio have struggled recently to articulate their position on how to respond to the situation in Iraq.
The Obama administration says it’s not conducting a formal reassessment of its ISIS strategy. But on Monday Obama said his top military brass was still formulating how exactly it can provide enough support for the Iraqi military to beat back the terror group.
“We want to get more Iraqi security forces trained, fresh, well equipped, and focused,” Obama said. “We’re reviewing a range of plans for how we might do that, essentially accelerating the number of Iraqi forces that are properly trained and equipped and have a focused strategy and good leadership.”
On Monday, Obama said he would share a final training plan for the Iraqi military with the American people as soon as his military brass comes up with one.
Earlier in the day, Obama frankly acknowledged setbacks in his war against ISIS, saying the terrorists’ gains in Iraq amount to a short-term tactical gain that could be reversed through ramped-up U.S. assistance.
Speaking alongside Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the sidelines of the G7, Obama reiterated the U.S. pledge to bolster training for Iraqi forces, but stopped short of announcing the increases in lethal aid being requested by Baghdad.
“The challenges we face continue to be significant,” Obama said. “We have seen successes, but we have also seen setbacks.”
Later, he said he was “confident that although it is going to take time, we are going to be successful, ISIL is going to be driven out of Iraq and ultimately it is going to defeated.”
Speaking afterward, Abadi said he was confident ISIS would be defeated in his country, and called the fall of Ramadi into ISIS hands last month only a temporary gain for the group.
During his meeting with Obama, Abadi was expected to again press for ramped-up U.S. military assistance to beleaguered Iraqi forces. He’s been asking Obama and other American leaders for months to increase their support as ISIS continues to advance in Iraq.
However, an announcement of new lethal aid wasn’t forthcoming during Obama’s visit to Germany for the G-7. Obama’s aides say instead that the President has tasked his national security team with continually assessing the mission against ISIS.
The Obama administration still regards Abadi as a vast improvement over his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, who the U.S. accused of fostering sectarian resentments within Iraq by not forming an inclusive enough government. Elected last year. Abadi was widely regarded as a more effective partner for the allied mission against Islamic State terrorists.
But leaders in Iraq have continued to struggle in uniting the country’s Sunni, Shia and Kurdish populations.
“As long (Abadi) and the government stay committed to an inclusive approach … I am absolutely confident that we will be successful,” Obama said.
During a photo call for leaders attending the G7 summit Monday, there was an awkward moment when Obama turned his back on Abadi as the Iraqi Prime Minister appeared intent on initiating a conversation. Engrossed in a discussion with Italian leader Matteo Renzi and International Monetary Fund president Christine Lagarde, Obama didn’t notice Abadi lingering behind him.
After waiting a moment, Abadi turned and walked away.