POLITICS
09/08/2014 04:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obama Fumbles Question On ISIS

The following post first appeared on FactCheck.org.

President Obama enjoys his sports analogies, so let’s just say that he fumbled when he was asked whether he made a “misjudgment” eight months ago in dismissing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as the equivalent of “a jayvee team.”

Obama said he “wasn’t specifically referring” to ISIS when he made the junior varsity reference during an interview with The New Yorker in January. But the magazine article and a transcript of the interview — which Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler obtained and wrote about earlier this month — shows that Obama was referring to ISIS when he said “if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

The subject of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as the president refers to it — came up during a Sept. 7 interview on Chuck Todd’s debut as host of NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Todd, Sept. 7: Long way, long way from when you described them as a JV team.

Obama: Well, I –

Todd: Was that bad intelligence or your misjudgment?

Obama: Keep — keep — keep in mind I wasn’t specifically referring to ISIL. I’ve said that, regionally, there were a whole series of organizations that were focused primarily locally. Weren’t focused on homeland, because I think a lot of us, when we think about terrorism, the model is Osama bin Laden and 9/11. And the point that I was –

Todd: You don’t believe these people –

Obama: Not yet. But they — they can evolve. And I was very specific at that time. What I said was, not every regional terrorist organization is automatically a threat to us that would call for a major offensive. Our goal should not be to think that we can occupy every country where there’s a terrorist organization.

It is true that Obama was talking about “a whole series of organizations” when he made his junior varsity reference. But ISIS was specifically referenced by the writer and Obama in that January interview as one of those organizations.

Let’s go back to what Obama said during his interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker.

The article appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The New Yorker. The interview took place after ISIS captured Fallujah in early January. Remnick writes that he asked the president about what appeared to be a resurgence of al Qaeda-affiliated groups.

The New Yorker, Jan. 27: In the 2012 campaign, Obama spoke not only of killing Osama bin Laden; he also said that Al Qaeda had been “decimated.” I pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Falluja, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too.

“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,” Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

“Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”

The context of the article and the reference to the al Qaeda flag “now flying in Falluja” make it clear that ISIS was among the groups that Remnick asked about and was one of the groups that Obama dismissed as “a jayvee team.” In fact, Obama himself makes an indirect reference to ISIS when he talks about Fallujah.

On Aug. 25, White House spokesman Josh Earnest was asked about the “jayvee team” remark in a press conference, and Earnest responded by saying “the president was not singling out ISIL” when he made that remark. The Washington Post Fact Checker, however, obtained a transcript of The New Yorker interview, and Kessler declared Earnest’s statement “fairly misleading” and gave it four Pinocchios — the equivalent of a “whopper.”

Here is the relevant portion of the interview transcript, as published by the Post.

Q: You know where this is going, though. Even in the period that you’ve been on vacation in the last couple of weeks, in Iraq, in Syria, of course, in Africa, al-Qaeda is resurgent.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, but, David, I think the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

Q: But that JV team jus[t] took over Fallujah.

THE PRESIDENT: I understand. But when you say took over Fallujah –

Q: And I don’t know for how long.

THE PRESIDENT: But let’s just keep in mind, Fallujah is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology is a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.

The transcript shows that the president was asked about al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Iraq, Syria and Africa, which would include ISIS, when the president made his remark about the “JV team.” That was Earnest’s point when he said the president “was not singling out” ISIS. But, as the transcript shows, Remnick followed up his initial question with a direct question about the “JV team” that “just took over Fallujah,” a reference to ISIS. On Jan. 3, the New York Times reported that “Sunni militants of Al Qaeda … members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS” had planted their flag over Fallujah.

The president can make the case that he wasn’t referring only to ISIS when he made his remark about a junior varsity team. But he cannot say that he “wasn’t specifically referring to ISIL,” because The New Yorker article and the transcript of the interview make it clear that the context of the president’s remark included ISIS.

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