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Opinion: Columnists

Tulsi Gabbard, meet President Obama

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Columnists,Barack Obama,Iraq,Terrorism,Charles Hoskinson

My colleague Susan Crabtree reports that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is upset with the Obama administration's tepid response to the threat of terrorism posed by the Islamic State.

“So if our mission is not to take out the Islamic extremists who continue to threaten and wage war against us, then I think we've got a real problem here," the Hawaii Democrat and Iraq War veteran said in an interview with ABC’s Martha Raddatz on Sunday.

Yes, Rep. Gabbard, we do have a real problem, and his name is President Obama — your fellow Hawaiian and the leader of your party.

When it comes to ignoring what has quickly morphed into the worst Islamist extremist threat so far, the rot in the White House goes all the way to the top.

As the Islamic State consolidates its hold over territory in both Iraq and Syria and becomes bolder in its threats to the U.S. and its allies, Obama and his advisers sleepwalk through a feeble application of limited military force to chip at the edges of the problem and contain it — all in the hope that someone else will eventually step up and solve it for him.

In a statement Monday afternoon, Obama made clear that U.S. efforts would be limited to containing the growth of the Islamic State to provide space for an inclusive government in Iraq to emerge as the nucleus for a regional coalition to counter the militant organization. His biggest concern? Avoiding "mission creep."

Here's what he said:

I have been firm from the start that we are not reintroducing thousands of U.S. troops back on the ground to engage in combat. We're not the Iraqi military. We're not even the Iraqi air force. I am the Commander-in-Chief of the United States armed forces, and Iraq is going to have to ultimately provide for its own security.

On the other hand, we've got a national security interest in making sure our people are protected and in making sure that a savage group that seems willing to slaughter people for no rhyme or reason other than they have not kowtowed to them — that a group like that is contained, because ultimately they can pose a threat to us.

So my goal is, number one, to make sure we've got a viable partner. And that's why we have so consistently emphasized the need for a government formation process that is inclusive, that is credible, that is legitimate, and that can appeal to Sunnis as well as Shias and Kurds. We've made significant progress on that front, but we're not there yet. And I told my national security team today and I will say publicly that we want to continue to communicate to politicians of all stripes in Iraq, don't think that because we have engaged in airstrikes to protect our people that now is the time to let the foot off the gas and return to the same kind of dysfunction that has so weakened the country generally. ...

When we see a credible Iraqi government, we are then in a position to engage when planning not just with the Iraqi government but also with regional actors and folks beyond the Middle East so that we can craft the kind of joint strategy — joint counterterrorism strategy that I discussed at West Point and I discussed several years ago to the National Defense University. Our goal is to have effective partners on the ground. And if we have effective partners on the ground, mission creep is much less likely.

Typically what happens with mission creep is when we start deciding that we’re the ones who have to do it all ourselves. And because of the excellence of our military, that can work for a time — we learned that in Iraq — but it’s not sustainable. It’s not lasting. And so I’ve been very firm about this precisely because our goal here has to be to be able to build up a structure not just in Iraq, but regionally, that can be maintained, and that is not involving us effectively trying to govern or impose our military will on a country that is hostile to us.

OK, that's the hope. But, as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani once said, "hope is not a strategy."

Hope is all you have left when your approach to counterterrorism was designed by someone who insisted the caliphate set up by the Islamic State was a "feckless delusion" that was "never going to happen." As a result, when the impossible actually did happen (surprise!), the U.S. had no plan for how to respond.

In the real world outside the White House bubble, it's going to take more than hope to keep a well-armed, well-financed and highly-motivated group of militant theocrats from expanding its control to an even larger slice of the Middle East, let alone defeat them.

If Gabbard is really serious about solving this problem, she's got to start at the top where it lies. But even though the foreign policy establishment has begun to abandon Obama on this issue, Democrats in Congress so far have been reluctant to follow.

Let's hope that changes — and soon.

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