Obama’s Terrible, Deadly Misread of the ISIS Threat

The Obama Administration has consistently misread the threat that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) poses to the Middle East and U.S. interests.

In January of this year, President Obama even went so far as to call ISIS a “JV team,” when compared to al Qaeda.

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama told the New Yorker. “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.”

In hindsight Obama’s comment appears glib. Clearly unaware of the capabilities of ISIS, the comparison was simply a way for him to play up the progress he made in eliminating key al Qaeda leaders, especially since that killing bin Laden is without a doubt his largest foreign policy achievement.

Amazingly, even eight months later, after ISIS has made tremendous gains in Iraq and Syria, building its armory and its bank accounts along the way, the president still seems unwilling to admit the growing threat.

After several Republicans highlighted the growing national security threat of ISIS the president sought to downplay the immediacy of the threat.

“I think we have been under serious threat predating 9/11 from those who embrace this ideology,” the president said on “This Week.”

Obama was willing to admit that ISIS had grown more powerful in “some places,” but nevertheless continued to attach little importance to their threat to the U.S.

“We’ve also got a lot better at protecting ourselves,” he said.

Apparently, President Obama has been reduced to speaking pointless verities that don’t come close to answering the actual question. But it’s better than his alternative, which is telling the disastrous truth: That he completely whiffed on the growing capabilities of ISIS over the last several years. That’s right…years. Maggie Ybarra writes for The Washington Times about the report by the West Point Counterterrorism Center:

“The Islamic State group has a long history of expanding its power and preying on the weaknesses of its regional rivals, according to a new report that challenges the notion that the militant organization has only recently emerged as a threat.

Despite some assertions that the group only achieved prominence in June 2014 — about the time it began sweeping across Iraq in a violent offensive — the militants have steadily been gaining power in the region since 2010, the report by the West Point counterterrorism center concludes.

Over those four years, the report says the Islamic State patiently prepared operations that managed to dissolve some of Iraq’s security forces by targeting and demolishing the homes of its soldiers or, in some cases, assassinating troops.”

The report specifically says that “ISIL did not suddenly become effective in early June 2014; it had been steadily strengthening and actively shaping the future operating environment for years.”

Apparently, the growing ISIS threat wasn’t a secret that was kept from the president. Indeed, a former Pentagon official with access to classified information told Fox News’ Catherine Herridge that the Presidential Daily Briefing has included warnings about the extremist group for more than a year.

ISIS’ sustained presence in the region is why President Obama’s inaction in Syria was such a disaster. Rather than lend support to moderate rebels in Syria, the president laid down an imaginary “red line” and then did nothing as he watched Syrian President Bashar Assad traipse right over it. As a result the rebels were forced to defend a second front against ISIS while Assad was able to tell the world that he was fighting against extremism – a temporary win-win for Assad and a permanent lose-lose for the U.S. As Ron Fournier writes for the National Journal:

Obama’s acknowledgement that “we don’t have a strategy yet” in Syria could be forgiven if he hadn’t help spawned the ISIS wave by publicly dithering on Syria; if he hadn’t, less than a year ago, erroneously compared the terrorist state to a junior varsity club; and if he hadn’t appeared incapable of leading anybody to a solution. His own team is divided, confused, perhaps broken.

Could the rise of ISIS been prevented, either by identifying the threat sooner or working with moderate rebels in Syria? We’ll never truly know. But President Obama’s apparent unwillingness to recognize the threat, lest he be forced into action, continues to create problems that will demand bigger, more complex solutions. And Obama’s leadership thus far doesn’t exactly engender much confidence in his ability to make those decisions.