Obama: "They underestimated" ISIS

The Commander in Chief made an appearance on 60 Minutes last night to reassure everyone that he’s in charge during this fight against Islamist terror … at least now. When Steve Kroft asked Obama how ISIS went from the “jayvees” in January to a 40,000-man army sweeping across the Syrian-Iraqi desert in June, Obama explained that the buck stopped, oh, at the office of James Clapper. Using testimony from earlier this week from the DNI, Obama shifted the blame for the surprise this spring to American intelligence:

Steve Kroft: Two years ago, in the White House, in this building, you talked about al Qaeda being decimated. You talked about al Qaeda being back on its heels. Two years later, you’ve got al Qaeda affiliates and al Qaeda offshoots controlling huge chunks of both Iraq and Syria. And you have militias, Islamic radical militias in control of Libya.

President Obama: If you’ll recall, Steve, you had an international network in al Qaeda between Afghanistan and Pakistan, headed by Bin Laden. And that structure we have rendered ineffective. But what I also said, and this was two years ago and a year ago, is that you have regional groups with regional ambitions and territorial ambitions. And what also has not changed is the kind of violent, ideologically driven extremism that has taken root in too much of the Muslim world. And this week, in my speech to the United Nations General Assembly, I made very clear we are not at war against Islam. Islam is a religion that preaches peace and the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful. But in the Muslim world right now, there is a cancer that has grown for too long that suggests that it is acceptable to kill innocent people who worship a different God. And that kind of extremism, unfortunately, means that we’re going to see for some time the possibility that in a whole bunch of different countries, radical groups may spring up, particularly in countries that are still relatively fragile, where you had sectarian tensions, where you don’t have a strong state security apparatus. That’s why what we have to do is rather than play whack-a-mole and send U.S. troops wherever this occurs, we have to build strong partnerships. We have to get the international community to recognize this is a problem. We’ve got to get Arab and Muslim leaders to say very clearly, “These folks do not represent us. They do not represent Islam,” and to speak out forcefully against them.

Steve Kroft: I understand all the caveats about these regional groups. But this is what an army of 40,000 people, according to some of the military estimates I heard the other day, very well-trained, very motivated.

President Obama: Well, part of it was that…

Steve Kroft: What? How did they end up where they are in control of so much territory? Was that a complete surprise to you?

President Obama: 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 [emphasis mine].

“They”? If that’s the case, why is Clapper still drawing a paycheck? After all, this is the same James Clapper that deliberately misled Congress about the NSA’s domestic data trawling, so it’s not as if he’s a universally credible figure anyway. Now we seemed to have missed the emergence of one of the biggest terror threats since the Taliban in Afghanistan took over after we helped push the Soviets out, and Clapper still has a job. If the buck-passing has any credence at all, Obama would have canned him in June.

Besides, as Kroft immediately points out, that’s actually not what Clapper said anyway. His testimony regarded the collapse of the Iraqi army, not the rise of ISIS:

Steve Kroft: I mean, he didn’t say that, just say that, “We underestimated ISIL.” He said, “We overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight.”

President Obama: That’s true. That’s absolutely true. And I…

Steve Kroft: And these are the people that we’re now expecting to carry on the fight?

Obama then offers a lengthy discourse on Nouri al-Maliki’s failings and the need to teach tolerance in Arab nations, but never gets around to mentioning the role Obama played in Maliki’s power grab. Obama wanted to get out of Iraq, and Maliki made it easy for him to do so. Once the US packed up and left, Maliki had no further reason to work with the Sunnis and started purging them from the government and from the military. The US military and intelligence communities warned that would happen if we took the zero option in Iraq, so in that sense no one underestimated the threat except Obama himself.

It didn’t take long for the intel community to react to Obama’s claims. Just hours after the 60 Minutes interview ran, Eli Lake’s sources provided the response at The Daily Beast. It seems “they” have a few things to say about the President who usually loves to say “I,” and offered this blunt rebuttal:

Reached by The Daily Beast after Obama’s interview aired, one former senior Pentagon official who worked closely on the threat posed by Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq was flabbergasted. “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting,” the former official said. …

In prepared testimony before the annual House and Senate intelligence committees’ threat hearings in January and February, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the recently departed director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the group would likely make a grab for land before the end of the year. ISIS “probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014.” Of course, the prediction wasn’t exactly hard to make. By then, Flynn noted, ISIS had taken the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, and the demonstrated an “ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria.”

January … wasn’t that when Obama called the ISIS threat akin to “jayvees” who put on Kobe Bryant uniforms and think they’re the Lakers? Why, yes it was.

The ability of ISIS to hold that territory will depend on its “resources, local support, as well as the responses of [Iraqi security forces] and other opposition groups in Syria,” Flynn added. He noted that while many Sunnis likely opposed ISIS, “some Sunni tribes and insurgent groups appear willing to work tactically with [ISIS] as they share common anti-government goals.”

Flynn was not alone. Clapper himself in that hearing warned that the three most effective jihadist groups in Syria—one of which he said was ISIS—presented a threat as a magnet for attracting foreign fighters. John Brennan, Obama’s CIA director, said he thought both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s formal franchise in Syria, presented a threat to launch external operations against the West.

In other words, don’t look around long to find out who “they” are. “They” in this case is a grammatically-incorrect replacement for the first person singular pronoun that otherwise occupies so much of Obama’s speech:

Even the New York Times didn’t buy it:

In citing Mr. Clapper, Mr. Obama made no mention of any misjudgment he may have made himself. Critics have repeatedly pointed to his comment last winter characterizing groups like the Islamic State as a “JV team” compared with the original Al Qaeda.

The buck stops … somewhere over there.

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Jazz Shaw 1:01 PM on May 27, 2023