Analysis

President Barack Obama holds a news conference and delivers a too-candid admission on strategy.

President Barack Obama holds a news conference and delivers a too-candid admission on strategy. Photo: AFP

Perhaps it was sign of America's war-weariness, or at least that of its pundit class, a group that has clearly tired of discussing the nation's seemingly intractable crises in Ukraine, Iraq and Syria.

Whatever the cause, when Barack Obama took to the dais in the White House's Brady briefing room to address these two issues, all anyone watching on TV seemed to want to talk about was his choice of suit, a beige number, nicely paired with a white shirt and a sort of taupe striped tie.

The Washington Post's Pulitzer prize-winning fashion critic, Robin Givhan, tried in vain to introduce some perspective into the debate in the capital.

"There is nothing wrong with that suit – well, except it's a little big," Givhan was quoted as saying in a Post blog posted an hour or so after the press conference.

"It says more about official, federal, political Washington that anything other than a dark suit with a white shirt and red tie counts as some sort of aesthetic heresy," she said, adding that it was entirely appropriate for this time of year. (Right-thinking Americans stop wearing light colours after Labor Day, which is not until Monday.)

Those that managed to focus on the content of Obama's press conference were more than a little startled when he was asked if he would consult Congress before launching air attacks on Islamic State fighters in Syria.

"I don't want to put the cart before the horse," he replied. "We don't have a strategy yet."

This was an artless choice of words. The harried White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, spent the rest of the evening cleaning up after his boss. He appeared on several TV stations and even sent missives off into the maw that is Twitter, where everyone else was still giggling about Obama's suit.

"In his remarks today, POTUS was explicit – as he has been in the past – about the comprehensive strategy we'll use to confront ISIL [Islamic State] threat."

And this is true, as was obvious to those who listened closely enough to the President.

"We can rout ISIS [Islamic State] on the ground and keep a lid on things temporarily," the President said at one point. "But then, as soon as we leave, the same problems come back again. So we've got to – we've got to make sure that Iraqis understand, in the end, they're going to be responsible for their own security. And part of that is going to be the capacity for them to make compromises.

"It also means that states in the region stop being ambivalent about these extremist groups. I mean, the truth is that we've had state actors who, at times, have thought that the way to advance their interests is, well, financing some of these groups as proxies is not such a bad strategy. And part of our message to the entire region is, this should be a wake-up call to Sunni, to Shia, to everybody that a group like ISIS is beyond the pale."

What Obama meant to say then, as poor Mr Earnest spent the evening telling anyone who would listen, is that there is no strategy for an immediate expansion of air strikes against Islamic State in Syria. Certainly the White House has no plans to expand its bombing until it has not only an international coalition of support for the campaign, but support from Sunni groups within Iraq and across the region, and a unified Iraq government capable of representing both sects.

The US has already had some success in this process – the recent resignation of the doggedly sectarian Shia Iraq prime minister Nouri al-Maliki – but there is a long way to go.

The process is not made easier for Obama, or his allies in Washington, by the President's own rhetorical friendly fire.