On Tuesday's CNN Tonight, Don Lemon spotlighted the scoop that President Obama received briefings on ISIS "for at least a year" before the extreme Islamist group's blitzkrieg across northern Iraq – something the Big Three networks failed to do the same evening. During a segment with Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, Lemon pointed out that the President was "briefed on this a year ago, and then...looked the other way – didn't take it seriously enough."
Kristof did his best to brush this reporting aside: "I don't think it's quite right to say he didn't take it seriously enough. I think that the problem there is that there aren't good options." The CNN anchor also wondered if the liberal politician should take a stronger stance against ISIS, as one of his main counterparts did: [MP3 audio available here; video below the jump]
DON LEMON: We're hearing tough words. Let's talk about [British Prime Minister] David Cameron – tough words from David Cameron. He talking about even possibly confiscating passports, banning fighters from coming back to the U.K. Does the Obama administration need to be bolder in its fight against these extremists? Does he need to be more like David Cameron and his response?
After Lemon first got his guest's take on ISIS's beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff, anchor Alisyn Camerota noted that "ISIS was very specific in their video message today to President Obama. They say that they were doing this, basically, in response to the airstrikes in Amirli that allowed the locals to be able to take back control of their town from ISIS. Does that mean that the airstrikes are working – that they are upsetting ISIS?"
Kristof replied that "the great irony here is that ISIS are the only people who seem to think that Obama has been particularly aggressive or effective in striking them...clearly, those airstrikes have had some impact. I think it's also clear that they've been kind of marginal overall."
Lemon followed up by asking if Sotloff's murder would "put more pressure. Because you heard the President say, we don't have a clear strategy, does that put more pressure on him to come up with a strategy, that everyone understands what page we're on?" The New York Times journalist answered that "it creates more political pressure for him to be tough – to show some kind of action. And there's always the danger if you don't have a substantial strategy, and you're under that kind of pressure, then one way of resolving that politically, is you go drop some bombs on somebody."
Later in the segment, the CNN anchor brought up Prime Minister Cameron's "tough words" and whether President Obama needed to be more like his British ally. Kristof skirted answering the question:
NICHOLAS KRISTOF, COLUMNIST, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, the most crucial thing we need to be doing, is to try and gather intelligence on those American passport holders who are out there working with ISIS. And the widespread belief is that they released 100 of those, and maybe, more than 300 of those – maybe, not all working with ISIS particularly, but with Nusra Front and with other jihadi groups in Syria. And it's a little bit reassuring that some of those have been killed on the battlefield, because that indicates that ISIS is willing to use them as cannon fodder, rather than to wage attacks on U.S. soil. But there – obviously, there is the fear that somebody with a U.S. passport can be dispatched.
Lemon also zeroed in on the President's past indecision with regard to Syria and ISIS near the end of the interview:
LEMON: You wrote that the President missed an opportunity to arm moderates in Syria – correct? Is this part of what we're seeing now? Is this directly connected to that, and is it time to revisit that possibility?
KRISTOF: You know, I'm a fan overall of President Obama's foreign policy, but I think that he did, to some extent, blow it on Syria – when he was urged by David Petraeus – by Hillary Clinton – to arm the Syrian moderates. At that point, there were moderates to arm. And President Assad of Syria very cleverly fought them and left ISIS alone. And these days, there isn't so much of a – of a center there.
LEMON: But as has been reported in other places that the President – was the President briefed on this a year ago, and then, sort of, looked the other way – didn't take it seriously enough?
KRISTOF: I don't think that he – I don't think it's quite right to say he didn't take it seriously enough. I think that the problem there is that there aren't good options. There are commanders in Syria – moderate commanders – you can send them money, and you can send them weapons. You don't know exactly where those weapons are going to end up, where that money is going to end up – and there were risks.
But, in retrospect, the failure to do that meant that there were an awful lot of fighters who simply moved on to the most jihadi commanders, because they did have money; they did have weapons. And – you know, if you wanted to fight the Assad government, then you moved to some commander who – who had the – who had that – that weaponry. And so, you grew a beard and joined those.
And I don't think it's too late for President Obama to still do more to support that, but it's going to be – you know, right now, the glamorous thing to do is to drop bombs on ISIS, and that may be a part of the strategy. But you need to have a force on the ground, and that means working with regional partners in that area to create a viable military force to tackle ISIS on the ground.
CAMEROTA: Nicholas Kristof, thanks so much.
KRISTOF: Thank you.