President Barack Obama answers questions during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., July 15, 2015.
Photo by Susan Walsh/AP

The ISIS ‘gaffe’ that isn’t what it appears to be

A variety of Republican voices were looking for a reason to lash out at President Obama over the Paris attacks, and it didn’t take long for them to settle on a specific line of criticism.
The White House has been forced onto the defense over President Obama’s claim that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been “contained” – a statement that came one day before the group carried out the deadliest massacre in France in a generation.
At least at first blush, it’s a straightforward pitch: on Thursday, the president said ISIS is “contained,” and then on Friday, much of the world was horrified by the attacks in Paris, which ISIS has claimed credit for. Ergo, it’s a “gaffe.”
But the right’s new talking point also happens to be wrong. The quote in question came when ABC’s George Stephanopoulos sat down with the president, and the host suggested ISIS is “gaining strength.” Obama pushed back against the assumption.
“Well, no, I don’t think they’re gaining strength,” the president said. “What is true is that from the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them. They have not gained ground in Iraq. And in Syria, they’ll come in, they’ll leave. But you don’t see this systematic march by ISIL across the terrain.”
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser at the White House, added yesterday that the president “was responding very specifically to the geographic expansion of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. A year ago, we saw them on the march in both Iraq and Syria, taking more and more population centers. The fact is we have been able to stop that geographic advance and take back significant amounts of territory in both Northern Iraq and Northern Syria.”
The problem for Republicans is that the explanation happens to be true.
In fact, in recent months, ISIS has lost a fair amount of territory it used to control. A variety of factors contributed to those losses, but they happened, and when it comes to a simple matter of geography, ISIS has actually been contained – it’s areas of control were growing and now they’re shrinking.
The new conservative toy, in other words, doesn’t work. When it comes to complaining about U.S. counter-terrorism policy, they’ll need to find something else.