President Obama confronted a pair of volatile international crises with restraint on Thursday as he said he was not close to authorizing airstrikes against Islamic extremists in Syria and played down the latest escalation of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.
With tensions rising in Europe and the Middle East, Mr. Obama emphasized that a military response would not resolve either situation and pledged to build international coalitions to grapple with them. Despite pressure from within his own government for more assertive action, he tried to avoid inflaming passions as he sought new approaches.
Mr. Obama confirmed that he had asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for options for military strikes in Syria to target the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has established a virtual state straddling the border of those countries. But speaking with reporters before a meeting of his national security team, the president said no action in Syria was imminent because he had not even seen military plans.
“We don’t have a strategy yet,” he said. “I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at than we currently are.”
His comment drew fire from critics and prompted aides to clarify that he was only talking about Syria. Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, posted on Twitter and went on television to say Mr. Obama did, in fact, have a strategy to combat ISIS in Iraq. He said it included military action, building an inclusive government, supporting Iraq’s military and recruiting regional partners.
Mr. Obama seemed equally intent on managing expectations about what the United States may do in response to reports that Russia has sent forces into Ukraine. Although he said he expected to impose additional sanctions, he declined to call Russia’s latest moves an invasion, as Ukraine and others have, saying they were “not really a shift” but just “a little more overt” form of longstanding Russian violations of Ukrainian sovereignty.