Following recent territorial gains by jihadists affiliated with the extremist group Islamic State, conservatives have criticised President Barack Obama for a January interview with The New Yorker in which he seemed to dismiss the group as a “jayvee team.” In a briefing Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest rejected this interpretation of the president’s remarks and attempted to clarify them.
“It’s important that we don’t sort of shorthand the analogy the president was trying to draw here,” Earnest said.
When asked about the interview, Earnest produced a copy of the president’s comments, which he then read in full. Earnest said he expected he would get a question about the “jayvee team” remark.
In the published version of the interview, New Yorker editor David Remnick, who spoke with Obama, framed the comment as being an assessment of jihadist groups “in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria” and “in parts of Africa.” Remnick also described Obama’s use of high school sports terminology to describe the groups as “an uncharacteristically flip analogy.”
“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 said. “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.”
Earnest stressed that Obama was talking about multiple groups including Islamic State. He also said the president was trying to highlight the “different capability” of these groups and Al Qaeda under Osama Bin Laden, which Earnest described as having been “decimated” by the Obama administration.
“There is a different threat that exists and that continues to pose a threat to American national security and that is this wider range of extremist organisations, some of whom do not have designs on attacking the West or attacking the American homeland,” Earnest said. “Not only do they not have designs — the vast majority of them — do they not have designs on attacking the West, they certainly don’t have the capability of attacking the West. What Osama Bin Laden presided over was an international network of highly-trained, sophisticated, well-funded terrorists that were capable of carrying out a terrible, heinous attack on the U.S. homeland.”
While he said the president viewed Islamic State as lacking the capabilities of Al Qaeda at its height, Earnest said the White House is concerned about the group. Specifically, Earnest said the fact many members of Islamic State have “western passports” is a threat.
“We want to make sure we confront this threat before it gets worse,” Earnest said.
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