US ambassador to Iraq: WH was warned early on about ISIS, "did almost nothing"

Did the rise of ISIS and the collapse of the Iraqi army really catch the Obama administration by surprise, as the White House tried to argue over the summer? Subsequent research has already shown that senior intelligence and military officials warned Congress about both as early as February, but now the man who served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to Iraq says that the administration knew what was happening — and did “almost nothing” to stop it. James Jeffrey represented the US in Baghdad from 2010-12 and oversaw the withdrawal of American troops, and told PBS’ Frontline that the White House even claimed it would act after warnings in January, and still didn’t do anything to prevent ISIS from seizing massive amounts of territory:

“The administration not only was warned by everybody back in January, it actually announced that it was going to intensify support against ISIS with the Iraqi armed forces. And it did almost nothing,” says James Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq between 2010 and 2012, in “Frontline’s” “The Rise of ISIS,” which airs on PBS Tuesday night (check local listings) and is previewed here exclusively on Yahoo News.

Jeffrey is one of a number of ex-administration officials who appear in the film and sharply criticize the decisions of the president they once served. Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta both take issue with Obama’s refusal to arm moderate rebels in Syria who — it is now argued — could have acted as a counterweight to the Islamic State (also called ISIS or ISIL).

Without the pressure of the American military contingent in Iraq, the army that the US spent billions to create turned into a corrupt sinecure for politically-connected layabouts, according to the film. An analyst from the Congressional Research Service concurs:

“They were people who were — they were fat cats, I call them,” Katzman, a Congressional Research Service terrorism analyst, says in the film. “They were people who were earning good money to basically sit at a desk and smoke cigarettes and drink good liquor all day.”

It took only 800 ISIS troops to seize Mosul, thanks to the dessicated readiness of the Iraqi army, according to Martin Smith, who reports for the documentary. It will take a lot more than that to push ISIS back out of a city that once held 1.8 million people, but so far the only effort made by the US and its allies has been bombing runs that have forced ISIS to harden its communication lines and operations. When Smith asks Joint Chiefs chair General Martin Dempsey whether he’s optimistic about that being enough to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, Dempsey says no:

“No, I’m not an optimist,” says Dempsey in a less-than-confidence-building response. While thecampaign’s strategy may be right, “every campaign’s assumptions have to be revisited as the campaign evolves. Some of these assumptions are no doubt going to be challenged.”

In part of the film, Obama adviser Ben Rhodes tries to blame Congress for the collapse of the Iraqi army, claiming that Capitol Hill held up weapons transfers and that supposedly created the collapse. That’s absurd; the Iraqi army collapsed and left massive amounts of weaponry and equipment for ISIS to pick up and use. The Kurds have a real issue with materiel and ammunition because they have high morale and an effective chain of command, and so actually use munitions and require resupply. The Iraqis had the munitions but a corrupt command, in large part because the US bailed out of Iraq under Barack Obama by not negotiating for a long-term presence — and that allowed Nouri al-Maliki to purge the Sunnis and transform the professional army we’d built into a patronage ghost force. Leon Panetta warned about the consequences of Obama’s refusal to negotiate a permanent presence, as did others within the administration, to no avail. Obama’s political considerations trumped US security concerns. 

This isn’t the first buck-passing exercise from the White House on Iraq and ISIS. Obama blamed the intelligence community in September, saying “they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.” The intelligence community reminded everyone that they had raised the red flag in January and February, which Ambassador Jeffrey corroborates in this film, but that Obama was too busy declaring ISIS the “jayvee” squad for his own political benefit. Not even the New York Times bought that spin, so a month later, Obama and his team are trying desperately to blame something else, anything else.

Will Barack Obama and this White House take responsibility for their failures and put a strategy in place that actually addresses the reality of ISIS that their failures allowed? Let me quote General Dempsey on this point: No, I’m not optimistic.