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Obama feeds critics with bid for more time on Syria

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[August 30, 2014]  By Steve Holland
 WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has bought some time with his decision to slow the march toward U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria and provided fodder for critics who accuse him of dithering.

The White House on Friday defended Obama's admission on Thursday that "we don't have a strategy yet" for confronting the militant group's operations in Syria. It said he wanted to deliberate on the options his military advisers were giving him.

There was no timetable for making a decision and Obama will be on the road most of the next week.

Obama spent Friday on a Democratic fund-raising trip, will attend the wedding of a former White House chef on Saturday, travels to Wisconsin for a Labor Day picnic on Monday and will visit Estonia and attend a NATO summit in Wales next week.

"There are some who have called for the president to take action or order military action in Syria," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. "The president hasn't made any decisions and hasn't ordered any military action in Syria, but if he does take that step, it will be one that is carefully considered."

Obama's decision to tap the brakes on his Islamic State policy was striking to many in Washington because top national security advisers had been laying the rhetorical foundation for quick action.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel a week ago called the group "beyond anything we've seen." General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said it was a threat that cannot be defeated without addressing the part of the organization that resides in Syria.


The president's caution reflects his steadfast principle, as elaborated to some aides, of "don't do stupid stuff," to avoid actions that could have dangerous unforeseen consequences and backfire on U.S. interests.

But for his critics it also feeds a narrative that suggests Obama is frozen by caution and unwilling to take steps needed to address a festering crisis in the heart of the Middle East.

"I'm not sure the severity of the problem has really sunk in to the administration just yet," Republican Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, who chairs the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, told CNN.

To some, Obama's caution, borne out of his opposition to the Iraq war initiated by his predecessor George W. Bush, is to be respected, a sign that he wants to avoid a repeat of that conflict by not shooting first and asking questions later.

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Obama wants any strategy against Islamic State to be comprehensive, with participation from regional players and a unity government in Baghdad that will soothe festering wounds between Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

"The president is understandably looking at recent history, looking at America's role and looking to try to ensure that America doesn't have to shoulder this burden single-handedly," said a Western diplomat based in Washington.

Obama has shown little desire to get the United States involved in Syria's civil war. He shied away from airstrikes against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons against his own people a year ago, but his threat to attack forced Assad to give up chemical weapons.

Now there is concern that U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria could end up bolstering Assad, an outcome Washington would view with distaste. Any such move may need to be accompanied by support for moderate Syrian rebels opposed to both Assad and Islamic State.

Will McCants, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, said Obama will have to make a tough decision.

"I don't think there's a way out this time," he said. "He's either going to have to decide to go after Islamic State and arm the rebels in Syria or he's going to have to decide that we can live with Assad."

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington and William Maclean; Editing by David Storey and Howard Goller)

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