On Sunday night 60 Minutes aired its interview with President Obama, and sprinkled among the phrases we’ve come to expect in his speeches about Iraq (there are no U.S. troops on the ground, Iraqis have to fight for themselves) was a new admission of sorts. When asked how ISIS came to control a large swath of Iraq and Syria after he said Al Qaeda was “decimated” and “on its heels,” Obama pointed to intelligence failures.
“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,” said Obama, referring to recent remarks from the director of national intelligence. Steve Kroft remarked that Clapper also said the agencies overestimated Iraq’s will and ability to fight the extremists. “That’s true. That’s absolutely true,” the president replied.
President Obama never described any errors in his own judgment, and dismissed the “mythology that’s evolved,” in which critics claim the U.S. could have prevented the rise of ISIS by arming the Syrian rebels sooner or leaving troops in Iraq. He also put some of the blame on former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki:
Here’s what happened in Iraq. When we left, we had left them a democracy that was intact, a military that was well equipped, and the ability then to chart their own course. And that opportunity was squandered over the course of five years or so because the prime minister, Maliki, was much more interested in consolidating his Shiite base and very suspicious of the Sunnis and the Kurds, who make up the other two-thirds of the country. So what you did not see was a government that had built a sense of national unity … Or an army that feels committed to the nation as opposed to a particular sect.
He offered some cautious praise for new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, saying he “so far at least has sent all the right signals.”
For those who wonder why the U.S. appears to be doing most of the heavy lifting in the new anti-ISIS coalition, Obama made another remark that’s been a feature of recent speeches: an ode to America’s heroic actions around the world. “America leads. We are the indispensable nation. We have capacity no one else has. Our military is the best in the history of the world. And when trouble comes up anywhere in the world, they don’t call Beijing. They don’t call Moscow. They call us,” he said, adding, “That’s how we roll. And that’s what makes this America.”