AEIdeas » Marc Thiessen The public policy blog of the American Enterprise Institute Fri, 24 Oct 2014 20:32:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Josh Earnest is becoming Baghdad Bob Tue, 14 Oct 2014 22:08:57 +0000 read more >]]> Remember Baghdad Bob? You know, the Iraqi information minister who kept saying that Saddam was “succeeding” and that American troops “are not near Baghdad. Don’t believe them!”

Well today, White House spokesman Josh Earnest was channeling his inner Baghdad Bob from the White House podium. With ISIS forces within 15 miles of the Baghdad Airport and on the verge of taking over Anbar Province, Earnest told us everything is fine and dandy in Iraq. The Hill reports:

The White House said Tuesday that its strategy to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is “succeeding,” despite gains the terror group has made in recent days that have raised criticisms about the administration’s approach.

“We’re in the early days of the execution of that strategy,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said of the administration’s use of airstrikes against ISIS. “But certainly the early evidence indicates that this strategy is succeeding.”

The early evidence is that this strategy is succeeding? Is he serious? Umm, if our strategy in Iraq was succeeding, ISIS would be retreating. Instead, they are advancing.

In Syria, ISIS is about to overtake the town of Kobani – in full sight of the Western world watching the battle unfold across the Turkish border. And in Iraq, after months of American bombing they are advancing toward the Iraqi capital.

If that is success, I’d hate to see what failure looks like.

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Apparently the goal is not to ‘destroy’ ISIS after all Tue, 07 Oct 2014 14:09:34 +0000 read more >]]> Remember the controversy a few weeks ago, when President Obama told a European press conference that our goal was to “degrade and destroy” ISIS – but then a few moments later said the goal was to “shrink” ISIS “to the point where it is a manageable problem”?

Obama was roundly criticized for these conflicting messages.  And in the weeks since, despite Obama’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric at the UN and elsewhere, many have suspected that “shrinking” and not “destroying” ISIS is the president’s real goal.

The Washington Post reports that Obama’s top envoy in the fight against ISIS has put the word out – scratch that talk about “destroying” ISIS:

Retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen, Obama’s special envoy to coordinate the inter-agency and international effort against the Islamic State, has sent word around to folks in Washington that everyone should stop using the word “destroy” when describing the mission against the Islamic State.

Allen who had been the top US commander in Afghanistan before his retirement, said that word was too “imprecise.” (He might have also said “impossible” and, with no boots on the ground and the Iraqi “army” in shambles, something not likely to happen unless some of Sunni Iraq is leveled.)  So from now on, Allen is encouraging folks to use the word “degrade” to describe the task at hand.

Perhaps it is wise to drop the talk of “destroying” ISIS, since the only thing that appears to be getting “destroyed” right now seems to be a bunch of empty buildings.

At this rate, “degraded” may end up being an “imprecise” description of Obama’s campaign against ISIS as well.

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Leading from behind: Obama’s actions in Iraq and Syria follow the polls Mon, 06 Oct 2014 16:24:58 +0000 read more >]]> In a span of nine months, President Obama has gone from ignoring the violence in Iraq to bombing Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria and declaring “The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.” It’s a dramatic transformation.

So what changed?

Public opinion, that’s what.

Take a look at Obama’s actions since January of this year, and you will find that, at each step along the way, Obama’s military decisions have almost precisely tracked with the shifts in public opinion.


o   A January 29, 2014 Rasmussen Poll found that only 25% of Americans supported military action against Syria or Iraq if either of those countries is taken over by al Qaeda or related terrorists.

  • On June 7, Islamic State forces took over Mosul. Obama did nothing.

o   A Gallup Poll taken from June 20-21, 2014 found that 54% opposed the United States “taking direct military action in Iraq to assist the Iraqi government in fighting militants.”

o   Meanwhile a CBS News/New York Times Poll taken from June 20-22, 2014 found that 77% opposed sending US ground troops to fight the Islamic State.

