CNN’s Jake Tapper is famous for being one of the more fair-minded and level-headed reporters on the major news networks. He was tough on the Bush White House, and he’s been tougher on the Obama White House than most of his colleagues.
Yesterday, on his show The Lead, he took time to grill White House Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken about the perception that the White House had not done enough to engage ISIS early on.
TAPPER: Jim, ISIS has been slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent
Iraqis for months. Why act now?
SCIUTTO: It’s a very fair — it’s a fair question. You know, those twos reasons that I gave you. One, you have a looming massacre for the Yazidi people — clearly something that the administration could not stomach, the prospects of 40,000 — some 40,000 Yazidis slaughtered, as many thousands, hundreds of others have been slaughtered in other parts of the country, one. Plus, the risk to U.S. personnel. That was enough.
You’ll remember that when ISIS was advancing towards Baghdad, some weeks ago, the U.S. was talking about action to protect the airport, to protect American staff here. That was managed to be pushed back by Iraqi forces. Kurdish forces up here in the north could not apparently push back ISIS forces. So, the U.S. felt compelled to act now.
TAPPER: All right. Jim Sciutto, thanks so much.
Let’s bring in White House deputy national security advisor Tony Blinken.
Tony, thanks for joining us.
As you know, air strikes can be effective but only so far. How far is the White House willing to go to stop this slaughter by ISIS?
TONY BLINKEN, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Jake, Jim Sciutto had it exactly right. First, we’re dealing with an urgent situation on two fronts. One, the humanitarian threat, potential catastrophe with the Yazidis trapped on the mountain, tens of thousands potentially. In an effort to relieve them and relieve the siege that they’re encountering.
Second, as he said, the threat to Irbil, which is the largest Kurdish city, and where we have a significant American presence with the consulate to make sure that ISIS could not advance on the city, to give the Kurds time to regroup and prepare.
But, Jake, what we have here is also a much broader strategy that we’re implementing to empower the Iraqis over time to deal with the threat imposed by ISIS. That involves bringing together a new government that can bring together all the Iraqi people. It involves assessing the needs of that government and its military forces to make sure that they have what they need. It involves empowering the Kurds and other partners, reaching out to the Sunni tribes, to bring them in and coordinating all the neighbors.
All of that is happening at the same time, but we had to act to take account of these urgent situations.
TAPPER: Tony, a lot of people have been warning about ISIS for months and months with no serious action by the White House. Was the intelligence not there? Why is it only now that you’re acting? BLINKEN: Actually, we’ve been warning about this for a long time
ourselves, well beyond that. When initially in 2012, we said to the Iraqis, AQI, which is ISIS’ predecessor, may be on its heels but the only way to keep them there is to go after them constantly. And we proposed to engage with them to help them do that.
The politics in Iraq wouldn’t allow that. But it took awhile and finally, in 2013, a year ago, we began to increase the capacity of the Iraqis to deal with AQI and what became ISIS. And, of course, the Syrian conflict added fuel to the fire. So, we’ve been focused on this for well over a year. And, unfortunately, the ISIS threat overtook the efforts that the Iraqis were making to deal with it.
Now, unfortunately, everyone is seized with this. But what we’re seeing increasingly is coordination among the Iraqis and Kurds, which is unique, we haven’t seen that in a long time. And countries in the region who have responded to this threat which is a threat to them, as well, all getting together and looking to take action.
TAPPER: Tony, you say you’ve been warning about it, but in January, President Obama told “The New Yorker” magazine’s David Remnick that ISIS which was then still considered a part of al Qaeda fighting in Syria was like a jayvee basketball team. He said the analogy we use around here sometimes and is accurate is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.
Just how badly did President Obama underestimate the threat of ISIS?
BLINKEN: No, there are two different things going on here, Jake. One is the question of the threat that ISIS poses to us here in the homeland. Unlike core al Qaeda, right now, their focus is not on attacking the U.S. homeland or attacking our interests here in the United States or abroad. It’s focused intently on trying to create a caliphate now in Iraq and a base from which over time to operate.
And that’s what we’re focused on. We’re focused on making sure that we can help empower the Iraqis and others to prevent them from doing just that. The president was exactly right. They did not pose a threat like al Qaeda central to us in the homeland. We want to make sure they don’t get to the point where they can pose that threat.
TAPPER: Well, going from calling them jayvee to ordering airstrikes against them certainly seems like a big turn around. But let’s move on.
You were in the room when President Obama called the leader of Jordan, King Abdullah II, to talk about the slaughter. What is he, the rest of the Arab world, and more broadly the international community doing to join with the United States and stop this?
BLINKEN: Look, Jake, I think the region is seized with this, because again, ISIS poses a threat not only to the people of Iraq, by the way, every single community in Iraq, anyone they encountered, they are basically trying to slaughter, but to the neighbors, as well, including the Jordanians. So, what we’re doing is helping to organize all of the countries in the region to bring to bear their assets, their resources, their support to deal with this threat.
First and foremost, we need to stand up an Iraqi government that brings the country together that everyone can join in supporting, building their capacity to deal with the threat. Second, we’re working on supporting the Kurd who have a very cohesive military and given the right equipment and right support can also take the fight to ISIS. And then throughout all of this, again, there are resources that can be brought to bear, coordination that can be brought to bear. We’re seeing that increasingly with all of the neighbors.