President Barack Obama gave vent last week to an uncharacteristic show of emotion over the barbaric beheading of American journalist James Foley by the militant jihadi group the Islamic State. He denounced the group as a “cancer” in the region and accused it of rampaging “across cities and villages, killing unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence” as it seized a third of Syria and Iraq.
Yet for months, as this cancer metastasized, the White House refused to recognize the growing Islamic State danger — despite warnings from the State Department and the intelligence community.
In January, Obama famously dismissed the group as a local “JV team” trying to imitate al-Qaida, but with no capacity to threaten us.
Only recently, when his hand was forced, did the president act — after the Islamic State had taken Iraq’s largest city, Mosul, marched toward Baghdad, and threatened the Kurdish city of Erbil — and was poised to slaughter 70,000 members of the minority Yazidi sect.
Air strikes by the United States have helped the Kurds push the group back and retake Iraq’s most important dam, as well as to rescue most of the Yazidis.
But the president still hasn’t laid out a coherent strategy to deal with a group that is now more dangerous than al-Qaida. How can he, when his administration is still downplaying the threat? The White House motto appears to be “think small and insist the Islamic State is mostly an Iraqi problem.”
Thus, the president’s rationale for the air strikes was the need to protect U.S. personnel in Erbil and in Baghdad, and to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe for the Yazidis.
He justified the strikes to help recapture the Mosul dam as needed because, had Islamic State fighters breached the dam, it could have flooded our massive embassy in Baghdad. Pretty tortured logic given that the dam is more than 270 miles away.
When asked on Aug. 9 about the threat, deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken insisted in a TV interview that the group presented no immediate threat to the United States.
“Unlike core al-Qaida,” Blinken said, “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.”
Yet that assessment has been repeatedly contradicted by the administration’s own experts.
The Islamic State “is al-Qaida in its doctrine, ambition, and, increasingly, in its threat to U.S. interests,” said Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq, at a recent House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. “In fact, it is worse than al-Qaida.”
McGurk said the group had become so strong — after seizing enormous quantities of U.S.-made heavy weapons when it took Mosul — that it was “no longer a terrorist organization. It is a full-blown army.”
The group has amassed hundreds of millions of dollars from extortion, from robbing banks and from selling oil from wells and refineries it has seized in Syria.
McGurk added that the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “seeks to follow in the footsteps of Osama bin Laden as the leader of a global jihad, but with further reach — from his own terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East.”