Yes, Obama Does Have an Anti-ISIS Plan "to Take Out These Bastards"
Whether it will work is the question.
Obama was right. He does have a strategy, and for more than a year the United States has taken many actions to thwart ISIS. Whether these steps are the best that can be attempted (weighing all the complicated costs and benefits) is subject to debate. But Obama's opponents—particularly those Republicans seeking to succeed him in the White House—often assail him as if he's a feckless, do-nothing commander-in-chief who has no understanding of ISIS and has mounted practically no effort to counter these murderous extremists. But that's hardly the case.
Last week, President Barack Obama said the Islamic State is "contained" -- a comment that has been scrutinized in the wake of the deadly attacks in Paris that have been attributed to the terrorist group.
But has Obama’s comment been taken out of context?
ABC This Week host George Stephanopoulos presented White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes with a list of politicians criticizing Obama for his Nov. 12 remarks. Republican presidential candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for example, said Obama sees the world "as a fantasy."
Rhodes said Obama was talking about a particular aspect of containment that in no way dismissed the possibility of terrorist attacks in the West.
"The president was responding very specifically to the geographic expansion of ISIL in Iraq and Syria," Rhodes said, using another acronym for the group. "A year ago, we saw them on the march in Iraq and Syria, taking more and more population centers. The fact is that 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."
This reminded us of a prior fact-check, when Obama said he didn’t specifically describe ISIS as a "JV team" -- a statement we rated False because he was clearly talking about the Islamic State at the time. We decided to look back at Obama’s comments on containing ISIS to see his comments in their complete context.
In the context of Obama’s Nov. 12 interview with Stephanopoulos -- the day before the Paris attacks -- it’s actually quite clear that when he says ISIS is contained, he is talking about ISIS’s territorial expansion in Syria and Iraq. Here are the relevant parts of the interview:
He wasn’t saying, as critics have shorthanded, that ISIS no longer presents a threat -- an assertion that the Paris attacks would have negated. In fact, in the same interview, Obama acknowledged that ISIS might have surpassed al-Qaida as the greatest terror threat in the world, adding that they are constantly looking for "a crack in the system" to exploit to carry out attacks. "I think that one of the challenges of these international terrorist organizations is that they don't have to have a huge amount of personnel," Obama said.
Is ISIS contained in Iraq and Syria?
The region Obama refers to is significant because it’s the epicenter of ISIS’s caliphate. We surveyed a number of experts, and they all said Obama is accurate when he says ISIS hasn’t gained territory in Iraq and Syria in recent months, though it does not give a full picture of ISIS’s global reach.
"It’s a choice of words that isn’t great, but what he is referring to -- as opposed to the way people have interpreted it -- is correct," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
While ISIS has captured a couple towns in the past few months, it has ultimately lost roughly a quarter of its Iraq and Syria territory overall. A good portion of the losses resulted from United States airstrikes but also from fighting with Iraqi forces and regional groups, Gartenstein-Ross said. This is a far cry from a year ago, when there was serious concern that ISIS would capture Baghdad.
But even though they haven’t expanded territorially recently, ISIS continues to counterattack anti-ISIS forces in the region, noted Frederick Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. He added that ISIS has actually expanded globally -- with strongholds and cells in Libya, Yemen, the Sinai region, and Bangladesh, as well as establishing ties with other terrorist organizations in Africa.
This November map from the Institute for the Study of War shows where ISIS has ties. The stars indicate where ISIS has a remote "governorate."
And, as we know from the Paris attacks, ISIS is able to flex their muscle in the West, too.
"They are being contained geographically by traditional military but they are leapfrogging over it using terrorism," said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He added that Obama used "your grandfather’s notion of containment."
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.
About this statement:Published: Sunday, November 15th, 2015 at 4:18 p.m.
Researched by: Lauren Carroll
Edited by: Aaron Sharockman
ABC News, "Full Interview Transcript: President Barack Obama," Nov. 12, 2015
Institute for the Study of War, "ISIS’ Global Strategy: A Wargame," July 2015
ISW, "ISIS Global Strategy," November 2015
Phone interview, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Nov. 15, 2015
Phone interview, Joshua Landis, University of Oklahoma, Nov. 15, 2015
Email interview, Frederick Kagan, American Enterprise Institute, Nov. 15, 2015
Email interview, David Schanzer, Duke University, Nov. 15, 2015
Email interview, Bruce Riedel, Brookings Institution, Nov. 15, 2015
Email interview, National Security Council spokespersons Ned Price and Emily Horne, Nov. 15, 2015