If you’re trying to decide how scary ISIS really is, and how we should deal with that extremist army, don’t bother looking to Team Obama for guidance. Because at this point, the team is virtually incoherent.
I confess to being confused. The mixed messages start at the top, with the president. Back in January, talking to The New Yorker magazine, he pooh-poohed ISIS (the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), using a jock analogy: “If a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” But last week, he said the junior varsity team was actually “a cancer” that nations should work together to “extract.” Without elaborating on the means of extraction.
Then Obama tried to somewhat minimize the cancer. Bear with me here.
After photojournalist James Foley was beheaded, Obama said: “(ISIS) may claim out of expediency that they are at war with the United States or the West, but the fact is, they terrorize their neighbors.” But that remark didn’t jibe with comments voiced by his own deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes – who said that the beheading of photojournalist James Foley “represents a terrorist attack against our country.” Nor did Obama’s remark jibe with what his own Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson, said back in February – that ISIS’ recruiting success “has become a matter of homeland security.”
Then we have Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Last Thursday, he called ISIS “a trans-regional and global threat…an immediate threat,” and basically said that the only way to beat ISIS would be to fight it militarily inside Syria: “This 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 their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no. That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border (with Iraq).”
When Dempsey said that stuff on Thursday, I figured that it was part of an orchestrated administration PR campaign to prepare us for a sharply escalated military effort. But it subsequently appeared that Dempsey, to borrow a favorite Obama phrase, had “gotten ahead of his skis,” by sounding more bellicose than the official administration line. (If so, that alone suggests that Obama teammates are not communicating well with each other.) By Sunday, Dempsey was dialing back, suggesting, according to a CBS News report, that ISIS is “more a regional threat and is not plotting or planning attacks against either the U.S. or Europe.”
OK, so now it’s “a regional threat” (Dempsey on Sunday) – as opposed to being “a trans-regional and global threat…an immediate threat” (Dempsey last Thursday). But the Joint Chiefs chairman’s Sunday remark doesn’t jibe with comments voiced the other day by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who called ISIS “an imminent threat to every interest we have…beyond anything we’ve ever seen, so we must prepare for everything.” Yesterday, a Dempsey spokesman tried to bridge the gap with Hagel, by saying that the Joint Chiefs chairman “believes that ISIS is a regional threat that will soon (my emphasis) become a threat to the United States and Europe.”
ISIS will “soon” be a threat to us? Secretary of State John Kerry, yet another player, says that ISIS is already a threat to us. In fact, Kerry seems ready to lock and load: “The United States of America will never back down in the face of such evil. (ISIS) and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed.”
So by what means can ISIS be destroyed, would America build a coalition or go it alone, and when might such means be employed? No word yet. At the White House yesterday, Obama press secretary Josh Earnest said the president hasn’t decided whether to take military action against ISIS in Syria. (Surveillance flights were launched last night, to case the area.) Earnest also said it was possible that Obama might seek congressional approval. Swell. Then we’d see hawkish Democrats like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (who says it takes “an army to defeat an army”) clashing with war-averse Democrats who worry most about mission creep.
Meanwhile, we’ve got Republicans agitating for action – Marco Rubio says Obama should “do what is necessary,” House Intelligence Committee member Mike Pompeo says Obama should “do what is necessary” – although they don’t have a unified definition of “necessary,” and meanwhile they’ve got their own mixed messages, with Rand Paul and his followers voicing skepticism about hawkish intervention.
But clarity has to start at the top. If the “JV team” is truly “a cancer,” we at least need a coherent diagnosis.
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