The question du jour via ABC News: Who was it, precisely, who “underestimated” ISIS? Was it U.S. intelligence, or was it a guy who was briefed on the mounting threat repeatedly for more than a year but chose not to make a move until Mosul had fallen this summer? ISIS was threatening Baghdad as far back as last December. If I were a betting man, I’d bet that the “intelligence community” picked up a rumor or two about it and passed it along.
In fact, now would be a fine time to re-read some posts from this summer about just how long the White House knew that ISIS was a problem. A choice quote from mid-June:
Lawmakers from both parties and even some non-partisan analysts say the Obama administration should have better anticipated the rise of Sunni militants, who captured Iraq’s second-largest city last week and could pose a terrorism threat both within and outside the country’s borders…
“It was very clear to people how bad these guys are,” Michael Leiter, a former top counterterrorism official in both the Bush and Obama administrations, said in an interview. “I don’t know if this was a tactical error or an intelligence error.”
To the extent that we did have bad intel at the time, of course, it was partly due to the fact that we’d lost eyes and ears inside Iraq after Obama ordered a total withdrawal. Anyway, a week after the story quoted above was published, the Kurdish prime minister claimed he had warned the White House “months ago” about the looming threat from ISIS and gotten no reply.
If you want to go further back then that, here’s a story from 11 months ago in which an unnamed White House official warns of ISIS becoming a “transnational threat network” that could destabilize Iraq. Josh Earnest makes the best rebuttal argument he can here under the circumstances: It’s not so much that we underestimated ISIS, he says, as we underestimated the Iraqi army’s willingness and ability to push ISIS back without our help. I’ve made that argument before myself. But there’s a problem with it. Again, 11 months ago:
“It is a fact now that al Qaeda has a presence in Western Iraq” extending into Syria, “that Iraqi forces are unable to target,” the official said.
As far back as October 2013, parts of Iraq were already a no-go area for the Iraqi army. The obvious truth here, which both Obama and Earnest are unwilling to say, is that the White House knew how dangerous ISIS was many months ago and also suspected that the IA would be unable to fend them off but didn’t want to commit any U.S. military assets for fear of the “Obama’s re-invading Iraq!” storyline coming back to haunt them politically. Obama got a stark lesson in how war-weary Americans were last year when his call to bomb Assad fizzled in Congress; that war-weariness helped get him elected president in 2008. There was no way this guy, of all people, was going to cast that war-weariness aside and wade back into the war that he’d gotten famous for opposing unless and until ISIS posed a mortal threat to Iraq itself. That’s why the White House waited until after Mosul had fallen to start ramping up, and even then they’d probably still be slow-walking it if not for those gruesome beheading videos. You would think all of this would be perfectly salable to the public — Obama tried not to get re-involved in a war that 70 percent of the country thinks was a bad idea — but I think they’d rather pretend that they were ignorant of the threat than confess that O was too cautious as commander-in-chief to try to squash a growing jihadi menace at a moment when Americans would have been more ambivalent about it. Iraq’s loss is Democratic incumbents’ midterm gain.
Exit question from Lee Smith: “If Obama blames IC [intelligence community] for not knowing about ISIS, why trust him that IC will know when Iran is on verge of [nuclear] breakout?”