Thanks to the holiday, it took Glenn Kessler a few days to catch up to the White House’s attempt to get out from under Barack Obama’s assertion that ISIS was nothing more than the al-Qaeda “jayvees,” a glib dismissal Obama gave in January when asked about it during a New Yorker interview. Needless to say, the “jayvees” have come a long way, and have done so even while Obama had been briefed for more than a year about their danger. Josh Earnest tried arguing last week that Obama didn’t mean to include ISIS in the “jayvees,” but Kessler dumps four Pinocchios on that claim.
Earnest provided this rambling answer when confronted on August 25th about the “jayvees” comment:
Q Just to complete this thought, then — did the President underestimate ISIS when he referred to them in an interview only a couple of months ago as a JV squad, in making a reference to National Basketball Association teams like the Lakers?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I thought somebody might ask this question today, so I wanted to pull — (laughter) — I wanted to pull the transcript of the interview, because it’s important to understand the context in which this was delivered. So let me just read the full quote and then we can talk about it just a little bit.
The President said, “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland, versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.” So the President was not singling out ISIL. He was talking about the very different threat that is posed by a range of extremists around the globe. Many of them do not have designs on attacking the West or on attacking the United States, and that is what puts them in stark contrast to the goals and capability of the previously existing al Qaeda core network that was led by Osama bin Laden.
Thanks to the efforts of this President, and because of the heroic efforts of our men and women in uniform and the intelligence community, that al Qaeda core network led by Osama bin Laden has been decimated and defeated. But there is a different threat that exists and that continues to pose a threat to American national security, and that is this wider range of extremist organizations, some of whom do not have designs on attacking the West or on attacking the American homeland. Many of them — and I would say this is probably true — well, let me say it this way: Not only do they not have designs, the vast majority of them do not have designs on attacking the West, they certainly don’t have the capability of attacking the West. What Osama bin Laden presided over was an international network of highly trained, sophisticated, well-funded terrorists that were capable of carrying out a terrible, heinous attack on the U.S. homeland.
Q Isn’t ISIS international?
MR. EARNEST: The capability that has been exhibited by what the President described as jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes is quite different than that. And that is the point that the President was making. So it’s important that we don’t sort of shorthand the analogy that the President was trying to draw here.
Kessler points out that the issue that prompted the question from New Yorker’s David Remnick was that Fallujah had fallen to ISIS, which had just raised its flag over the city that US Marines fought at least twice to liberate. This wasn’t a general question about local jihadists or warlords; it was specific to the issue of ISIS and their designs on the region. After all, ISIS wasn’t an unknown group, but the same al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) that the US had fought for years in Iraq, finally marginalizing them during the surge. Our departure had allowed them to get back off the mat and rebuild into a cross-national army, and Fallujah was an early warning of their threat under their new name.
Earnest’s spin got him the full complement of Pinocchios:
With the passage of eight months, the president’s “JV” comment looks increasingly untenable, so we can understand why the White House spokesman would try to suggest that what is now known as the Islamic State was not the subject of the conversation.
But in quoting from the transcript, Earnest provided a selective reading of the discussion. In particular, he failed to provide the context in which Obama made his remarks—the takeover of Fallujah byISIS. That’s fairly misleading. The interviewer was certainly asking about ISIS when Obama answered with his “JV” remarks.
Nor is that the only Washington Post column to take the White House to the woodshed. Dana Milbank, not exactly a ringing voice of neocon philosophy, wonders what it will take to get Obama engaged … or at least worried:
I hope Obama’s chillax message turns out to be correct, but the happy talk is not reassuring. It’s probably true that the threat of domestic radicalization is greater in Europe than in the United States (hence the British plan to confiscate some passports) but Obama’s sanguinity is jarring compared to the mood of NATO allies Obama is meeting in Europe this week.
Obama has been giving Americans a pep talk, essentially counseling them not to let international turmoil get in the way of the domestic economic recovery. “The world has always been messy,” he said Friday. “In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.”
So we wouldn’t have fussed over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine if not for Facebook? Or worried about terrorists taking over much of Syria and Iraq if not for Twitter? This explanation, following Obama’s indiscrete admission Thursday that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for military action against ISIS, adds to the impression that Obama is disengaged.
In short, Americans would worry less if Obama worried more.
Ruth Marcus provides a trifecta today at the Post. She scolds Obama for his “herky-jerky leadership,” a term Marcus admits is insufficient for the deep and troubling vacuum at the White House. Marcus starts with immigration, but concludes with the real issue:
The immigration mess would be less concerning — and the tone of this column more measured — if it were not reflective of a larger disarray in policymaking. Take Syria and the Islamic State. Chemical weapons are a “red line” — except they’re not. Obama’s prepared to order airstrikes on Syria — except he’s going to seek congressional approval, which, predictably, is not forthcoming. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go, except the United States is dealing with Assad on chemical weapons.
More recently, the Islamic State is an “imminent threat” (Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel) that will require military action in Syria (Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey). How to square these comments with Obama’swhoa therenews conference? A team of rivals is great. Debate away, in private. Teams need a captain.
Thus, even if Obama hadn’t committed the unforced error of announcing the obvious — “we don’t have a strategy yet” — the news conference would have been a disaster. The zig-zagginess of the message becomes even more jarring when the world is so explosively dangerous.
Calling this herky-jerky is being awfully polite.
Obama is in over his head. All the spin in the world can’t cover it up, and even the President’s usual defenders can’t deny it any longer.