President Obama has a way with words. Unfortunately, that way almost always leads to boxing himself into positions that he never intended to take. An off-hand comment at a press conference about a chemical weapons “red line” turns into a case for war by itself. A misinterpreted remark about “not having a strategy” motivates a major speech and an expanded war.
Never has Obama tied himself up better than with his line last January that ISIS is “JV.” The analogy was worse than poor, and he should have known that it would come back to bite him, but the fact is that his explanation of the statement was both profound and true then, and nothing has changed since then. It shows that some part of Obama’s mind recognizes that Bush’s “good vs. evil mentality” ignores the complexity of world politics and that the U.S. military may not solve all of the world’s problems.
The comments came after The New Yorker’s David Remnick pointed out that ISIS was flying al-Qaeda’s flag over the recently-captured city of Fallujah in Iraq and asked Obama whether this disproved his statement during the 2012 campaign that al-Qaeda was “decimated.” Obama responded that “if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” But he continued:
“I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.
“Let’s just keep in mind, Fallujah is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”
The president should have predicted that his nuanced explanation would be lost under his blunt analogy. But this nuance is exactly what is lacking in today’s debate about ISIS. Obama’s explanation is exactly right. As nearly every U.S. intelligence official has said, ISIS is not planning attacks against the United States, which means, as counter-terrorism chief Matthew Olsen has acknowledged, they are not as dangerous as al-Qaeda. As the president admitted in his national speech, they are still a regional, rather than global, threat—in other words, they’re still “JV.”
The president was also right about ISIS being a manifestation of the sectarian conflict in Iraq and Syria. Despite the ISIS terrorism hysteria in the United States, ISIS is still seen by everyone in the region as just another outgrowth of the Sunni sectarian war against Shia and Alawite governments, which means U.S. intervention creates a global confrontation where there wasn’t one. President Obama’s recognition of these facts should be commended.
Obama’s thoughtful distinction was naturally unwelcome by a gaffe-crazy, hawkish punditry whose one-dimensional view of the world allows for no subtlety, and while he may have backtracked from his comments, that shouldn’t change our assessment of them. He was right. ISIS is nasty tumor on a sectarian civil war, not an imminent threat to the United States.