At the beginning of the month, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency Read told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the Obama administration ignored reports about the rise of ISIS in 2011 and 2012 because it didn’t fit the administration’s narrative that al-Qaeda was on the run and that the country was safer. Today a new interview with former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel suggests that attitude continued into the president’s second term:
While the White House sought to stay out of the conflict in Syria, the Islamic State’s lightning advance into northern Iraq in June 2014 — with Baghdad’s army collapsing in retreat — came as a “jolt” to the administration, Hagel said.
Asked at a press conference in August of that year about the nature of the threat posed by the Islamic State, Hagel told reporters that “this is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” He cited the group’s military skill, financial resources, and adept online propaganda as an unprecedented danger that surpassed previous terrorist organizations.
Some administration officials were not happy with Hagel’s description, and “I got some criticism from the White House,” he said.
But events have vindicated his remarks, he said.
“Then I got accused of trying to hype something, overstate something, and make something more than it was,” Hagel said. “I didn’t know all of it, but I knew we were up against something here that we had never seen before. And in many ways, we were not prepared for it.”
Hagel’s predecessors, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, offered similar criticisms. Panetta contended ISIS emerged as a threat because the US pulled out of Iraq too soon and became involved in Syria too late. Gates said the president is in denial about what will be needed to defeat ISIS:
“The reality is, they’re not gonna be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the Peshmerga, or the Sunni tribes acting on their own,” Gates said. “So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that [the U.S. won’t put boots on the ground], the president, in effect, traps himself.”