Right-wing media mischaracterized President Obama's remarks that ISIS has been “contained” to suggest that he downplayed the international threat posed by the terrorist group. However, fact-checkers have determined that “references or suggestions that Obama claimed ISIS no longer presents an active threat are incorrect.”
Prior To Paris Attacks, Obama Told ABC That ISIS Has Been “Contained” And Has Not “Gained Ground In Iraq And In Syria”
Barack Obama: “We Have Contained Them. They Have Not Gained Ground In Iraq And In Syria.” During an interview taped before the November 13 Paris attacks that left 129 people dead, Obama told ABC News that ISIS had been “contained” and had “not gained ground in Iraq and in Syria.” He went on to clarify that “what we have not yet been able to do is to completely decapitate their command-and-control structures.” The Washington Post reported:
Just before the terrorist attacks in Paris, President Obama said the Islamic State is not gaining strength in Iraq. The White House now says the massacre will not alter its strategy to counter the radical group.
“We've always understood that our goal has to be militarily constraining ISIL's capabilities, cutting off their supply lines, cutting off their financing,” Obama said in an interview with ABC that aired Sunday, using an alternative acronym for the militant group.
“I don't think they're gaining strength,” he 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.”
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, claimed responsibility for the attacks in Paris, which killed 129 people on Friday night. Obama's comments on the status of the battle against the Islamic State were made Thursday.
“What we have not yet been able to do is to completely decapitate their command-and-control structures,” Obama said. “We've made some progress in trying to reduce the flow of foreign fighters, and part of our goal has to be to recruit more effective Sunni partners in Iraq to really go on offense instead of simply to engage in defense.” [The Washington Post, 11/15/15]
White House Adviser Ben Rhodes: Obama “Was Responding Very Specifically To The Geographic Expansion Of ISIL In Iraq And Syria.” On the November 15 edition of ABC's This Week, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes responded to criticism of Obama's comments in the wake of the attacks, explaining to host George Stephanopoulos that Obama “was responding very specifically to the geographic expansion of ISIL in Iraq and Syria”:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, the president received some criticism for that interview we did on Thursday, in the words he used -- containment of ISIL. Carly Fiorina saying ISIL not contained, they are on the march. Chris Christie said the president is living in a fantasy; the president sees the world as he wants to see it. Your response?
BEN RHODES: Well, look, George, the president was responding very specifically to the geographic expansion of ISIL and 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. At the same time, that does not diminish the fact that there is a threat posed by ISIL, not just in those countries, but in their aspirations to project power overseas. That's why we've been very focused on the challenge of foreign fighters to come into and out of Syria. Many of those have returned to Europe in particular. That's why it's such a focus of these meetings here to talk about how we can seal that border with Turkey to prevent that flow of foreign fighters and share intelligence to disrupt and prevent attacks in our European allies' countries and, of course, in the United States. [ABC, This Week, 11/15/15]
Fact-Checkers Confirm That “References Or Suggestions That Obama Claimed ISIS No Longer Presents An Active Threat Are Incorrect”
PolitiFact: “References Or Suggestions That Obama Claimed ISIS No Longer Presents An Active Threat Are Incorrect.” In a November 15 piece, PolitiFact rated as “true” Rhodes' explanation that "[w]hen President Barack Obama said ISIS, or ISIL, was contained, he 'was responding very specifically to the geographic expansion of ISIL in Iraq and Syria.'" Furthermore, PolitiFact concluded that “references or suggestions that Obama claimed ISIS no longer presents an active threat” were “incorrect”:
Rhodes said that when Obama said ISIS was contained, he “was responding very specifically to the geographic expansion of ISIL in Iraq and Syria.”
Looking back at Obama's interview where he made this comment, it is quite clear that it's within a narrowly defined scope: ISIS's territorial expansion in Iraq and Syria. He did not rule out the potential for a terrorist attack, and he also made it clear that the United States' anti-ISIS efforts are a work in progress.
References or suggestions that Obama claimed ISIS no longer presents an active threat are incorrect.
Further, experts told us that Obama is right that ISIS hasn't expanded in the region in recent months, though this doesn't give a full picture of ISIS's global reach.