  • On August 8th Obama finally ordered limited US airstrikes against the Islamic State, but rejected Gen. Lloyd Austin’s request to use US special operations forces on the ground.

o   A Pew Research Center/USA Today poll from Aug. 14-17, 2014 found that a 54% majority supported the air strikes, though 51% still worried we would “go too far getting involved [in] the situation.”

  • In September, Obama finally expanded his air campaign to Syria following the beheadings of two American journalists, but declared in a nationally televised address, “we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.”

o   A September 5-7 CNN/ORC poll found that 75% of Americans supported bombing Syria, though 61% still opposed sending ground troops – exactly the position Obama took.

Normally, when it comes to national security, the president leads the country, rallying Americans behind military action. In this case, it seems, it is the country that is leading the president.

It gives new meaning to “leading from behind.”

If the current trend continues, we should soon see an escalation of our intervention in Iraq.  A new Fox News poll shows that a majority of Americans say Obama’s actions against the Islamic State have not been aggressive enough (55%); that defeating ISIS will take ground troops as opposed to airstrikes alone (57%); and that they support ground troops to battle the Islamic State if the airstrikes prove insufficient (52%).

Our military commanders have said ISIS cannot be driven from its strongholds in Mosul and other cities without American ground forces. The American people now seem to agree.

Obama won’t listen to his commanders. Maybe he’ll listen to the polls?

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No one warned you about the ‘chaos’ American withdrawal would cause, Mr. President? How about your predecessor? Mon, 29 Sep 2014 17:55:50 +0000 read more >]]> In an interview with CBS News’ 60 Minutes, President Obama blamed the intelligence community for underestimating the chaos that ISIS would unleash in the Middle East.

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.… [B]ut over the past couple of years, during the chaos of the Syrian civil war, where essentially you have huge swaths of the country that are completely ungoverned, they were able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of that chaos.… And so this became ground zero for jihadists around the world. [Emphasis added]

So no one warned him about the chaos that would ensue if America withdrew from Iraq and allowed the terrorists to reconstitute themselves? No one at all?

As The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake points out, the intelligence community did warn Obama.  But someone else did as well – repeatedly. That was his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Bush constantly talked about the danger that terrorists would “take advantage of the chaos” if America allowed them to regroup and regain the safe havens they had lost.

Here is Bush in a March 19, 2008 speech at Pentagon:

If we were to allow our enemies to prevail in Iraq, the violence that is now declining would accelerate — and Iraq would descend into chaos.Out of such chaos in Iraq, the terrorist movement could emerge emboldened — with new recruits, new resources, and an even greater determination to dominate the region and harm America.

Here is Bush in a July 24, 2007 speech in South Carolina:

[If America withdraws] fighting could engulf the entire region in chaos, and we would soon face a Middle East dominated by Islamic extremists…. We’ve already seen how al Qaida used a failed state thousands of miles from our shores to bring death and destruction to the streets of our cities — and we must not allow them to do so again.

And here is Bush in April 24, 2007 press conference:

Precipitous withdrawal from Iraq … could unleash chaos in Iraq that could spread across the entire region … [and] ultimately … would increase the probability that American troops would one day have to return to Iraq and confront an enemy that’s even more dangerous.

Those are just a few examples. So sorry, Mr. President, you were warned – by your intelligence briefers and by your predecessor. You just failed to listen.

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At the UN, Obama channels his inner Bush Thu, 25 Sep 2014 19:03:14 +0000 read more >]]> Many commentators have noted the parallels between George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” and the “network of death” Obama described in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly this week.

But the parallels don’t end there. Now that he has launched military action in Iraq and Syria, it seems Obama is channeling his inner Bush. Consider:

Bush fought an “axis of evil,” and declared “You can’t reason with these people. There’s no need to negotiate with them.” Obama told the UN General Assembly last week, “There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil.”

– Bush said “the future belongs not to terrorism but to freedom.” Obama told the UN “the future belongs to those who build – not those who destroy.”

– Bush said, “The terrorists who attacked us on September the 11th, 2001, are followers of a radical and violent ideology.” Obama said, “It is time for a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source: the corruption of young minds by violent ideology.”

