WH struggles with message on ISIS threat

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The White House is struggling to deliver a clear message on the threat posed by the radical Islamist group ISIS and what the administration might do to counteract it.

Officials have sowed confusion by giving different statements at different times on the level of danger posed by the Islamic group, whose full name is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

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Obama’s decision last year to ask Congress for authority to level Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces with airstrikes is also haunting the administration as it mulls strikes in Syria against ISIS. There have been no guarantees that similar congressional approval will be sought this time around.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest was peppered with questions on the issue Monday. Referring to the proposed strikes against the Assad regime last year, Earnest responded, “That was a different situation, right?”

But he said little that was definitive about whether attacks against ISIS in Syria are now being considered. Any such action would represent a major escalation from the current situation, in which the U.S. is carrying out airstrikes against ISIS positions in northwestern Iraq.

Strikes within Syria would not merely represent a significant ramping up of U.S, military action. They would also risk providing de facto assistance to the Assad regime, even while the United States hopes that government will be deposed.

The issue of congressional approval for strikes inside Syria was given another twist late on Monday when Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), a Democrat known to be close to Obama, issued a statement insisting that “I do not believe that our expanded military operations against ISIL are covered under existing authorizations from Congress.” 

Kaine added that he was “encouraged by reports that indicate administration officials have signaled that seeking Congressional authorization for U.S. military action against ISIL is being considered.”

Even the convoluted wording of that statement, however, underlined the uncertainty in which so much of the situation is shrouded. 

At Monday’s White House press briefing, Earnest simultaneously stressed that the administration takes the threat posed by ISIS seriously but that Obama believes “military might is not the only tool in the tool box here.”

Earnest was also asked about whether Obama agreed with Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelPentagon documents hundreds of serious misconduct cases against top brass Obama defense sec: Trump's treatment of Gold Star families 'sickens' me The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE’s assessment, made last week, that ISIS was “an imminent threat to every interest we have” and “beyond anything that we’ve seen.”

Earnest responded, using a different acronym for the group, that “what is true is that there is a serious threat that's posed by ISIL.”

Pressed again on whether there was “an imminent threat to America,” the White House press secretary responded, “Well, it certainly is an imminent — I think, as you read there — [a threat to] American interests.”

The distinction the White House appears to be drawing is between the possibility of a 9/11-type attack on the U.S. homeland, which it does not believe to be an immediate concern, and an assault on U.S. personnel or operations overseas, which is a clear possibility. 

Indeed, the danger that ISIS posed to US personnel in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil was one of the original justifications proffered by Obama for authorizing airstrikes within Iraq’s borders. 

Recent statements from Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have hardly helped clarify matters.

In contrast to Hagel’s dire warnings, Dempsey said Monday that he currently believes that ISIS is more of a regional threat than a direct threat to the U.S. homeland. 

A spokesman for Dempsey later tried to ease any tension between his perspective and that of Hagel, insisting that Dempsey “believes that ISIS is a regional threat that will soon become a threat to the United States and Europe.”

A spokesman for Hagel told The Hill that he stands by his original remarks.

Whatever differences exist between Hagel and Dempsey, it is incorrect to characterize them as one man being a hawk and the other a dove. Dempsey last week said that ISIS was “an immediate threat.”

He has also argued for the necessity to take some action within Syria if ISIS is to be defeated.

“Can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no,” he said at a press conference last Thursday. “That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border.”

The current confusions are just the latest twists in a tale that has seen considerable shifts in the White House’s rhetoric.

In an interview with The New Yorker back in January, Obama played down the threat posed by ISIS by way of a colorful comparison:

“If a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” he said.

Last week, however, after ISIS beheaded American journalist James Foley, Obama characterized the group as “a cancer” that several nations should come together to “extract.” 

The same day, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that “ISIL and the wickedness that it represents must be destroyed.”

Brett McGurk, a deputy assistant secretary of State, said in late July that ISIS was “no longer simply a terrorist organization. It is now a full-blown army.”

The same rhetorical imagery was used by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) earlier this month. 

Feinstein, approving of the first U.S. airstrikes against ISIS, asserted that it needs “an army to defeat an army.”

— This story was updated at 6:43 p.m.