Or, as Shakespeare wrote over 400 years ago, “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark” (our apologies to the Danes). The reader may recall those words spoken by Marcellus to Horatio in Shakespeare’s Hamlet while awaiting battle, to suggest that something was terribly wrong. Even more poignantly, Horatio responds, “Heaven will direct it.” Or, as we suggest, Obama may have reasoned, maybe it (ISIS) will just go away.
Actually, we don’t know what the President was thinking. And while National Intelligence Director James Clapper may have taken the obligatory fall on the proverbial sword when he offered his mea culpa surprise at ISIS’s strength and the Iraqi army’s weakness, virtually no one else in the nation’s intelligence establishment is buying it.
One former senior Pentagon official who worked closely on the threat posed by Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq was flabbergasted. He told the award-winning news site, Daily Beast, “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting.”
It has been widely reported that President Obama is not a big fan of the daily face-to-face intelligence briefings that have been a part of the daily routine at the White House for decades. He apparently prefers to read his Intel on his I-pad, and not waste time in a daily intelligence question and answer session. We have no problem with that, assuming the briefings are really given the time they deserve on the President’s I-pad. If we failed to detect so obvious a threat as ISIS, how are we expected to believe that our intelligence reporting will let us know when, for instance, Iran has cheated on whatever promises they make when the, now deadlocked, nuclear negotiations are completed.
The reality, it seems, isn’t so much that the White House didn’t have good intelligence about ISIS, but rather that the White House didn’t really place that high a priority on the information that was readily available. According to the Obama-friendly New York Times, “By late last year, classified American intelligence reports painted an increasingly ominous picture of a growing threat from Sunni extremists in Syria. Just as worrisome, they said, were reports of deteriorating readiness and morale among troops next door in Iraq. But the reports, they said, generated little attention in a White House consumed with multiple brush fires and reluctant to be drawn back into Iraq. “Some of us were pushing the reporting, but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it,” said a senior American intelligence official. “They were preoccupied with other crises,” the official added. “This just wasn’t a big priority.”
Even the liberal leaning Brookings Institution weighed in on the controversy. “To anyone watching developments in Iraq from mid-2010 and Syria from early 2011, the recovery and rise of ISIS should have been starkly clear,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “The organization (ISIS) itself was also carrying out an explicitly clear step-by-step strategy aimed at engendering the conditions that would feed its accelerated rise.”
It’s true. Remember, it was way back in January that ISIS rolled, unimpeded, into Fallujah and Ramadi in long, easy-to-detect convoys, some reported to be 100 trucks long, openly flying the ominous black al-Qaeda flags. These were cities in which al-Qaeda had been thoroughly routed during the surge of the Bush years. Last February the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, General Michael Flynn, warned in his annual threat assessment, “ISIL probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah.”
In that very same meeting, Clapper himself testified that ISIS was one of the three most effective radical Islamist groups operating in Syria. He predicted that ISIS could well become a magnet for attracting foreign fighters, which is, of course, exactly what has happened. CIA Director, Brennen, also testified back then that he thought both ISIS and Al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra, were a threat to launch jihad against the West. Even Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, testified back in February that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations.”
Over a year ago, CNN quoted a top intelligence official who said ISIS has “ruthlessly grown in effectiveness.” Last October a senior administration official said the terror group represented “a major and increasing threat” — to the region and to the United States.
Eight months ago, the military’s top intelligence official warned ISIS “will attempt to take territory…They will not go home when it is over. They will fight for that space. They are there for the long haul.”
Since then, officials have warned that ISIS wasn’t going anywhere — including in October, when a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call that the danger from ISIS was intensifying.
“This is really a major and increasing threat to Iraq’s stability … and it’s an increasing threat to us,” These were not random comments from the usual cast of talking heads. These observations and rather dire warnings were all very public assessments of ISIS coming from President Barack Obama’s own administration.
So, what in the world is going on here? It is evident to us, as it must be to everyone, that President Obama, understandably, did not want to see the country dragged back into a war that he had always opposed and that he had promised to end…forever. His confidantes are quick to tell us that the President believed America turned to the military option too fast and too often, and he may very well have been right. But that doesn’t absolve President Obama or any other President from acting when action is so obviously called for. His antipathy for President Bush’s policies, and his determination not to make what he considers to have been Bush’s excesses may have caused a sort of paralysis when it came to taking action that seemed too Bushesque, even when the threat had become so obvious.
ISIS took total control of Raqqa, Syria nine months ago. They also took Fallujah and moved into Ramada in Iraq back in January. By June they had taken Mosul which is to Iraq as Chicago is to the United States, its second largest city.
We were bemused by the recent statement of Frederic Hof, who was the State Department’s point man for Syria policy when he said, “I’m not suggesting anyone was asleep at the switch necessarily,” before going on to say that “ISIS definitely achieved strategic surprise when it rolled into Iraq,” which is, of course, saying that someone was, in fact, sleeping at the switch.
Something is very wrong, or as Shakespeare would say, rotten in Denmark, when the President blames our intelligence community for underestimating ISIS, when one intelligence report after another was clearly warning over and over again that we had a big problem brewing in Iraq and Syria.
The problem isn’t really ISIS either. ISIS is merely a current manifestation (one of many) of radical Islam. The radical Islamists have been cutting off heads, shooting people in mass, forcing conversions, seizing and taking women and girls, firing rockets at Israeli cities, pulling travelers off of buses and killing them (if they weren’t like them) for a long time now, and they will continue to do so for a long time to come. That’s the real problem facing the world today. That’s the defining issue of our day. And if we refuse to recognize that and fail to do whatever we can to stop it, then something really is rotten in Denmark.