Army Gen. Lloyd Austin on Wednesday relinquished command of the U.S. forces fighting the Islamic State in Tampa, Florida — as a bit of a sour note hung in the air back in Washington.
President Obama has been consistently criticized for a 2014 comment to The New Yorker magazine that the Islamic State, as it invaded Iraq from Syria, was merely the “jayvee.” In other words, it was not to be taken seriously. Months later, the terrorist army controlled large swaths of Iraq and Syria, forcing Mr. Obama to order a new war.
Then, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed Mr. Obama and published a long favorable story this month on the commander-in-chief’s foreign policy views. In the story is this:
“Early in 2014, Obama’s intelligence advisers told him that ISIS was of marginal importance. According to administration officials, General Lloyd Austin, then the commander of Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, told the White House that the Islamic State was ‘a flash in the pan.’ This analysis led Obama, in an interview with The New Yorker, to describe the constellation of jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria as terrorism’s ‘jayvee team.’”
The quote clearly showed the White House was shifting blame from Mr. Obama to Gen. Austin, a 40-year Army combatant, leader and commander, as he went out the door.
Gen. Austin, through his public affairs office at U.S. Central Command, has denied ever making such a remark.
His supporters point out that, as the last four-star general to leave Iraq in December 2011, he had recommended to the White House that more than 20,000 American troops remain in the country because the gains there were reversible.
At the time that Mr. Obama downplayed the Islamic State, then known by a different name, it already had built a large army in Syria and had begun its expansion into Iraq.
Mr. Obama has a track record of shifting blame. For example, when the White House plan to train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State failed, he told an interviewer that he always knew it would not work.
Gen. Austin turned over command at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, to Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who had been chief of U.S. Special Operations Command.
At the ceremony, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter heaped praise on Gen. Austin, a West Point graduate and recipient of the Silver Star for gallantry in battle.
As CentCom leader for three years, he has directed operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and kept watch on an expansionist Iran in the Persian Gulf.
“The people of CentCom have met these challenges under the extraordinary leadership of a towering figure in the life of our military, General Lloyd Austin,” Mr. Carter said. “It’s one of the highest compliments in the Army to be called ‘a soldier’s soldier.’ For more than four decades, Lloyd Austin has not only demonstrated what it means to be a soldier’s soldier. He has come to define it.”
At the Pentagon on Tuesday, Peter Cook, Mr. Carter’s spokesman, was asked if the secretary would clear the four-star general of the “flash in the pan” quote at the change of command.
“I don’t think Secretary Carter needs to clear General Austin of that,” Mr. Cook said. “I think General Austin himself has indicated that that statement is factually incorrect, and I believe there are others who have said the same. So I’m not aware that General Austin ever made that comment, and I think I would refer you to the White House as well if you want to check with them.
“But General Austin does not need to have his name cleared for any reason. He has led admirably and with distinction for, as I said earlier, close to 40 years, and I think his record of accomplishment speaks for itself.”