Last night, CBS News aired an interview with President Obama on 60 Minutes, much of which concerned the conflict with ISIS. If you missed the interview itself but read about it this morning, you would have learned one thing above all else. Here are some headlines from today’s coverage:
* USA Today: “Obama: U.S. underestimated Islamic State”
* The New York Times: “Obama acknowledges U.S. erred in assessing ISIS”
That’s just a taste; there are plenty more. This is all about a couple of sentences in the interview, in which the President said something that few seriously dispute. You can argue that it happened because ISIS grew rapidly, which would have been hard to predict, or you can argue that the Iraqi Army’s instantaneous collapse in places like Mosul was an unlikely outcome, but at this point no one is going to say that we had perfect information and understood exactly what ISIS’s capability would become. So why is this such big news?
The answer lies in the problematic pattern of so much political reporting, where appearances are more important than facts and politicians are held to standards that reporters themselves would claim to find frustrating, even abhorrent. The result is that while this kind of coverage looks on the surface like it encourages accountability, in fact it does exactly the opposite.
If you look at the actual 60 Minutes piece, the interviewer, Steve Kroft, isn’t concerned with this supposedly shocking admission so much as he is with the question of the Iraqi army’s capability:
Steve Kroft: How did they end up where they are in control of so much territory? Was that a complete surprise to you?
President Obama: Well I think, our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.
Kroft: I mean, he didn’t say that, just say that, “We underestimated ISIL.” He said, “We overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight.”
Obama: That’s true. That’s absolutely true. And I…
Kroft: And these are the people that we’re now expecting to carry on the fight?
Obama: Well, here’s what happened in Iraq. When we left, we had left them a democracy that was intact, a military that was well equipped, and the ability then to chart their own course. And that opportunity was squandered over the course of five years or so because the prime minister, Maliki, was much more interested in consolidating his Shiite base and very suspicious of the Sunnis and the Kurds, who make up the other two-thirds of the country. So what you did not see was a government that had built a sense of national unity. And if you don’t have…
Kroft: Or an army.
Obama: Or an army that feels committed to the nation as opposed to a particular sect. Now the good news is that the new prime minister, Abadi, who I met with this week, so far at least has sent all the right signals. And that’s why it goes back to what I said before, Steve, we can’t do this for them. We cannot do this for them because it’s not just a military problem. It is a political problem. And if we make the mistake of simply sending U.S. troops back in, we can maintain peace for a while. But unless there is a change in how, not just Iraq, but countries like Syria and some of the other countries in the region, think about what political accommodation means. Think about what tolerance means.
Kroft: And you think we can teach them that?
Obama: Well, I think there’s going to be a generational challenge. I don’t think that this is something that’s going to happen overnight. They have now created an environment in which young men are more concerned whether they’re Shiite or Sunni, rather than whether they are getting a good education or whether they are able to, you know, have a good job. Many of them are poor. Many of them are illiterate and are therefore more subject to these kinds of ideological appeals. And, you know, the beginning of the solution for the entire Middle East is going to be a transformation in how these countries teach their youth. What our military operations can do is to just check and roll back these networks as they appear and make sure that the time and space is provided for a new way of doing things to begin to take root. But it’s going to take some time. And in the meantime, what I can…
Kroft: You’re saying buy them time, so they can get their act together?
Obama: Yeah, but in the meantime, it’s not just buy them time, it’s also making sure that Americans are protected, that our allies are protected.
Kroft is doing a good job here. If the Iraqi army can’t seize and hold territory, the Iraq part of this mission is going to fail, so this is an absolutely vital line of inquiry. But the coverage of the interview has focused on Obama’s “admission.”
If no one would really dispute what Obama admitted, why is it such big news? Did we expect him to say, “No, in fact we understood ISIS perfectly at every stage and predicted exactly what they would do, and nobody misjudged anything”? I’m old enough to remember when George W. Bush got a lot of negative media attention for his unwillingness to admit that he had ever made a mistake, even as the Iraq War spiraled downward and things weren’t looking too rosy at home, either. The common thread uniting that period and this one is that so many in the press are focusing on the public relations aspect of governing, essentially punishing the president for not being more careful with his words.
A big part of the reason is that this is just what political reporters do. Whenever you have a big story like a war, it will be reported by two sets of journalists. The first is those with expertise in the subject — in this case, foreign affairs and national security reporters. The second is the political reporters. The latter have always exhibited a strange contradiction, in which they can’t stand politicians who are relentlessly “on message,” but also swiftly punish any politician who strays off message with endless “gaffe” coverage.
Obama is getting such punishment today. The lesson he may take from it is that he shouldn’t admit mistakes (so long as that reluctance stops short of being almost pathological, as Bush’s was). But that’s exactly what we want presidents to do, not simply because it means being honest, but also because it helps everyone — both the public and those in government — to understand where we’ve fallen short and where we might fall short again. In this case, the limitations of our intelligence and particularly our ability to predict future events ought to be in the forefront of everyone’s mind as we make decisions. As we learned the last time we fought a war in Iraq, there are few things more dangerous than leaders who are sure they understand everything about a situation and know exactly what’s going to happen.
I doubt that Obama went in to the 60 Minutes interview planning to execute some inspiring act of candor. And he didn’t — all he did was admit what’s now obvious to everyone. But if he picked up the morning papers and said, “Well, I’m never going to do that again,” it would be a real problem.
UPDATE: Since the headline of this post attracted some criticism (though not the post itself — it’s almost as if some people make a judgment only on the headline!), we looked at whether it accurately characterized what President Obama had said during the interview. We decided to change the headline from “Obama admitted he got it wrong on ISIS. That’s a good thing” to “Obama admits administration got it wrong on ISIS. That’s a good thing,” since in the relevant portion of the interview he doesn’t refer specifically to his own judgments.