Three years ago, Barack Obama declared the war in Iraq over as American troops pulled out of the country, after having succeeded in suppressing the insurgency of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-8. Seven months ago, when it became clear that the war in Iraq wasn’t over simply because the US declared it to be so, Obama scoffed at the idea that the revived insurgency under the new label of ISIS (or ISIL, but the same AQI organization) presented any direct threat to the United States:
And yet thoughts of a pacific equilibrium are far from anyone’s mind in the real, existing Middle East. In the 2012 campaign, Obama spoke not only of killing Osama bin Laden; he also said that Al Qaeda had been “decimated.” I pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Falluja, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too.
“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. “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.
“Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”
It’s amazing how quickly those Sunni fanatic “jayvees” went from a local nuisance to an “imminent threat.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel offered that conclusion yesterday in a whiplash-inducing reversal by the same administration that had claimed to have settled the Iraq question once and for all. Instead of “jayvees” and rejecting concerns over the group as overbroad definitions of terrorism, Hagel announced that ISIS has grown into something beyond “just a terrorist group”:
“This is beyond anything that we’ve seen,” he said during a briefing on Thursday afternoon about the Sunni militant group that has taken over territory in Iraq and Syria and earlier this week beheaded American journalist James Foley.
“ISIL is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen,” Hagel said. “They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded.”
“So we must prepare for everything. And the only way you do that is that you take a cold, steely, hard look at it…and get ready,” he said.
In fact, it’s so much of a threat that the Pentagon isn’t talking about stopping its ability to threaten the US, but merely containing it — and even then, probably for only a temporary period, unless we get serious about actually defeating ISIS. Dempsey also points out that the “open borders and immigration” makes the threat more immediate to NATO nations:
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was possible to “contain” ISIS, but “not in perpetuity.”
“This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated,” said Dempsey, who spoke alongside Hagel.
Perhaps we might have been more prepared to deal with this threat if we’d actually assessed it properly in 2011, and again in January. Iowahawk reminded us of this earlier this morning:
January: "ISIS is a JV team."
Yesterday: "ISIS is the worst threat ever."
– Messages courtesy US Department of Don't Do Stupid Shit
— David Burge (@iowahawkblog) August 22, 2014
And Americans might be more confident that the administration took this “imminent threat” seriously if Obama at least acted as if he took it seriously. Instead, even the New York Times was left scratching its head over Obama’s grim determination to, er, play golf:
He had just hung up the telephone with the devastated parents before heading in front of the cameras. Unusually emotional, President Obama declared himself “heartbroken” by the brutal murder of an American journalist, James Foley, and vowed to “be relentless” against Islamic radicals threatening to kill another American.
But as soon as the cameras went off, Mr. Obama headed to his favorite golf course on Martha’s Vineyard, where he is on vacation, seemingly able to put the savagery out of his mind. He spent the rest of the afternoon on the links even as a firestorm of criticism erupted over what many saw as a callous indifference to the slaughter he had just condemned. …
It was all the more striking given that Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain canceled his vacation after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria released the video showing Mr. Foley’s death because the accent of the masked killer suggested he came from Britain. Former Vice President Dick Cheney told Fox News that Mr. Obama would “rather be on the golf course than he would be dealing with the crisis.”
But the criticism went beyond the usual political opponents. Privately, many Democrats shook their heads at what they considered a judgment error. Ezra Klein, editor in chief of the online news site Vox, who is normally sympathetic to Mr. Obama, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that “golfing today is in bad taste.” The Daily News published a front-page photograph of a grinning president in a golf cart next to a picture of Mr. Foley’s distraught mother and father under the headline, “Prez tees off as Foley’s parents grieve.”
“As a general rule, I think that he’s right that you can’t be held hostage to the news cycle — the man deserves a bit of downtime,” said Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic strategist. “But in this particular instance, I think a lot of Democrats flinched a little bit.”
The video, Mr. Manley added, “was just so shocking that the idea that he was going to immediately run to the golf course was just a little too much for folks; it was tone-deaf.”
It’s as if the jayvees have donned
Kobe Bryant Ronald Reagan jerseys.
Eli Lake offers a glimmer of optimism, though, that the murder of James Foley has put an end to the law-enforcement approach to counterterrorism at the White House:
Secretary of State John Kerry called ISIS “the face of evil” and vowed that America “will continue to confront [it] wherever it tries to spread its despicable hatred.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the military’s response is to “take a cold, steely, hard look at” at ISIS and “get ready” for action.
While the Justice Department on Thursday announced that the FBI would be investigating the murder of Foley, Attorney General Eric Holder also left open the possibility that the United States may not wait for the verdict of a jury and judge. “We will not forget what happened and people will be held accountable one way or the other,” Holder said.
The most notable rhetorical tell came from Obama himself.
In the aftermath of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Obama vowed to bring the attackers to justice. This week Obama struck a different tone, saying: “When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.”
The difference between bringing suspects to justice and seeing that justice is done is roughly the same as the difference between treating terrorism as a crime and as an act of war.
Perhaps. But what happened after that? Obama went back to the golf course, even while Hagel and Dempsey explained that the supposed “jayvees” have grown into a global imminent threat to the West on Obama’s watch. To paraphrase Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds, I’ll believe that this administration takes the threat seriously when they start acting like they take it seriously.