–  Bush said “we must be steadfast in the face of these cold-blooded killers…. The only way to deal with them is to bring them to justice.” Obama told the UN, “The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.”

We should applaud Obama’s rhetorical shift as progress. Now let’s hope that the president’s determined rhetoric is matched by equally determined action on the ground.

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Obama is sending more troops to fight Ebola than to fight ISIS Tue, 16 Sep 2014 15:54:37 +0000 read more >]]> Last week, President Obama announced that he was sending 475 additional troops to Iraq, bringing the total number of troops in the country to about 1,600.

This morning, Reuters reports:

The United States announced on Tuesday it will send 3,000 troops to help tackle the Ebola outbreak as part of a ramped-up plan, including a major deployment in Liberia, the country where the epidemic is spiraling fastest out of control.

The US response to the crisis, to be formally unveiled later by President Barack Obama, includes plans to build 17 treatment centers, train thousands of healthcare workers and establish a military control center for coordination, US officials told reporters.

So let’s get this straight: President Obama is sending almost twice as many troops to fight Ebola as he is sending to fight ISIS.


As I point out in the Washington Post this week, in refusing to send more ground troops to Iraq, Obama is once again overruling the advice of his military commanders.  In 2010, Gen. Lloyd Austin advised keeping 24,000 troops in Iraq – a recommendation that President Obama rejected. And the Washington Post reports that, when asked for military options to fight ISIS, Austin told the president “his best military advice was to send a modest contingent of American troops, principally Special Operations forces, to advise and assist Iraqi army units in fighting the militants.” Austin’s recommendation, the Post reports, “was cast aside in favor of options that did not involve US ground forces in a front-line role.”

As my colleague, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, has repeatedly pointed out here, here and here, President Obama needs to do more to fight the Ebola outbreak.

But the question remains: why is Obama willing to put ground troops in harm’s way to fight a virulent epidemic, but not to fight a virulent terrorist network that has threatened the American homeland?

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Turns out Obama did not ‘end’ the Iraq war after all Mon, 15 Sep 2014 18:28:22 +0000 read more >]]> After Secretary of State John Kerry insisted on CNN last Thursday that America was not at war with the Islamic State, he reversed himself this weekend, telling CBS News’ Face the Nation that, “we are at war” with the group.

That’s good news.  If you can’t admit you’re at war, it’s unlikely you will prevail in that war.

But the Obama administration still is having trouble deciding which war it is fighting.

When he took office, Obama stopped referring to our fight with al Qaeda as the “war on terror” but he continued to use the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to go after al Qaeda and its affiliates. Indeed, just last week, when the Obama administration was insisting that it did not need to go to Congress for authorization to fight ISIS, it cited the 2001 AUMF.

But the administration insisted it was not operating under the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq – the resolution which endorsed Operation Iraqi Freedom, and under which we initially fought ISIS (which then went under the name “al Qaeda in Iraq”).

After all, Obama had opposed that resolution (as a state senator, he did not arrive in Washington till 2005) and he told us that he had “ended” the “long war in Iraq.” Indeed, this past July, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the 2002 AUMF was no longer operative, telling Speaker John Boehner in a letter, “With American combat troops having completed their withdrawal from Iraq…the Iraq AUMF is no longer used for any US government activities and the administration fully supports its repeal.”

Fast forward two months. On Saturday, a senior administration official admitted to the New York Times that the White House is now relying on the 2002 Authorization for Military Force in Iraq, which provides “an alternative statutory authority basis on which the president may rely for military action in Iraq.”

So not only is Obama’s fight against the Islamic State a “war,” as a matter of law it is the same war that Obama told us he had ended.

This makes perfect sense, of course, since we are fighting the same enemy in Iraq that we fought during the surge in 2007.  But it illustrates the utter confusion in the White House today.

If Team Obama has this much trouble deciding whether we are at war, and which AUMF’s it is fighting under, how clear can it be about its strategy to defeat the enemy?

