Since June, a who’s-who of White House correspondents has undertaken a valiant campaign to get ISIS (or ISIL, or the Islamic State, or ) promoted from “Junior Varsity squad,” beginning with Fox News’ Ed Henry, then ABC News’ Jon Karl. CNN’s Jim Acosta, CNN’s Michelle Kosinski, and then Karl again. All referenced President Obama’s quote during a January interview with The New Yorker in which Obama told David Remnick that “if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” and all wanted to know if the President pooed the screwch with that comment. Those attempts have met with limited success.
At Monday’s White House daily briefing, that effort continued. First, it was NBC News’ Peter Alexander, who followed a series of questions about the ISIS threat by asking, “Did the President underestimate ISIS when he referred to them in an interview only a couple of months ago as a JV squad, in making a reference to National Basketball Association teams like the Lakers?”
With a smile, Earnest replied, “Well, I thought somebody might ask this question today, so I wanted to pull the transcript of the interview, because it’s important to understand the context in which this was delivered.”
Quoting that interview, Earnest said, “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.”
“So the President was not singling out ISIL,” Earnest explained. “He was talking about the very different threat that is posed by a range of extremists around the globe. Many of them do not have designs on attacking the West or on attacking the United States, and that is what puts them in stark contrast to the goals and capability of the previously existing al Qaeda core network that was led by Osama bin Laden.”
Having made that distinction, Earnest then rattled off a list of the United States’ accomplishments in degrading al Qaeda, including the killing of Osama bin Laden and the transformation of the organization’s line of succession into a gin rummy game in the break room of a Starbucks.
All of this inane fascination with that quote has managed to illustrate the importance of a messaging pro like Josh Earnest, and of Jay Carney before him. Deputy press secretary Eric Schultz took a weak swat at the question last week after National Security spokesman Ben Rhodes seemed to open up some daylight on it.
CNN’s Acosta noted that daylight when he tried to nail it down a little more. “Did I catch this right?” he asked. “Did you say earlier that the President was not singling out ISIS in that New Yorker interview? Because last week Ben Rhodes said that the reason why the President made that comment and the reason why things are different now is because they’ve made gains since then. Ben Rhodes seemed to indicate that that’s what the President was talking about in that New Yorker interview.”
After taking another shot at reading the President’s quote directly, Earnest seemed to pretty definitively stand by the President’s January assessment. “What I’m saying is the President was making a much more general reference to jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian,” he said, and added, “So is that an apt description of what ISIL has been carrying out? I think that is a rather apt description of ISIL.”
So, the short answer is, “No varsity jacket for you, ISIS,” but the longer answer is that when you have White House officials at crossed purposes, this kind of thing is what you get. Rhodes has a certain interest in emphasizing the threat posed by ISIS, in order to gain support for whatever intervention the President is planning, as do folks like Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey. As the President has said, ISIS’ gains on the ground did catch a lot of people off guard.
But what Josh Earnest recognizes (as Jay Carney did before him) is that attacks on this quote are not about underestimating the threat posed by ISIS, they are the product of a consistent Republican effort to erase the Obama administration’s accomplishments in fighting terrorism. They ran this game with Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi, even though extensive reporting has shown the group has no operational ties to al Qaeda, and they did it again when Boko Haram was a convenient boogieman to slap the administration with.
ISIS is a threat, but that doesn’t make them al Qaeda, and it doesn’t make them the Lakers. Hell, they aren’t even the Russian separatists in Ukraine. They have no air support, their gains have been made largely against forces that dropped their weapons and ran, they don’t have anti-aircraft capabilities, and they do donuts like your drunk neighbor who just fixed up his Camaro. Yes, if you keep dropping weapons and cash at their feet, ISIS will become a threat to attack the United States, but for now they are very ugly, nasty fish in a barrel that we have to figure out the best way to shoot at.