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Obama thinks public needs to better understand US strategy against Islamic State

President Barack Obama’s speech to the nation in early December helped kick his administration’s new strategy into overdrive.
President Barack Obama’s speech to the nation in early December helped kick his administration’s new strategy into overdrive. AP

As President Barack Obama flew home from Asia aboard Air Force One in late November, he scolded his aides about how poorly the administration was communicating the U.S.-led strategy against the Islamic State.

Throughout the nine-day trip, which had begun less than 24 hours after the terrorist attacks in Paris, he had listened to critics at home and abroad charge that he had no coherent game plan. Some had even suggested that France, with tough talk and a series of retaliatory air strikes, was now leading the anti-terrorism fight.

The message they had received on the road was “jarring,” said a senior administration official who was on the flight. The problem wasn’t the strategy, they agreed. That “was clear to all of us, sitting in the Sit[uation] Room, in briefings every day. We all know what we are doing.”

What they needed was to do a better job of explaining it. Obama ordered what the official called an “uptick in our communications tempo.”

Within days of their return, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes had drafted a memo for the president’s approval, outlining specific tasks for officials at all levels, starting with the president himself. Cabinet secretaries needed to talk more in public about all elements of the strategy. The media needed more briefings. Everybody needed to become more comfortable with Twitter.

The campaign, beginning with firm presidential words at a news conference with visiting French President Francois Hollande and a public statement after a White House meeting with top national security aides, was barely underway when a terrorist couple burst into a public building in San Bernardino, Calif., and shot to death 14 people at a holiday party.

“With that, obviously, concerns about [the Islamic State] came much closer to home for many Americans,” said the senior official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity about internal administration discussions.

Since then, the new communications campaign has gone into overdrive.

On Dec. 6, four days after the California attack, Obama made a rare nationwide address from the Oval Office to discuss the many-pronged campaign against the militants - coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq and military assistance to anti-Islamic State local forces; cutting off the group’s financing and stopping the flow of foreigners rushing to join it; counter-messaging to block its online appeal; and humanitarian aid to the millions fleeing its brutality on the ground.

All those efforts, along with intelligence collection, had already been expanded following an internal strategy review in the fall; a diplomatic push to end Syria’s civil war was also underway. Counterterrorism at home had been stepped up in the wake of the San Bernardino attack. “Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear,” Obama said in conclusion. “America will prevail.”

“The Sunday night address kicked off a new chapter,” the senior official said. Over the next two weeks, Obama would make highly publicized visits to the Pentagon and the National Counterterrorism Center for anti-terror briefings capped with public remarks. He began a series of media interviews and delivered a Dec. 12 radio address titled “Standing Strong in the Face of Terrorism.”

In twice-weekly conferences with the communications officials across national security agencies, Rhodes has emphasized the need to step up their messaging activities. Early attention focused particularly on Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, whose news conferences were considered lackluster and who tended to limit substantive media encounters on overseas trips.

On a mid-December swing through Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan, Carter was both visible and voluble, holding several news conferences and background briefings.

“It’s fair to say that DOD will be doing more,” the senior official said of the Defense Department. “What you saw of Carter, you will continue to see of other Cabinet principals. . . . It’s something that we’re all going to be focusing on, certainly going into early next year.”

So far, there is little evidence the messaging campaign is succeeding in changing opinions of the overall strategy. Nationwide polls in December showed public approval of Obama’s handling of the Islamic State threat hovering at around 35 percent, unchanged from previous months. The perceived “weakness” of the overall effort has been the centerpiece of the foreign policy message of Republican presidential candidates. Even some Democrats and coalition allies believe the administration’s reluctance to become more involved in Syria’s civil war, to intervene more forcefully in Iraq’s sectarian squabbles and to put more U.S. boots on the ground in both countries show a hesitancy that underestimates the peril posed by the militants.

But just as they believe the strategy itself will ultimately pay off, administration planners say they are convinced that more information will lead others to agree.

Senior military officials have been encouraged to hold regular sessions for reporters, expanding a weekly offering to Washington-based media via teleconference by the coalition press operation in Baghdad.

To avoid stovepiping, where journalists who cover one department sometimes ignore or are uninformed about what goes on elsewhere, officials who manage one aspect of the anti-Islamic State campaign have been sent to brief in other buildings. After a senior official at the State Department explained newly ramped-up efforts to destroy Syrian oil facilities that provide money to the militants, the same official was sent to the Pentagon to deliver the same talk to reporters there.

Adam Szubin, acting undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial crimes, was brought to the daily briefing for reporters covering the White House to explain his part of what he called the administration’s “whole of government approach” to countering the Islamic State, also known as ISIL.

The goal of these efforts, another senior administration official said, is “cross-pollination.” There is a recognition, this official said, that “a lot of the [media] bureaus and bullpens in this town follow what their own people are doing but don’t get the whole picture.” Bullpens refers to the collection of reporters assigned to cover a department.

At the same time, this official said, we “recognize this is a campaign season” in which political reporters charged with recounting what is said by candidates may lack a deep knowledge of national security. No matter how many departmental briefings are given to specialized reporters, the official said, “there is a real knowledge gap. . . . We feel like we repeat things all the time, but it’s not penetrating.”

The lack of comprehensive understanding of the strategy can also extend beyond U.S. shores, this official said. “Another thing that became really clear to us is that the 65-member” anti-Islamic State coalition is very different from previous international groupings. The Afghanistan coalition was organized by NATO, which provided a legal and bureaucratic framework.

“We don’t have a coalition secretariat that can speak on behalf” of the current coalition, the official said.

Secretary of State John Kerry is in near-constant motion, holding overseas meetings with his coalition counterparts. An additional attempt to remedy the problem came in mid-December, when Treasury Secretary Jack Lew traveled to New York to chair an unprecedented meeting of finance ministers representing members of the United Nations Security Council.

As the new communication effort began, Obama gave a new title to Robert Malley, who is in charge of the Middle East for the National Security Council. As the president’s newly minted Senior Adviser for the Counter-ISIL Campaign in Iraq and Syria, Malley’s job is to consolidate efforts across departments and agencies in charge of the military, diplomatic, intelligence, financing and other aspects of the strategy.

Because Malley was not known as a prolific practitioner of social media, “it’s probably fair to say that Rob Malley was not itching to launch his own Twitter account,” the first senior administration official said. But Malley nonetheless inaugurated @robmalley44 on Dec. 11.

Although officials said Malley approves his own postings, most of what appears under the handle is compiled by the half dozen members of the White House Office of Digital Strategies, which retweets virtually every other tweet, chart, release, speech and statement on anti-Islamic State efforts from across the government.

The last week of the year sparked a a virtual flood of emails, releases, tweets and retweets from the White House, State and Defense departments, and the military and coalition allies hailing the Iraqi military’s success in driving Islamic State forces from the city of Ramadi.

In case anyone misses any of it, on Dec. 8 the NSC press office began emailing to a long list of reporters a daily roundup it said would “aggregate key developments across the various lines of effort in our unyielding campaign to degrade and destroy ISIL.”

“You’re going to see more of all of it in the new year,” the first senior official said. “You’ll see the president continue to be the chief messenger when it comes to this. He’s uniquely suited to tie together the different streams. You’ll also see Carter, Kerry, the military generals, Lew, Szubin — the whole cast of characters really, to speak to this in a very concerted way in order to ensure” that the message is getting out.

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