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Unlike Bush, Obama admitted no failure, took no responsibility Thu, 11 Sep 2014 11:09:48 +0000 read more >]]> At a similar point in his presidency, President George W. Bush gave an address to the nation laying out a new strategy in Iraq. In that speech, Bush:

  1. Took responsibility for the failure of his prior approach;
  2. Explained to the American people why his previous strategy failed;
  3. Acknowledged that he was changing course; and
  4. Explained how his new strategy differed from what was being done before.

Obama did none of this last night. He did not admit any failure on his part, or take any responsibility for allowing the rise of ISIS. He did not explain why his previous strategy had failed to stop ISIS or admit that he was changing course in any way. And he did not explain in any detail how his new strategy would actually work.

Here, in part, is what Bush said that night in January 2007. The contrast with Obama tonight is stark:

The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people, and it is unacceptable to me. Our troops in Iraq have fought bravely. They have done everything we have asked them to do. Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me.

It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq. So my national security team, military commanders and diplomats conducted a comprehensive review.

We consulted members of Congress from both parties, allies abroad, and distinguished outside experts…..

Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents, and there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have….

Our military commanders reviewed the new Iraqi plan to ensure that it addressed these mistakes. They report that it does. They also report that this plan can work….

So America will change our strategy to help the Iraqis carry out their campaign to put down sectarian violence and bring security to the people of Baghdad…

Here are the differences.

In earlier operations, Iraqi and American forces cleared many neighborhoods of terrorists and insurgents but, when our forces moved on to other targets, the killers returned.

This time, we will have the force levels we need to hold the areas that have been cleared.

In earlier operations, political and sectarian interference prevented Iraqi and American forces from going into neighborhoods that are home to those fueling the sectarian violence. This time, Iraqi and American forces will have a green light to enter these neighborhoods. And Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated.

This new strategy will not yield an immediate end to suicide bombings, assassinations or IED attacks.

Yet, over time, we can expect to see Iraqi troops chasing down murderers, fewer brazen acts of terror, and growing trust and cooperation from Baghdad’s residents….

Victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship.

But victory in Iraq will bring something new in the Arab world: a functioning democracy that polices its territory, upholds the rule of law, respects fundamental human liberties, and answers to its people. A democratic Iraq will not be perfect. But it will be a country that fights terrorists instead of harboring them, and it will help bring a future of peace and security for our children and grandchildren.

Perhaps it was too much to expect that Obama would show similar willingness to acknowledge his own failures, or admit that he was changing course. He was at pains last night to let us know that he was no George W. Bush and he did – though not in the way he had hoped.

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Dismissing the ISIS threat: Remember these quotes Thu, 04 Sep 2014 14:40:43 +0000 read more >]]> In 2009, the Obama administration believed that al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – was focused on regional attacks and had no interest in attacking Americans’ homeland. Then, on Christmas Day 2009, they sent a terrorist with an underwear bomb to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit.

The administration got lucky – the bomb malfunctioned. Had it not, hundreds of Americans would have been killed. But in the aftermath of that attack, the administration was forced to admit that it was caught by surprise and didn’t realize AQAP had developed the intent or capability to strike the American homeland.

Now, with the rise of ISIS, is history repeating itself?

Today, the Obama administration is arguing that we are safe here at home because … you guessed it … ISIS has not developed the intent or capability to hit the American homeland.

Never mind that ISIS has made its intent to attack America clear. Their “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, recently warned: “Our last message is to the Americans: Soon we will be in direct confrontation, and the sons of Islam have prepared for such a day. So watch, for we are with you, watching.”

You can’t get much more straight forward than that.

Not only is the administration ignoring the terrorists’ plain words, incredibly some administration officials are actually using the example of AQAP to prove their point, arguing that unlike AQAP, ISIS is not focused on attacks here in America.

This is the very terrorist network whose intent and capability Team Obama underestimated – and they are using them to argue that ISIS does not have the intent or capability to strike America?  Can they be any less self-aware?

You would think after their experience in 2009, the administration would be more careful this time around. But apparently this White House fails to learn from its own mistakes.

I’ve collected some of the various statements emanating from the Obama administration dismissing the ISIS threat. Feel free to clip this post and hang it on the fridge – a handy reminder of how Obama and his team dismissed the ISIS threat.

