The better part of a year ago—the day after New Year’s Day, to be precise—I was returning from an overseas trip when I noticed, with a start, that my plane was flying more or less directly over Ramadi, Iraq.
The day is fixed in my mind because just before take-off I had been reading in the news that a group calling itself ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic State or the Caliphate looked to be in the process of seizing Ramadi and nearby Fallujah from the Iraqi government. Yet, there it was, depicted on the inflight map in front of me. I cracked the window cover and looked down, but you can’t make out much in the way of gun-fighting at 38,000 feet. Putin’s special forces hadn’t yet shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine, so no one on the plane was particularly concerned about our location.
Reflecting on what a difference 30,000 feet makes, I shut the blind again and thought about how crushing the loss of those cities would be to those of my friends who had fought for them a decade earlier.
So, that was the second of January, 2014. The press was covering the story extensively. From the following day’s New York Times:
Black-clad Sunni militants of Al Qaeda destroyed the Falluja Police Headquarters and mayor’s office, planted their flag atop other government buildings and decreed the western Iraqi city to be their new independent state on Friday in an escalating threat to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whose forces were struggling to retake control late into the night.
The advances by the militants — members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS — came after days of fighting in Falluja, Ramadi and other areas of Anbar Province. The region is a center of Sunni extremism that has grown more intense in reaction to Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and the neighboring civil war in Syria.
All of which makes the president’s disavowal of responsibility for the rise of the Islamic State on 60 Minutes last night—saying in effect that James Clapper and the intelligence community hadn’t told him that ISIS was a big deal—somewhat fishy.
Here is the exchange:
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.
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…
(Emphasis mine, throughout.) Good on Steve Kroft for immediately pushing back. Indeed, what Clapper had actually said—in an interview with the Washington Post’s David Ignatius—was this:
Asked whether the intelligence community had succeeded in its goal of providing "anticipatory intelligence" about the extremist movement in Syria and Iraq that has declared itself the Islamic State, Clapper said his analysts had reported the group’s emergence and its "prowess and capability," as well as the "deficiencies" of the Iraqi military. Then he offered a self-critique:
"What we didn’t do was predict the will to fight. That’s always a problem. We didn’t do it in Vietnam. We underestimated the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese and overestimated the will of the South Vietnamese. In this case, we underestimated ISIL [the Islamic State] and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army. . . . I didn’t see the collapse of the Iraqi security force in the north coming. I didn’t see that. It boils down to predicting the will to fight, which is an imponderable."
Leaving aside the concerning assertion that "predicting the will to fight" is an "imponderable" (what do we pay the intelligence community to ponder, anyway?), Clapper’s claim here is more limited than what the president first asserted before Kroft made him back down—with a facial expression reminiscent of a schoolchild who has been caught in an obvious lie.
So everyone knew about the threat from the Islamic State, even if James Clapper thought that the Iraqi state was more up to the job of facing them down than in fact it was. Eli Lake has an excellent round-up of what was, in fact, extensive concern in Washington, circa January/February of this year, about the threat:
Still, other senior intelligence officials have been warning about ISIS for months. 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." …
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.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said February 4 that because of areas of Syria that are "beyond the regime’s control or that of the moderate opposition," a "major concern" was "the establishment of a safe haven, and the real prospect that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations."
To which concerns the response of the Obama administration was apparently … to hope for the best. One could speculate without end about why the president was so reluctant to get involved despite the increasingly obvious indications that American intervention was necessary. Perhaps because to acknowledge that there was a problem with the Islamic State would implicitly indict his multiyear dedication to abandoning Iraq and ignoring Syria?
There is another part of the 60 Minutes interview that has received less attention than Obama leaving James Clapper holding the bag, but is just as concerning:
Steve Kroft: What happens if the Iraqis don't fight or can't fight?
President Obama: Well…
Steve Kroft: What's the end game?
President Obama: I'm not going to speculate on failure at the moment. We're just getting started. Let's see how they do. I think that right now, we've got a campaign plan that has a strong chance for success in Iraq. I think Syria is a more challenging situation.
There are at least two clear and appalling implications of the president's remarks: 1) that he won’t speculate on failure now, but hasn’t ruled it out, and 2) that while there is a strong chance for success in Iraq, there isn’t in Syria.
As with Afghanistan, Obama does not want to fight this war. He has been pushed into it by domestic political concerns. He doesn’t believe that the goals he has been forced to publicly articulate to appease the mob—like "destroying" the Islamic State—are achievable. He wants everyone to forget about Syria so that it can become an endless counterterrorism campaign like what he considers the successful effort (!?) in Yemen, where Iranian-aligned militants are busily overthrowing the American-supported government at this very moment.
Despite encouraging noises from commentators who are typically clear thinkers on these matters, the president’s plan and leadership are not going to lead to success. The president says so himself.