A President Whose Assurances Have Come Back to Haunt Him
WASHINGTON — When President Obama addresses the nation on Wednesday to explain his plan to defeat Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria, it is a fair bet he will not call them the "JV team."
Nor does he seem likely to describe Iraq as "sovereign, stable and self-reliant" with a "representative government." And presumably he will not assert after more than a decade of conflict that "the tide of war is receding."
As he seeks to rally Americans behind a new military campaign in the Middle East, Mr. Obama finds his own past statements coming back to haunt him. Time and again, he has expressed assessments of the world that in the harsh glare of hindsight look out of kilter with the changed reality he now confronts.
In making his speech, Mr. Obama faces the challenge of reconciling those views with the new mission he is presenting to the American public to recommit the armed forces of the United States to the region he tried to leave. Rather than a junior varsity nuisance, he will try to convince Americans that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria represents a clear threat to national security in a state that is hardly stable. And he will seek to win patience for more war from a public that wishes it really was receding.
To Mr. Obama's critics, the disparity between the president's previous statements and today's reality reflects not simply poorly chosen words but a fundamentally misguided view of the world. Rather than clearly see the persistent dangers as the United States approaches the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they said, Mr. Obama perpetually imagines a world as he wishes it were.
"I don't think it is just loose talk, I think it's actually revealing talk," said Peter H. Wehner, a former adviser to President George W. Bush now at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "Sometimes words are mistakes; they're just poorly put. But sometimes they're a manifestation of one's deep belief in the world and that's what you really get with President Obama."
White House officials said the president's opponents distorted what he said to score political points or hold him responsible for evolving events that were not foreseen. They also say Mr. Obama's past statements are hardly on a scale of Mr. Bush's unfounded assertions about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, not to mention Mr. Bush's May 2003 speech in front of a banner that said "Mission Accomplished," meant to signal an end to the major combat in Iraq.
"There is context or facts that explain what the president meant at the time, or things change over the course of time," said Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama. "The people who try to beat us up over these things will continue to do so."
The comment that has caused Mr. Obama the most grief in recent days was his judgment about groups like ISIS. In an interview last winter with David Remnick of The New Yorker, Mr. Obama sought to make the point that not every terrorist group is a threat like Al Qaeda, requiring extraordinary American action.
"The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant," Mr. Obama told Mr. Remnick. He drew a distinction between Al Qaeda and "jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian."
Asked about that by Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press" last weekend, Mr. Obama denied that he necessarily meant ISIS. "Keep in mind I wasn't specifically referring to ISIL," he said, using an alternate acronym for the group.
"I've said that regionally, there were a whole series of organizations that were focused primarily locally — weren't focused on homeland, because I think a lot of us, when we think about terrorism, the model is Osama bin Laden and 9/11," Mr. Obama said. And some groups evolve, he noted. "They're not a JV team," he added of ISIS.
But the transcript of the New Yorker interview showed that Mr. Obama made his JV team comment directly after being asked about terrorists in Iraq, Syria and Africa, which would include ISIS. After Mr. Obama's initial answer, Mr. Remnick pointed out that "that JV team just took over Fallujah," a city in western Iraq seized by ISIS. Mr. Obama replied that terrorism in many places around the world was not necessarily "a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into."
Journalistic organizations like PolitiFact, Factcheck.org and The Washington Post's Fact Checker all rejected the contention that Mr. Obama was not referring to ISIS when he made his comment about JV teams.
Other statements by Mr. Obama look different today as well. When the president pulled American troops out of Iraq near the end of 2011 against the urging of some Republicans, he said the armed forces were "leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq with a representative government."
Aides defended the conclusion, saying that was the president's hope and it was up to the Iraqis to make good on that promise, an opportunity they squandered, leading to the emergence of ISIS as a major threat.
Just a few months before that, Mr. Obama told the United Nations that "the tide of war is receding." Aides said that statement had to be viewed in the context of two wars fought with hundreds of thousands of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 13 years. Even with new airstrikes in Iraq and potentially in Syria, they noted, just a fraction of those troops were still overseas.
Other statements that have come under fire lately include Mr. Obama's comment setting a "red line" if the government of President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his people, which he eventually did. Mr. Obama vowed to retaliate but instead accepted a deal to remove and destroy Mr. Assad's chemical weapons.
Just a month ago, Mr. Obama told Thomas L. Friedman, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, that it had "always been a fantasy" to think that arming moderate rebels in Syria a few years ago would have made a difference in Syria. But now his emerging strategy for combating ISIS in Syria involves bolstering those same rebels rather than using American ground troops. Aides said Mr. Obama was referring to the rebels as they were three years ago, arguing that they have developed a lot since then.
Either way, Aaron David Miller, author of the forthcoming "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President," said Mr. Obama would have a real challenge selling his new approach to the public on Wednesday.
"Presidents rarely persuade through speeches, unless the words are rooted in context that seems real and credible," Mr. Miller said. "Obama has a problem in this regard because his rhetoric has often gone beyond his capacity to deliver, especially on Syria."