If the White House press briefing today was any indication, much of the media has decided that President Obama has put a new “gaffe” on a tee, inviting critics to swing at it. Are they right? Let’s take a closer look.
On “60 Minutes,” the president covered a fair amount of ground with Steve Kroft, but apparently the most important exchange was about Islamic State militants.
KROFT: How did this get, how did they end up where they are in control of so much territory? Was that a complete surprise to you?OBAMA: Well I think, our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.KROFT: I mean, he didn’t say that – just say that, “We underestimated ISIL.” He said, “We overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight.”OBAMA: That’s true. That’s absolutely true.
From there, the president added some additional context about political conditions in Iraq, and the interview moved on. To my ear, this hardly stood out as shocking stuff – and Kroft didn’t seem to find it especially noteworthy, either. I think much of the world expected Iraqi security forces to put up a more effective resistance to easily outnumber Islamic State militants, but their recent confrontations didn’t go as planned.
But that’s not quite what the political world heard. First, many news organizations seem stunned by the fact that the president acknowledged out loud that his administration “underestimated” a foreign foe. Second, Fox News and Ron Fournier have decided it’s outrageous that the president is “shifting blame.”
Let’s consider these one at a time.
First, the notion that the president is willing to concede that ISIS is a more credible threat than the administration initially realized isn’t a bad thing. Paul Waldman’s take rings true:
The lesson [Obama] may take from it is that he shouldn’t admit mistakes (so long as that reluctance stops short of being almost pathological, as Bush’s was). But that’s exactly what we want presidents to do, not simply because it means being honest, but also because it helps everyone – both the public and those in government – to understand where we’ve fallen short and where we might fall short again. In this case, the limitations of our intelligence and particularly our ability to predict future events ought to be in the forefront of everyone’s mind as we make decisions. As we learned the last time we fought a war in Iraq, there are few things more dangerous than leaders who are sure they understand everything about a situation and know exactly what’s going to happen.I doubt that Obama went in to the 60 Minutes interview planning to execute some inspiring act of candor. And he didn’t – all he did was admit what’s now obvious to everyone.
Ironically, the other area of criticism largely contradicts the first. For all the news outlets stunned that the president acknowledged that this administration reevaluated the ISIS threat in light of new information, other critics are making the opposite complaint: the president’s concession didn’t go far enough and he simply passed the buck. “Sorry, Mr. President,” Fournier’s latest complaint reads. “Jim Clapper is the director of national intelligence, not the commander in chief.”
And while that’s obviously true, the fussing seems misplaced. Obama told Kroft the DNI “has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.” The president made the comment, in all likelihood, because the DNI really did acknowledge that intelligence agencies underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.
What’s more, none of this is especially controversial – ISIS had more success, faster, than anyone expected, including governments in the region. It led everyone, including U.S. officials, to overhaul perceptions and look at the chessboard anew. This wasn’t a subtle shot at intelligence agencies; it was simply stating an obvious fact about information as it became available.
In other words, what the president said was correct, and I haven’t heard anyone argue anything to the contrary. So why has this become a new gaffe for the Beltway to play with?
Update: From the press briefing today:
Press secretary Josh Earnest said officials were aware of the threat posed by ISIS, but misjudged the will of the Iraqi military to fight back and how successful the terror group would be at capturing territory. He said “everybody” – from the intelligence community to the White House – made the same mistake, but that Obama was ultimately responsible.“The president’s commander in chief and he’s the one who takes responsibility for ensuring that we have the kinds of policies in place that are required to protect our interests around the globe,” Earnest said. […]Earnest insisted that was “not what the president’s intent was,” adding that the comment was meant as a general reflection on the difficulty of assessing the security situation in the region. He also said the president remained “absolutely” confident in the intelligence community.
I’ll concede this is a step up from the political world’s interest in coffee cups and salutes, but The Hill said the president’s comments created a “firestorm.” It seems unnecessary, given reality.