President Obama has a very clear credibility problem on ISIS, Iraq, and Syria. And he's in danger of extending his credibility deficit to every aspect of his presidency.
The credibility issue on ISIS goes back months, and arguably years. In 2011, Obama claimed credit for keeping his 2008 campaign pledge by pulling all American troops out of Iraq, even though military and intelligence advisers warned that the "zero option" could destabilize the country and allow for a resurgence of terrorism. Instead, Obama pronounced Iraq a "strong and stable ally" while claiming to have "ended the war in Iraq."
Obama made that claim a number of times over the next three years, especially during his 2012 presidential campaign. During one of the presidential debates with Mitt Romney, Obama rebuked his opponent for assuming that Obama wanted to keep American troops in Iraq to keep terrorists from regaining a foothold in the country's western desert. His campaign felt so good about that moment that Obama's official Twitter account published his debate quote claiming credit for the withdrawal. "The greatest responsibility I have as president is to keep the American people safe. That's why I ended the war in Iraq." In the final week of the election, his campaign even made a Twitter graphic for the argument.
Even when it became clear that pulling out American troops had not "ended the war," but instead left a vacuum for the conflict to re-emerge, Obama refused to admit reality. The group known now as ISIS sacked Ramallah and Fallujah in January of this year. Those two cities in western Iraq are critical places the U.S. had fought hard to keep out of the hands of the group's earlier incarnation, al Qaeda in Iraq. At nearly the same time as Obama dismissed ISIS as a junior varsity squad, military and intelligence officials were warning Congress of the rising threat from ISIS. Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. General Michael Flynn explicitly warned in those hearings that ISIS would "attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014."
Former congressman and Vice Admiral Joe Sestak recalled on MSNBC on Monday that those briefings contained assessments that warned ISIS would shortly "take over large swaths of territory." To the obvious surprise of host Jose Diaz-Balart, who asked how the intelligence community missed the rise of ISIS, Sestak replied, "I don't think they did. … I think it was slow on the part of the entire administration to assess that they — what they had to do in order address the threat."
This directly contradicted President Obama's claim on 60 Minutes on Sunday that the slow response was an intelligence failure rather than a leadership issue. Steve Kroft asked whether the sweep of ISIS and its seizure of "so much territory" was "a complete surprise to you?" Despite the warnings from the DIA in January and February following the fall of Fallujah, Obama replied that James Clapper had "acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria." Only that wasn't what Clapper had said about the intelligence community's underestimation; he had admitted that they had underestimated their will, and overestimated the will of the Iraqi army to fight. A former Pentagon official responded by telling The Daily Beast's Eli Lake after the interview aired, "Either the president doesn't read the intelligence he's getting or he's bullshitting."
If Obama truly had been misinformed about the threat, one very clear response would be to hold his most senior advisers responsible for the failure. Yet months after ISIS began its genocidal sweep through Iraq and Syria, and weeks after Obama admitted that his administration had yet to form a strategy to deal with the threat, not a single pink slip has been issued to his national-security team, and no one has resigned to spend more time with his or her family.
Recent polls show Obama's credibility has eroded significantly on national security. A new poll from NBC/Wall Street Journal shows that 72 percent of Americans expect that U.S. ground troops will be sent back into combat against ISIS, while only 20 percent trust Obama's promise not to send them into war in the region. That follows an earlier poll in the same series in which 68 percent of respondents had little to no confidence in Obama's leadership against ISIS, even though 62 percent supported his decision to start hitting ISIS with air strikes.
That's more than just a political problem for a president facing a tough sixth-year midterm election. Obama has taken the country to war again, and yet cannot articulate that one simple fact. He tried to convince Kroft that this was just "America leading the international community to assist a country with whom we have a security partnership with," referring to only Iraq. However, Obama has ordered continuing strikes on Syria, a country that pointedly does not have a security partnership with the U.S. and which has not asked for our assistance. Under any definition within reality, those are acts of war against an enemy, even if the enemy in this case isn't Syria itself. Nor will Obama admit that he underestimated the threat of the resurgence of AQI/ISIS over the past six years, despite plenty of warnings and data to reconsider his policies regarding Iraq.
Obama wants to eat his Nobel Peace Prize cake and have his war, too. But he can't have it both ways. So the real question becomes, is he trying to fool the nation, himself, or a little bit of both? One of the three must be true.
The nation needs a credible commander-in-chief to lead in a crisis, and to deal with the long slog that this war will become. And the legalistic parsing and buck-passing we have seen from this president over the past few months does not build any confidence that we have a commander-in-chief worth following. And make no mistake: Once America loses confidence in their president on national security, they will lose faith in him everywhere else, too.