Publication / DecodeDC/ ScrippscodeDC/ Scripps
August 26, 2014
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ISIS: What Obama labeled a ‘jayvee’ team in January is now in the big leagues

Was the president wrong about the terrorist group?

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Confused about how threatening ISIS really is to the U.S.? It’s not surprising.

Since the Islamic terrorist group came on the U.S. radar earlier this year, the organization has been called many things, from wannabe varsity players to a “cancer.”

In January President Barack Obama down-played the terrorist group’s power, telling the New Yorker rather flippantly, “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.”

Fast forward five months and the White House started calling ISIS a “principal threat.” Three months after that, the Secretary of Defense is calling the group “beyond just a terrorist group.”

So what gives with the changing rhetoric?

As ISIS (the Islamic State) continues to prove its growing might in the Middle East the question is, did Obama make a tactical decision to downplay the group’s strength, or was he just plain wrong because of bad intelligence reports?

[Related: Can U.S. target ISIS without helping Assad?]

“To a certain extent I don’t know how well-considered the comment was. At the time it was made ISIS was not that big of a deal,” said Steven David, an international security expert and professor at Johns Hopkins University. But at the same time, “the president may have an interest in downplaying the terrorist issues in the Middle East.”

Here’s a succinct timeline of the White House administration’s references to ISIS over the past 8 months:

Jan. 27: Obama calls ISIS, a broken off branch of al Qaeda, a “jayvee team.”

Feb. 7: Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson calls ISIS a “matter of homeland security.” (Note: Johnson’s assessment came only 12 days after Obama’s remarks.)

May 28: Obama says ISIS is today’s “principal threat.”

June 24: Secretary of State John Kerry says the administration and officials were “surprised” when ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq.

July 23: Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iransays ISIS is worse than al- Qaida and is a “full-blown army.”

Aug. 8: Obama says U.S. has a “strategic interest” to force back ISIS.

Aug. 20: Obama calls ISIS a “cancer” following news of the group’s beheading of American journalist James Foley.

Aug. 21: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said ISIS is “beyond just a terrorist group.”

Aug. 26: Spokesman for Gen. Martin Dempsey says “ISIS is a regional threat that will soon become a threat to the United States and Europe.”

Originally, according to experts, Obama’s first comments about ISIS, also known as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or the Islamic State, may have been a political and diplomatic strategy.

“If you look back at the Obama administration’s counterterrorist strategy, one of the principal themes was resilience,” said Matthew Kroenig, a former defense strategist under the Bush administration. “Basically it’s the idea that we are going to make it clear that terrorist organizations won’t affect the U.S.”

When Obama first addressed the threat of ISIS, the group had yet to prove its strength and the White House sought to downplay the danger by belittling the organization—a typical strategy.

 “One principle of counterterrorism strategy is you do want to make the terrorist organization ineffective and make it seem ineffective. Denying the perception of strength is important. If you can counter their narrative and call these guys jokers…in general that kind of thing is helpful,” Kroenig explained.

It also probably didn’t hurt that downplaying ISIS helped the Obama administration, which was actively working to distance itself from the Middle East after repeated promises to wind-down a military presence in the region.

But ISIS apparently didn’t get the memo. The group quickly and aggressively took control of major areas of northern Syria and western and northern Iraq. Most recently the group has made headlines for its attacks on thousands of Yazidis, an Iraqi minority group that it forced to flee into the Sinjar mountains, as well as its beheading of journalist James Foley.

ISIS was expelled from al-Qaida after its members failed to tone down violence against civilians. Now ISIS is no longer an aspiring al-Qaida group — it seems to have surpassed it in terms of brutality.

 “I think two major things have changed. The facts on the ground have changed. [ISIS] controls two significant parts of two countries,” Kroenig said. And “it’s harder to sustain the argument that it’s a JV team now… they are better funded than al Qaeda ever was.”

David at Johns Hopkins said ISIS has “tens, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars, they have state of the art equipment from the U.S. through the Iraq Army and there are several hundred ISIS members who are European who can get into the western countries without a visa or oversight. Do I think they will conquer America? No. But they can certainly induce a fair amount of harm.”

On the other hand, some experts believe the shift in White House reaction to ISIS was calculated.

While the U.S. may have first been reluctant to get involved in the Middle East, it has now done a complete 180. In recent weeks the administration ramped up intervention efforts in Iraq and Syria, including missile and drone strikes against ISIS in northern Iraq and now authorized surveillance in Syria.

“I believe the change in tone has to do with the administration’s decision to conduct more direct military action against the group,” said Mark Habeeb a Foreign Service professor specializing in negotiation theory at Georgetown University. “To justify and ensure public support for such actions, it helps to portray the threat as a serious one. Playing down ISIS’ threat was a way to justify not intervening.”