Rhodes' statement rates True. [PolitiFact.com, 11/15/15]
Right-Wing Media Took Obama's Remarks Out Of Context To Suggest He Underestimated The Threat Posed By ISIS
Fox's Andrea Tantaros: “Pre-Paris, He Said He Had Them Contained. Hours Later We See That That Was Not The Case.” On the November 16 edition of Fox News' Outnumbered, co-host Andrea Tantaros suggested that the attacks contradicted Obama's assessment that ISIS had been contained:
KENNEDY: I have a very quick question about that, because the conventional wisdom has been that they're [ISIS] just trying to expand the caliphate in Middle East and that some of the terrorist attacks that have taken place, here in the United States and especially in France where they have seen three, that those were just lone wolves. Is this a shift for ISIS to now begin terrorist attacks in other countries? And is it a sign of desperation or is it a sign of strength for them?
GENERAL JACK KEANE (RET): ISIS, it's an extraordinary organization, you know. At Institute for the Study of War, we track this daily and we read whatever report they've ever issued. They put out annual report in color, over 60 something pages. Their goal in Europe, what is taking place right now, and this is the beginning of terrorist attacks. They want to do two things there: one, undermine the government support for the effort against them. But here's the second one, gets at your point. The second one is they want to fragment and polarize Muslims and non-Muslims. In their description of what they see, they want an apocalyptic war in Europe that's driven by the French's overreaction in Muslim communities that further alienates those communities and creates internal strife to the point where people are willing to join them by the tens of thousands, as opposed to by the few thousand or few hundreds. That's their eventual goal in Europe.
HARRIS FAULKNER: Is it working?
KEANE: No, not to the degree they want, but this is a step in that direction. They would actually think of it as a relatively small step in that direction. Of course, 129 dead and 300 wounded is not a small step for civilized society like we are.
ANDREA TANTAROS: General, in 2014 President Obama did underestimate the threat of ISIS, he called them jayvee. And then on Friday pre-Paris, he came out and he said he had them contained. Hours later we see that that was not case. He said at this press conference earlier that the United States has not underestimated their abilities. And I know I've asked you this before, because when the president came out said we don't have a strategy a couple months ago, that angered the U.S. military. What is the current relationship between the White House and the military today?
KEANE: It's strained. I mean the ones that are closest to him have a cordial, collaborative relationship. And that's the people that work with him in the Pentagon. And then the relationship gets more strained as you get closer to the field commanders who are frustrated because they, one, they have will, and two, they have got skill and they have enormous capacity. We're just talking about helping indigenous forces. We're not doing nearly enough to do that. But listen, we've gotta wake up here. We should take this, and American people have got to wake up, take this very seriously. ISIS is at war with America and with civilization. [Fox News, Outnumbered, 11/16/15]
Fox's Bret Baier: Obama Should Have “Conceded There Was [A] Misjudgment By His Administration.” Referring to Obama's comments about ISIS, Fox anchor Bret Baier suggested that the Paris attacks should have prompted Obama to admit his administration had misjudged the group. Baier said, “The problem was he never conceded that there was any misjudgment by his administration.” From the November 16 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom:
BILL HEMMER: The president's strategy as stated over the weekend continues, as is. Bret Baier, host of “Special Report,” with me now. You were listening. Your impressions from Turkey a moment ago.
BRET BAIER: Well, Bill, I tell you, this was striking. This was truly striking, that the President -- first of all, he started, and he obviously thanked his Turkish hosts. It took him about a minute to get into the attacks of Paris. He talked about cyber talks and climate change and then talked about the Paris attacks. You're right. He said the strategy is, essentially, not changing. He was asked numerous times about whether he personally underestimated ISIS. Remember, calling them jayvee. Just last week doing an interview that said that they were contained on the ground in Syria and Iraq, and he pushed back and even seemed angry at some of those questions he said being similar. The problem was he never conceded that there was any misjudgment by his administration. And the big passion that you heard from the president was about refugees and how the U.S. has to continue to realize that there are men and women and children escaping terrorism. Meantime, across town you have French President Francois Hollande talking to his congress starting with “France is at war. ISIS cannot be contained, ISIS has to be destroyed.” Asking his congress to establish three more weeks of an emergency session, emergency declaration of powers to enable him to go after ISIS in every way, shape and form. So the contrast in those two speeches -- obviously, one a news conference at a summit and the other an address to congress -- but still the message, the contrast in tone and urgency was striking, Bill. [Fox News, America's Newsroom, 11/16/15]
