In a January interview with The New Yorker, President Obama said of the ISIS threat:
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. 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.
Naturally, when Obama last night decided that ISIS had become enough of a threat to warrant immediate action in the country from which he withdrew U.S. forces, that quote — branded by the New Yorker writer at the time as a “flip analogy” — circulated fast around social media.
At today’s White House press briefing, press secretary Josh Earnest tried to offer an explanation:
Well, I think what is appropriate to say is that there is no question that the Laker uniforms that were worn, to use that analogy a little, to draw out that analogy a little bit, that were worn by the Al Qaida leadership in Afghanistan has been decimated and defeated in Afghanistan. There’s no question about that.
And that is the result of the many decisions that were made by the president and the courageous service of our men and women in uniform and our men and women in the intelligence agencies.
What is also true is that there are other organizations that subscribe to the violent extremist ideology that’s espoused and promulgated by Al Qaida. Many of those groups in nations across the globe are not particularly sophisticated, are focused on local, sectarian conflicts, that don’t pose a significant or immediate threat to the U.S. interests or the U.S. homeland.
There are, of course, a couple of other organizations that do pose a more substantial threat to the United States and our interests. Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is one of them. And you’ve seen the United States in concern with our allies and partners take significant steps, important steps, to mitigate the threat that’s posed by those organizations that do have designs and some capability to try to strike the United States and, in some cases, even try to strike the homeland.
We do remain concerned about the military proficiency that’s been demonstrated by ISIL, and it’s why you’ve seen the president take steps, including the authorization of military force, that would protect American citizens who might be harmed by ISIL.