Published December 20, 2015
President Obama’s decision to launch airstrikes in Iraq, while backed by senior Hill leaders, has only underscored for his critics the consequences of waiting as long as he did to counter the growing threat of militants with the Islamic State – a group he once dismissed as a “JV team.”
Now, the commander-in-chief is being pressed by Republicans and some hawkish Democrats to commit to battling the organization, whose territory stretches from Iraq to Syria, long-term and overhaul what until last week was a wait-and-see approach.
“Three years ago, Mr. President, you were told by your national security team, get involved, arm the [moderate Syrian] rebels because this problem will grow. You said no,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told “Fox News Sunday.”
“You made many, many bad bets. … Mr. President, if you don't adjust your strategy, these people are coming here.”
Since the president announced Thursday that he’s authorized airstrikes in northern Iraq to protect American personnel and help religious minorities trapped by Islamic extremists, the U.S. military has carried out a series of attacks on Islamic State (IS) targets. In the latest, U.S. fighter jets took out several vehicles in a convoy moving to attack Kurdish forces late Sunday. The U.S. also is providing weapons to Kurdish security forces.
The president, while pledging not to put boots on the ground, acknowledged Saturday before heading to Martha’s Vineyard that it would take more than “weeks” to “solve this problem.”
“I think this is going to take some time,” the president said.
Asked whether he underestimated the threat, Obama said “there is no doubt that their advance, their movement over the last several months has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates and I think the expectations of policymakers both in and outside of Iraq.”
But critics say the warnings were apparent for a long time
“Short term, yes, the president is doing fine. Long term, this is a president who underestimated ISIS, he called them JV,” the National Journal’s Ron Fournier told “Fox News Sunday.” “He's been the commander-in-chief or the under-estimator-in-chief.”
In the time since extremist factions began organizing against Syria’s Bashar Assad, posing a challenge to more moderate forces seeking his removal, the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) has steadily expanded its territory into next-door Iraq.
The group made significant gains earlier this year, first taking over Fallujah and most recently tearing through the country’s second-largest city, Mosul.
After Fallujah fell, Obama gave his nonchalant response to The New Yorker, saying: “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”
Now, hawkish members of Congress question whether airstrikes – “a pinprick,” as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called it – will make the difference.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on Friday warned the militants’ next target may be Baghdad, with ambitions to attack the West. She urged an expanded confrontation.
“It takes an army to defeat an army, and I believe that we either confront [IS] now or we will be forced to deal with an even stronger enemy in the future. Inaction is no longer an option,” she said in a statement.
Republicans are bluntly calling for the Obama administration to consider expanding the military campaign and broadening the airstrike mission, though stop short of calling for ground troops.
But the developments in Iraq have opened Obama to criticism from some Democrats as well. Hillary Clinton, who served during his first term as secretary of State, openly questioned the current foreign policy and security approach during an interview with The Atlantic.
She said the “failure” to build up a “credible fighting force” against Assad left a “big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”
“They were often armed in an indiscriminate way by other forces and we had no skin in the game that really enabled us to prevent this indiscriminate arming,” said Clinton, who is also pondering a 2016 presidential run.
Asked Friday about Obama’s previous dismissal of the militants as “JV,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reiterated the president’s statement that “Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan has been decimated and defeated in Afghanistan. There is no question about that.”
He added: “There are of course a couple of other organizations that do pose a more substantial threat to the United States and our interests. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is one of them. And you’ve seen the United States, in concert with our allies and partners, take significant steps, important steps to mitigate the threat that’s posed by those organizations that do have designs and some capability to try to strike the United States.”
He said the administration remains concerned by the Islamic State’s “military proficiency.”
“And it’s why you’ve seen the president take steps, including the authorization of military force, that would protect American citizens who might be harmed by [IS].”