The fall of Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, to ISIS militants has caused a wave of demands from the press to chuck the current U.S. strategy in Iraq and start over. One subplot to that story has been an outrage-gasm over a remark that White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made during Tuesday’s White House briefing, while attempting to cast Ramadi as a setback among a string of successes:
Bill Plante (CBS News): You talked about Ramadi today several times. You seem to be saying, well, you win some, you lose some, and it goes on. And at this stage of the game, isn’t that a little silly when Iraqi troops have cut and run, and there are a minimum of U.S. troops advising and there’s no real prospect for improvement?
Josh Earnest: Bill, what I think is a little silly is for us to spend a whole lot of time agonizing over the fall of Kobani, and then after Kurdish security forces, with the backing of American coalition fighters, retake that village, drive ISIL forces out, and everybody decides that that’s not really a big deal either.
I guess the thing is we have to sort of decide what our approach to these issues is going to be. Are we going to light our hair on fire every time that there is a setback in the campaign against ISIL? Or are we going to take very seriously our responsibility to evaluate those areas where we succeed and evaluate where steps are necessary for us to change our strategy when we’ve sustained setbacks.
That “hair on fire” comment caused several fits of apoplexy from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who took to the Senate floor to attempt some spox-shaming by noting that “there are burning bodies in the streets of Ramadi,” and then went on Fox News to call, then un-call, Earnest an “idiot,” while also calling him “Ernst”:
“Then, of course, my most unfavorite is this idiot Earnest saying ‘Well, we’re not going to set our hair on fire every time there’s a setback…'”
At Friday’s White House daily briefing, Fox News White House Correspondent Kevin Corke shopped McCain’s reaction to Press Secretary Josh Earnest, and asked if he wanted to soften his remarks at all. Earnest was, apparently, not interested:
Corke: Recognizing, in advance, that you’ve probably been called worse, probably here in this room, I want to point you to something Senator John McCain said in response to your ‘light our hair on fire’ comment. He said you’re an ‘idiot,’ but then he backed off that, he retracted that, and I’m just curious…
Earnest: Senator McCain, keepin’ it classy.
Corke: I’m not going to touch that. I just wondered if, given the firestorm, if you’ll pardon me for using that expression, thst the statement caused, would you like to walk it back, or would you like to recast it in a way that maybe doesn’t detract from what you were trying to communicate?
Earnest: No, I think I was pretty crystal clear in what I was trying to communicate.
Earnest is correct that his point was clear, even if McCain chose to miss it. The fact that ISIS’ actions are, indeed, as horrific as they are is all the more reason not to allow ourselves to get rattled and thrown off course by them. That’s kind of the entire point of terrorism. Corke, though, has a point that the glib phrasing might have interfered with the reception of that message, even by “classier” people.