Commentary Magazine


The White House Deploys Spin and Denial in Response to Setbacks in Iraq

If you’re getting the impression that the White House sees the latest ISIS advances in Iraq culminating in the fall of Ramadi as a political setback rather than a strategic nightmare, you’re not alone.

“Ramadi has been contested over the last 18 months. We’ve always known the fight against ISIS would be long and difficult, particularly in Anbar Province,” White House Deputy Press Sec. Eric Shultz conceded on Monday. “There’s no denying that this is, indeed, a setback.”

Apparently, Schultz’s boss resented his deputy’s demoralizing candor. On Tuesday, he went about offering a variety of dubious claims designed to tamp down speculation that the president’s strategic approach to the war against the Islamic State was in shambles.

During Tuesday’s press briefing, White House Press Sec. Josh Earnest urged reporters to “maintain perspective” when reporting of the fall of the capital of Anbar Province, a key city situated just 70 miles from Baghdad. Though he hinted that the president might entertain a “tweak” or two to his strategic approach to the war, Earnest insisted that the West’s tactical approach to the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is regularly modified according to circumstances on the ground.

“We have seen important progress that has been made, but there have also been periods of setback,” Earnest insisted. When pressed on whether the president believes that the war against ISIS is generally a success, Earnest insisted, “overall, yes.”

Courting the charge of insensitivity, Earnest mocked reporters for engaging in figurative self-immolation over the fall of a second major Iraqi city to the ISIS insurgency. “Are we going to light our hair on fire every time there’s a setback?” the exasperated press secretary said of the Sunni militia’s efficacy on the battlefield, perhaps failing to recall that this terrorist organization is composed of a number of proficient arsonists.

If the White House’s communications team set out to abate their humiliation over the abject and empirical collapse of America’s halfhearted war fighting strategy in the Middle East, they failed rather spectacularly. Not only are these comments reflective of a dangerous frivolousness on the part of this administration, they are indicative of the unsettling reality that the White House views the trifurcation of Iraq along ethno religious lines as a political challenge to be messaged away.

It is not merely the military front in the war against ISIS that is collapsing. The fall of most of Anbar has given way to a bloody purge of government officials and anyone who ever worked closely with U.S.-allied institutions in Iraq. Officials in Baghdad believe that some 500 civilians and soldiers have been murdered while another 5,000 were displaced since Friday, when ISIS began its final assault on Ramadi. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered the Shiite militias loyal to Tehran to descend on a military base near the occupied provincial capital in preparation for a counterassault, despite the White House’s concerns that a Shiite-led attack on a Sunni-dominated city could ignite a sectarian civil war.

The war on ISIS’s assets is equally bereft of successes. Despite a successful mission conducted by U.S. Special Forces which resulted in the death of a figure described as the Islamic State’s CFO, the New York Times reported on Tuesday that ISIS’s finances are generally healthy.

“The Islamic State has revenue and assets that are more than enough to cover its current expenses despite expectations that airstrikes and falling oil prices would hurt the group’s finances, according to analysts at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit that researches public policy,” the Times revealed. “The group minimizes costs by looting military equipment, appropriating land and infrastructure, and paying relatively low salaries. The group also limits its vulnerability by shifting operations, transitioning between expanding its territory and fueling terrorist activity.”

Given all this, the administration has the temerity to blame House Republicans for setbacks in Iraq by failing to pass a new authorization to use military force in Iraq and Syria – a measure that, as written to the White House’s specifications, would constrain coalition military planners and limit the freedom of action they presently enjoy.

In early February, American military planners trumpeted ill advisedly their intention to mount the assault to liberate Iraq’s second city, Mosul, from ISIS terrorists in the late spring. That optimistic plan has been subject to some revision in the interim. With another major city in ISIS’s hands, the portions of that country in need of liberation are accumulating rapidly.

Even before Earnest’s buck-passing escapade, it was clear to most observers that the White House was focused more on managing public opinion than safeguarding Iraqi security. Today, there should be no doubt about the president’s priorities.

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