President Obama made clear to the nation last night that, to him, the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and, particularly, Iraq, was an intelligence failure, not a military failure– and certainly not an Obama failure.
“Our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that, I think, they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” President Obama said in an interview with the news program Sixty Minutes. He added that it was “absolutely true” that intelligence officials “overestimated” the ability or will of the Iraqi army to fight jihadist groups for control of the nation. During the course of the interview, as the New York Times notes, the President “made no mention of any misjudgment he may have made himself.”
He also made little mention of the increasingly chaotic situation in Iraq as a predictable problem, something Republicans had been warning could happen with the absence of the U.S. military in that nation for almost a decade. The Islamic State, President Obama argued, “were able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of that chaos [in Syria],” he argued, noting that many territories in the nation went “largely ungoverned” and thus open to Islamic State rule. This may be a military failure, but here he implies the blame is not on the U.S. commander in chief, but Syria’s– it is, after all, Bashar al-Assad’s job to ensure no territory of Syria goes ungoverned.
Blaming Assad allows President Obama to place fault on a man uncontroversially regarded as a villain in the West. It would also be a completely acceptable explanation if not for the advances the Islamic State has made in Iraq, where Assad’s jurisdiction ends. There, for years, leaders warned that an absence of U.S. troops would create a vacuum in which such a radical Islamist group could thrive. “If we leave Iraq before the job is done, it will create a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East,” said President George W. Bush in a speech in 2006, “a terrorist state much more dangerous than Afghanistan was before we removed the Taliban, a terrorist state with the capacity to fund its activities because of the oil reserves of Iraq.”
It was not James Clapper’s job to warn of a military threat of this magnitude– though, as Eli Lake at the Daily Beast notes, senior intelligence officials did warn President Obama of the threat of the Islamic State making major strides in 2014. It was the responsibility of military officials to warn the President of the potential threat, and this they did with vigor. According to investigative journalist Bob Woodward, the weeks before President Obama chose to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq were fraught with tension among military officials. “The experts, the generals were saying — I mean they were almost on their knees, ‘Keep some troops here,’ and we left zero,” Woodward told CNN’s Candy Crowley.
Desperate to keep at least one campaign promise– after the litany of failures that range from closing Guantánamo Bay to allowing the sale of imported prescription drugs– withdrawing troops from Iraq became the one promise the President chose to keep. That, like all major military decisions, rests exclusively on the shoulders of the chief executive. President Obama has been at least astute enough to blame his intelligence staff and not his soldiers for the mess in Iraq and Syria– few would believe the generals were in favor of withdrawing from Iraq– and yet, the President has said little to indicate that he understands that, without his unilateral decision to withdraw from Iraq, the Islamic State would not be thriving as it is today.