Fox's Ralph Peters: Obama's “Ridiculous Remark” Indicates That “He Just Won't Deal With Reality.” On the November 16 edition of Fox Business' Varney & Co., Fox News military analyst Lt. Col. Ralph Peters said “Obama's ridiculous remark that Islamic State had been contained” indicated that “he just won't deal with reality”:
LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: There are real refugees among the people fleeing Syria, and they're Christians. You want to avoid importing Islamist terrorists into our country? Don't let the Muslims in, let the Saudis take them. But I see a good argument for giving refuge to the Christians fleeing the Middle East, because we have stood by and done nothing while 2,000 years of Christian civilization has been systematically and gruesomely destroyed. But Stuart, if I can just go back to Obama's ridiculous remark that Islamic State had been contained. You know, he just won't deal with reality. It took Starbucks more than 20 years to reach five continents. It took Islamic State two years. His doctrine of strategic patience basically amounts to do nothing and hope the cancer tumors get better on their own. They don't. And because he has done nothing, he hasn't led, we have a situation where Islamic State now not only has its caliphate, it's real on the ground, they have a deep bench of middle managers who can replace the leaders we kill, they have a deep, a vast cadre of veteran, veteran jihadis now, they've got international reach, they've got infrastructure in Europe. Man, if you are unwilling to jump on the problems at the beginning and exterminate these guys, yeah, tough word, exterminate, you lose. [Fox Business, Varney & Co., 11/16/15]
NY Post's Michael Goodwin: “What Gall. What Folly.” Fox contributor Michael Goodwin criticized Obama's overall anti-terror posture in a November 14 New York Post column, writing of his remarks on containment, “What gall. What folly.” Goodwin also claimed that the timing of Obama's remarks, the day before a deadly terror attack by the group, “captures his cluelessness”:
In an accident of timing that captures his cluelessness, the president actually declared on Friday morning that Islamic State had been “contained,” practically boasting in a TV interview that, “They have not gained ground in Iraq and in Syria.”
What gall. What folly. [New York Post, 11/14/15]
Fox Anchor Chris Wallace Asked Obama Administration Advisor Ben Rhodes: “Haven't You Profoundly Misjudged The Strength, Capabilities, And Ambitions Of ISIS?” On the November 15 edition of Fox News' Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace played a clip of Obama's remarks on containment before asking Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, “Haven't you profoundly misjudged the strength, capabilities and ambitions of ISIS?”
CHRIS WALLACE: We have contained ISIS, and then just a day later, ISIS launches the deadliest attack on Paris since World War II. Mr. Rhodes, hasn't the president, haven't all of you around him, haven't you profoundly misjudged the strength, capabilities and the ambitions of ISIS?
BEN RHODES: No, look Chris, at the very beginning of the counter-ISIL campaign, the President made very clear that this going to be a long-term challenge. That this is going to involve a group that poses a threat to our home and to our allies. What the president was referring to very specifically is we had to stop their geographical advance in Iraq and Syria where they were gaining more territory. We have done that. In some respects, we have rolled them back in different places of northern Iraq and northern and eastern Syria. That's necessary to shrink the space that they operate in, but that does not eliminate the threat, as we saw so tragically in Paris. [Fox News, Fox News Sunday, 11/15/15]
MSNBC's Joe Scarborough: “I Guarantee You A Lot Of People In France Don't Understand Why This President Still Feels Like ISIS Is Contained And Everything Is Okay.” On the November 16 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, co-host Joe Scarborough said that “this is a president that's been underselling the threat of ISIS to the world,” going on to argue, “his words on Friday were unfortunate ... I don't understand, and millions of Americans don't understand, and, I guarantee you, a lot of people in France don't understand why this president still feels like ISIS is contained and everything is okay”:
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Admiral, we sit back and ISIS, we have a containment policy, I suppose, for ISIS. They don't look very contained for most Americans. But meanwhile, they continue to make millions of dollars on oil. They continue to make millions of dollars on the black market in other ways. And, while we sit back and quote “contain” them, their power only grows and their ability to reach Manhattan, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Boston, you name the city in America, Oklahoma City, that only grows.
JAMES STAVRIDIS: Indeed, it does. They are not contained in terms of capability and that's what they've shown us. What NATO needs to be doing is going at this as an Article Five event.
SCARBOROUGH: This is a president that has been underselling the threat of ISIS to the world.
MIKA BRZEZINSKI: His words on Friday were unfortunate.
SCARBOROUGH: His words on Friday were unfortunate, his words during the 2012 campaign were unfortunate. The White House's words this weekend saying that ISIS couldn't -- they did not have the capability to hit us here were unfortunate. I don't understand, and millions of Americans don't understand, and I guarantee you a lot of people in France don't understand, why this president still feels like ISIS is contained and everything's okay. [MSNBC, Morning Joe, 11/16/15]