It is becoming increasingly clear that those who did not laugh at President Barack Obama’s assertion that it was the intelligence community and not his administration who severely underestimated the Islamic State’s capabilities were apparently deeply offended by it.
“Well I think, our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” Obama told CBS reporter Steve Kroft.
In fact, it turns out that a number of administration officials were critical of Obama’s Syria policy because they feared that the scenario the United States is now confronting in the Middle East might arise. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said she urged the president to arm moderate Syrian rebels as early as 2012 — a task the United States is only now undertaking — in order to help collapse Bashar al-Assad regime and contain militant groups in an internationalized post-Assad Syria.
“We pay the price for not doing that in what we see happening with ISIS,” said former CIA Director and Defense Sec. Leon Panetta recently, in agreement with the former secretary of state.
But while this may sound like Monday morning quarterbacking to the president’s defenders, there were plenty of Saturday night quarterbacks in the intelligence and defense establishments who were sounding alarms about ISIS well before they became the national security threat they are today.
Even the State Department was fully aware of the scale of the threat represented by ISIS. In February, just as the Islamic State burst across the Syrian border and began sacking Iraqi towns and cities with alacrity, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran Brett McGurk testified on the increasing danger associated with the ISIS threat.
“First, it is attacking Shia civilian areas in an effort to rekindle a civil war,” McGurk said of ISIS’s near-term plans for the region. “Second, it is attacking Sunni areas to eliminate rivals and govern territory.”
“Third, ISIL is attacking the Kurds in Northern Iraq in disputed boundary areas to incite ethnic tension and unrest,” he added.
Check, check, and check. “The campaign has a stated objective to cause the collapse of the Iraqi state and carve out a zone of governing control in western regions of Iraq and Syria,” the State Department official warned.
Flash forward to today, and the administration’s communications officials have been thrust in the unfortunate position of having to defend the president’s artless buck passing. In service to that thankless mission, State Dept. spokeswoman Marie Harf was forced to tell CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that no one, not even ISIS, could have possibly predicted the rise of ISIS.
“The president said, for a long time we’ve known about the serious threat from ISIL, but everyone — us, the Iraqis, even ISIL itself probably — was surprised by how quickly earlier this summer they were really able to take territory in Iraq,” Harf said.
You see, even the Islamic State was shocked by their own capabilities. Thiers was a wondrous journey of self-actualization in the form of a campaign of crucifixions and beheadings.
“They moved more quickly than anyone could have imagined,” she added, forgetting apparently that many did imagine ISIS’s blitz across Iraq in specific detail.
“You know, assessing the will of a force to fight — the capability is one thing you can assess — but the will is a tough thing to assess,” she added. Because everyone really knew that ISIS had the capability to mount a smashing offensive across the Middle East, but no one knew that they had the stoutness of character to achieve it!
What an embarrassing display.
How much damage could the president have avoided doing to his administration if he had just said, “I underestimated ISIS and I overestimated the Iraqis.” His critics would have had a field day with it for 48 hours, but the media would have quickly moved on to another story. It would have disappeared in short order. Now, the intelligence community is out for blood, and the president has sparked a bureaucratic war inside the Beltway. Much like his response to ISIS, Obama’s underestimation of the intelligence community will likely prove to be shortsighted.