President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln after the initial success of the invasion of Iraq lives in infamy, still standing for presidential cluelessness and arrogance.
The Bush team came to regret it, and admitted as much. When President Bush landed on the carrier in a jet plane wearing a flight suit in 2003, the war in Iraq was just getting started in earnest.
President Barack Obama has never donned a flight suit, or made any showy jet landings, but he has been even more adamant about an illusory victory.
“Mission accomplished” has been his essential message about al-Qaida for years. The terror group, according to the president, is “decimated,” “on the run,” “on the path to defeat.” The president spiked the football so many times, his arm must have been about to give out. He gave every indication that al-Qaida was all but eliminated, except for some mopping-up operations.
And now here we are launching what is projected to be a yearslong bombing campaign against an al-Qaida offshoot, ISIS, that controls territory roughly equal to Great Britain, and hitting a faction of al-Qaida in Syria, the so-called Khorasan Group, that represented an “imminent” threat to the West. It raises the question: What happened to al-Qaida being on the verge of defeat?
When Jonathan Karl of ABC News asked Josh Earnest this the other day, the White House press secretary explained that it is precisely because al-Qaida is so decimated in its stronghold in Pakistan that it has become a dangerous threat in entirely new places like Syria.
This through-the-looking-glass reasoning depends on the administration’s distinction between “core al-Qaida” and all other al-Qaida. When the president has been more careful, he says only “core al-Qaida” is decimated, by which he means al-Qaida in Pakistan. The assumption is that al-Qaida everywhere else is, to borrow the president’s term for ISIS, the “JV team.”
This is strategic analysis by sound bite. Certainly, al-Qaida doesn’t think of itself this way. The terror group always sought to have tentacles around the world, and distinguishing between “core al-Qaida” and its operatives and affiliates in other countries requires investing tremendous significance in distinctions without a difference.
The administration has created the impression that the Khorasan Group in Syria is a new group, when it is simply al-Qaida. According to Thomas Joscelyn of The Long War Journal, one of the targeted terrorists in Syria, Muhsin al-Fadhli, has been involved in al-Qaida operations for more than a decade. One of his cohorts is Sanafi al Nasr, a third cousin of Osama bin Laden who leads a senior planning committee of al-Qaida.
The rise of al-Qaida in Syria isn’t a symptom of the administration’s brilliant success against “core al-Qaida,” as Earnest would have it. Rather, it is a function of Syria’s collapse into chaos that has made it an ideal terrorist safe haven, which the administration had been content to watch unspool from the sidelines until now. The same has been true of Iraq, where the forerunner of ISIS had been defeated prior to President Obama’s decision to pull out entirely a few years ago.
Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” asked the president over the weekend if he was surprised by the rapid ascent of ISIS. President Obama generously allowed as, yes, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, had underestimated the group.
It may be that the closest this president can come to admitting a serious error is saying that his subordinates failed him. But the intelligence community says the president was fully briefed, and really, what else did he need to know after ISIS took the Iraqi city of Fallujah back in January?
For President Obama, it remains mission accomplished, except for all the people around the world still trying to kill us.
Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.