In a wide-ranging interview with the New Yorker, President Barack Obama compared Al-Qaeda-linked militants in Iraq and Syria to junior varsity basketball players, downplaying their threat as small-league. He also shared what he thought were the chances of reaching Middle East peace agreements.
New Yorker editor David Remnick pointed out to the president that the Al Qaeda flag is now seen flying in Falluja in Iraq and in certain locations in Syria, and thus the terrorist group has not been “decimated” as Obama had said during his 2012 reelection campaign.
“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama told Remnick. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”
Remnick characterized Obama’s analogy as “uncharacteristically flip.”
While the New Yorker referred to the initials for junior varsity as “jayvee,” it is more commonly written as “JV.”
Obama detailed his thinking on key Middle East hotspots, telling the magazine that in the case of Iran, Israel and the Palestinians, and Syria, he believes that the odds of completing final peace treaties are less than fifty-fifty.
“On the other hand,” he said, “in all three circumstances we may be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn’t roll back on us. And all three are connected.”
“I do believe that the region is going through rapid change and inexorable change. Some of it is demographics; some of it is technology; some of it is economics. And the old order, the old equilibrium, is no longer tenable. The question then becomes, What’s next?” Obama added.
Obama’s acknowledgement of the low prospects he gives a peace settlement suggests a possible disconnect between his view and that of his Secretary of State John Kerry who has been laboring intensely to try to forge a deal.
This raises the question: if Obama holds such a pessimistic view, why has Kerry traveled an average of once a month to the region since taking office to work on a framework agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority?
The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that Vice President Joe Biden last week passed a message from Obama to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu which said that the president fully supports Kerry’s diplomatic initiative.
An unnamed senior U.S. official told Haaretz that Biden “made it clear that the United States places extremely high value on reaching an agreement that produces two states living side by side in peace and security, but also just underscoring how important Israel’s security requirements are for us.”
Obama further told the New Yorker that he is “haunted by what’s happened” in Syria.
“I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war,” he said, however.
“And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking,” Obama added.
On the interim agreement with Iran over its controversial nuclear program, members of Congress have threatened to further tighten sanctions. Obama appeared to hold Israel responsible at least in part for those threats.
“Members of Congress are very attentive to what Israel says on its security issues,” Obama said. “I don’t think a new sanctions bill will reach my desk during this period, but, if it did, I would veto it and expect it to be sustained.”