Is Obama passing the buck on underestimating Islamic State?

Some don't like how President Obama handled a question about the Islamic State during a '60 Minutes' interview. Some think he threw his Director of National Intelligence under a bus.

Susan Walsh/AP
President Barack Obama speaks at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 44th Annual Legislative Conference Phoenix Awards Dinner in Washington, Sept. 27.

Is President Obama blaming everyone but himself for missing the danger posed by the Islamic State (IS), allowing it to grab a big slice of territory in Syria and Iraq?

That’s what critics are claiming Monday in the wake of Mr. Obama’s appearance on CBS's “60 Minutes” Sunday night.

Here’s the underpinning of their argument: At one point, interviewer Steve Kroft asked the president how it was that IS ended up in control of so much land, and whether that had been a surprise to him.

“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,” Obama replied.

Mr. Kroft countered by saying that what Director of National Intelligence Clapper had really acknowledged was that the United States had overestimated the willingness of Iraq’s armed forces to stand up to the IS onslaught.

Obama agreed with this and then pointed fingers in another direction, saying that the US had left Iraq an “intact democracy” with a military that was well equipped to fight. Then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki squandered these advantages by focusing on building up his political base among his fellow Shiites, while remaining suspicious of Iraq’s Sunni Muslims and Kurds, the president said.

“So what you did not see was a government that had built a sense of national unity,” said Obama.

At no point in this exchange did he acknowledge any personal responsibility for missing the phenomenon of the rise of IS. Perhaps that’s understandable: Presidents are very busy people who have to rely on their administration officials to guide them. But in this case, a little personal humility might have been well placed, some pundits argued.

The “60 Minutes” exchange showed “the president’s maddening habit of shifting blame,” writes National Journal’s veteran columnist Ron Fournier. “This is more than a tick; it’s a personality flaw and a political problem, because Americans want their leaders to be accountable and credible.”

Obama’s 2008 election opponent was even more pointed.

“This idea that somehow we didn’t know this was happening – of course we knew it, I was there,” said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona during an appearance on CNN.

(The “I was there” part of the above refers to Senator McCain’s frequent trips to Iraq in recent years.)

Intelligence officials appear to have been annoyed by Obama’s throwing their boss, Clapper, under a bus. In a piece by The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake, some recount instances in which the US intelligence community did indeed warn of the likely course of action by IS leaders.

In prepared testimony at various points this year, intelligence officials said it was likely IS would try to capture ground in Syria and Iraq, for instance. Clapper himself earlier said that IS was one of the most effective fighting forces in Syria and a magnet attracting foreign recruits.

But it’s also true that for decades, US leaders from the president on down have complained that intelligence reports are both lengthy and vague, containing many assertions about possible future courses of action on the part of US adversaries. The Central Intelligence Agency can always point to something that showed it was right, because it’s said almost everything in one report or another.

There’s a natural tension between political leaders, who value narrow takes on What Will Happen, and intelligence officials, who know the world is a complicated and maddeningly unpredictable place.

In any case, it isn’t Obama who got the US into this mess in the first place, says left-leaning David Atkins in the Washington Monthly.

It was the Bush administration that invaded Iraq with little thought to the sectarian consequences, writes Mr. Atkins Sunday in the Monthly’s “Political Animal” blog. That’s what cracked the region into the shifting tectonic plates of today.

“If some world leaders failed to predict the rise of ISIS adequately, it still represents a dramatic improvement over American leadership of the previous decade,” he writes Atkins.

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