Obama's ISIS failure

The leader of the free world looks remarkably petty, self-interested, and out of his league at a moment when the West needs a display of leadership and courage

Too slow to respond.
(Image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

President Obama, like so many of us, was caught unprepared for ISIS's devastating attack on Paris. But unlike the rest of us, the leader of the free world was also caught unprepared a few days later, this time for the scrutiny of his record on the fight against the terrorist quasi-state. That 1-2 combination made the American commander-in-chief look remarkably petty, self-interested, and out of his league at a moment when the West needed a display of leadership and courage.

From the initial emergence of ISIS, President Obama has found himself consistently behind the curve. As the group began seizing territory in western Iraq in late 2013 and early 2014, Obama scoffed at the idea that ISIS represented a threat, comparing them to "jayvees" suiting up against the Los Angeles Lakers. As the terror group spread its tentacles across Iraq and Syria, sacking Mosul and seizing Raqqa, the White House insisted that the Iraqis could handle ISIS. When ISIS released videos of "Jihadi John" butchering American journalists and other hostages in August 2014, Obama admitted that his administration had no specific policy to deal with the terrorist quasi-state. It took another few weeks for Obama to roll out his strategy that would fulfill his pledge to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS.

That strategy comprised three elements. First, airstrikes against ISIS would start rolling back their gains, especially in Iraq. Next, the Obama administration pledged to train Iraqi forces — including the Sunni tribes betrayed by the U.S. withdrawal in 2011 — and arm Kurds. Finally, the U.S. would train Syrian moderates to dislodge ISIS from its key strongholds, an effort which The New York Times noted might take as long as three years.

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"What I want people to understand is that over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum" of ISIS, Obama said on Meet the Press at the time. "We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities; we're going to shrink the territory that they control; and, ultimately, we're going to defeat them."

More than 14 months later, the strategy has failed in all three elements. The territory held by ISIS has not appreciably declined, and may have expanded. ISIS now threatens Aleppo in Syria, and has seized Palmyra, Hatra, and Nimrud. The Iraqi army still has yet to push ISIS off of any significant territory for long, even with Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias in the lead. And the U.S. effort to train Syrian moderates to fight the tens of thousands of ISIS militants ended up costing $500 million to train just 60 fighters. More than 50 were killed before the White House ended the program in humiliation.

Now, ISIS has shifted its focus from territorial gains and genocide to international terrorism. The crash of a chartered Metrojet aircraft in the Sinai was an ISIS operation conducted by infiltration of Egypt's airport in Sharm el-Sheikh, a popular tourist spot for European travelers. ISIS leadership also took credit for a terrorist attack in Beirut, although Lebanese officials still dispute that account.

Yet last Friday morning, ABC News aired an interview between George Stephanopoulos and President Obama in which the president claimed credit for having "contained" ISIS. When Stephanpoulos noted that "ISIS is gaining strength," Obama objected. "Well, no, I don't think they're gaining strength. What is true is that from the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them." That aired less than 12 hours before ISIS launched the Mumbai-style terrorist operation in Paris that left scores dead and hundreds injured.

Given that track record, one might have expected Obama to offer a little more humble approach to questions about the efficacy of his ISIS strategy on Monday. Instead, at a press conference during the G-20 meeting in Turkey, Obama refused to entertain any notion that he had failed, or that there might be alternatives to his plan. He accused his critics of "pop[ping] off" without any reasonable alternatives, and insisted that he had never underestimated ISIS. That led to a very uncomfortable moment when CNN's Jim Acosta reminded Obama that "this is an organization that you once described as a JV team," and asked how Obama could possibly describe them as "contained."

With evident exasperation, Obama admitted that "we can retake territory," but he chooses not to do so. Instead, Obama insisted that he plans to follow the same strategy put in place 14 months ago, even though it clearly has failed to destroy, degrade, or even contain ISIS. "We are going to continue to pursue the strategy that has the best chance of working," Obama said with evident contempt, "even though it does not offer the satisfaction, I guess, of a neat headline or an immediate resolution."

Immediate? How about any indication of progress? Even Obama's key ally on Capitol Hill, ranking Senate Intelligence Committee member Dianne Feinstein, declared Obama's strategy a failure on Saturday. "It has become clear that limited airstrikes and support for Iraqi forces and the Syrian opposition are not sufficient to protect our country and our allies," Feinstein wrote in a sharply worded rebuke to Obama. "This is a war that affects us all, and it's time we take real action to confront these monsters who target innocent civilians.‎"

The media took notice of Obama's contempt almost immediately on Monday, as well as his lack of answers. Acosta's CNN colleague Elise Labott tweeted that the Monday presser had gone "very badly for POTUS," and that the world was looking for a leader determined to fight ISIS rather than offer defensiveness over his failing policy. ABC's Jon Karl noted that Obama was determined to argue that his strategy was working, but "that's a tough case to make after Paris."

The media has finally begun to notice that Obama's strategy has failed, and that Obama himself refuses to acknowledge it, but … what took so long? Fox News media analyst Howard Kurtz chalks it up in part to a short attention span. "The question now is whether the journalistic uproar over the scourge of terrorism will last more than a week or two," Kurtz writes, "or whether a business notorious for its short attention span will simply move on to other matters."

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