We’ll continue to update it with more quotes as they become available – though hopefully Obama officials will get a clue and stop downplaying the danger these terrorists pose to America.

President Obama:

 [S]ince 9/11 [we] have built up a security apparatus that makes us in the here and now pretty safe.  We have to be vigilant, but this [ISIS] doesn’t immediately threaten the homeland.


Al Qaeda affiliates still target our homeland — we’ve seen that in Yemen. Other extremists threaten our citizens abroad, as we’ve seen most recently in Iraq and Syria.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest:

There’s no evidence or indication right now that ISIL is actively planning or plotting to attack the United States.

Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken:

One is the question of the threat that ISIS poses to us here in the homeland. Unlike core al Qaeda, right now, their focus is not on attacking the U.S. homeland or attacking our interests here in the United States or abroad. It’s focused intently on trying to create a caliphate now in Iraq and a base from which over time to operate.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey:

Dempsey said that so far, there is no sign that the Islamic State militants are engaged in “active plotting against the homeland, so it’s different than that which we see in Yemen.”

Pentagon Spokesman Adm. John Kirby:

And I’ve said this before, and say again today. We don’t believe they have the capacity right now, the capability to conduct a major attack on the homeland.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes:

While both [al Qaeda and ISIS] are terrorist forces, they have different ambitions. Al-Qaeda’s principal ambition is to launch attacks against the west and U.S. homeland. That’s the direct threat that we have taken direct action against for many years. Right now, ISIL’s primary focus is consolidating territory in the Middle East region to establish their own Islamic State. So they’re different organizations with different objectives.

State Department Spokesman Jen Psaki:

I know there have been comments made about 9/11-style attacks. To date, we’ve not seen them focus on that kind of planning.


But our view is what I outlined, that while we don’t feel – and I know some have said that they see a 9/11-style attack – I think that’s come from the Hill – we’ve not seen them focus on that kind of planning.

Let’s hope, for the sake of our country, they don’t have to eat these words one day.

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Gen. Dempsey’s ISIS reversal, and his dangerous Yemen analogy Mon, 25 Aug 2014 18:51:43 +0000 read more >]]> Last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey was crystal clear about the danger posed by ISIS. Speaking at a Pentagon press conference, he declared:

[The Islamic State] is an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated. Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no.

It appears Dempsey’s assessment was too forward-leaning for the Obama White House.  So, the Associated Press reports, he clarified his views over the weekend:

[T]he chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that right now, he still believes the insurgent group is still more a regional threat and is not plotting or planning attacks against either the U.S. or Europe.

This was more in tune with the official White House line, as articulated by Deputy National Security Advisor Anthony Blinken that:

Unlike core al Qaeda, right now, their [ISIS’] focus is not on attacking the U.S. homeland or attacking our interests here in the United States or abroad. It’s focused intently on trying to create a caliphate now in Iraq and a base from which over time to operate.”

This is a dangerous thing for a senior administration official to be saying.  But unfortunately Dempsey went even further during his “walk back” interview, comparing ISIS’s regional focus to that of al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, which has attempted several attacks on the homeland.  Writes the AP:

He contrasted the Islamic State group to the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has plotted and attempted attacks against the U.S. and Europe. As a result, the U.S. has conducted counterterrorism strikes against the group within Yemen.

Dempsey said that so far, there is no sign that the Islamic State militants are engaged in “active plotting against the homeland, so it’s different than that which we see in Yemen.”

One problem with that:

This was precisely the Obama administration’s assessment of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – that it was focused on regional attacks and had no interest in attacking America – back in 2009 … right before it sent a terrorist with an underwear bomb to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit on Christmas Day.

Later, in the aftermath of that attack, the Obama administration admitted it did not know that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had developed the capability and intent to strike the American homeland.

Now they are claiming that ISIS has not developed the capability or intent to hit America.

As Winston Churchill put it in his book, The World Crisis, “Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong.”

They were wrong once. Disaster was averted only because the bomb malfunctioned.  The next time, we might not be so lucky.

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