A displaced Iraqi man from the Yazidi community carries his daughter as they cross the Iraqi-Syrian border at the Fishkhabur crossing in northern Iraq, on August 11, 2014. At least 20,000 civilians, most of whom are from the Yazidi community, who had been besieged by jihadists on a mountain in northern Iraq have safely escaped to Syria and been escorted by Kurdish forces back into Iraq, officials said.

A displaced Iraqi man from the Yazidi community carries his daughter as they cross the Iraqi-Syrian border at the Fishkhabur crossing in northern Iraq, on August 11, 2014. At least 20,000 civilians, most of whom are from the Yazidi community, who had been besieged by jihadists on a mountain in northern Iraq have safely escaped to Syria and been escorted by Kurdish forces back into Iraq, officials said.

For the first time since American troop withdrawal in 2011, the U.S. conducted multiple airstrikes in Iraq this week. Aimed at halting the advance of Islamic State militants in the north, the U.S. attacks are the start of what President Barack Obama called a “long-term project” in the region. The U.S. also worked to free tens of thousands of Christian minorities trapped by Islamic State fighters. In Baghdad, political tensions rose sharply. Despite increasing pressure from Washington, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to relinquish power to his newly nominated replacement. The latest on Iraq, and the U.S. role there.


  • Faysal Itani Resident fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
  • Michael Eisenstadt Senior fellow and director, military and security studies program, Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
  • Robin Wright Analyst and joint fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World."
  • Yochi Dreazen Managing editor for news at Foreign Policy and author of the upcoming book "The Invisible Front."


  • 10:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Following airstrikes and humanitarian missions in Northern Iraq this week, President Obama says the U.S. campaign will remain limited in scope. But many are deeply skeptical. Joining me in the studio: Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy magazine, and Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council.

  • 10:07:25

    MS. DIANE REHMJoining us by phone from Chautauqua, N.Y. is Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center. You can join us as well, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.

  • 10:07:55

    MR. YOCHI DREAZENThanks, Diane.

  • 10:07:55


  • 10:07:55

    MS. ROBIN WRIGHTGood morning.

  • 10:07:56

    REHMYochi Dreazen, tell us what the latest signs are in Baghdad regarding the appointment of a new prime minister, and yet you've got the old Prime Minister al-Maliki saying he's not leaving.

  • 10:08:15

    DREAZENIt is really sort of an extraordinary moment. You have the political system in Baghdad and the administration here trying to move beyond Maliki as fast as possible. When the president spoke yesterday about Iraq, there's one word he didn't say, and that one word was Maliki, which was obviously by design. So you have Baghdad and Washington trying desperately to move beyond this man not wanting to go. He's still -- because of the way the U.S. set up the military system of Iraq, much of the military answers directly to Maliki.

  • 10:08:41

    DREAZENThere's no chain in between, so if Maliki says to a unit, go to the Green Zone, they go. If he says to -- that you're going to take your tanks, they take those tanks. And that's what's happening. You have him fortified into the Green Zone surrounded by troops directly answerable to him, tanks directly answerable to him, armored personnel carriers. A former translator of mine was sending me photos. The Green Zone is sort of ringed now by these tanks that are aiming out, so you -- this is the moment of the gun really in Iraq, across the country.

  • 10:09:09

    DREAZENMaliki has them. The question is, will he use them? The Kurds need them desperately. The question is, will they get them in time to fight ISIS? But this really is the moment of violence in the country. The question is, is it just the actual combat taking place against ISIS, the militants who have conquered the center? Or do you have political violence in Baghdad and the potential of a civil war?

  • 10:09:29

    REHMMichael Eisenstadt, what is your take?

  • 10:09:33

    EISENSTADTWell, it's interesting that Maliki at first stated that he's going to pursue legal routes. And I think that's very important. But while saying that, he arrayed his forces in Baghdad. Now, it's important to say that, while he has the guns, he's not the only one with the guns.

  • 10:09:54

    EISENSTADTAnd we know that especially in the wake of events in June, where ISIS took over most of the -- much of the country, one of the ways that Maliki responded was by mobilizing the militias because he had doubts about the reliability of the military and their effectiveness. The problem is not all the militias answer to him, and they answer to other leaders who are traditional enemies of Maliki. So how this shakes out, I have no idea. But as you say, this is a moment of peril.

  • 10:10:23

    REHMFaysal, it would seem that while he may hold some of the troops, he doesn't hold them all. And the U.S. continues to pressure him to step down. Isn't that correct?

  • 10:10:42

    MR. FAYSAL ITANIThat's right. He does have significant amount of influence over key components of the military, including the Special Forces and some of the internal security forces. And you have to remember, beyond just being the constitutional prime minister, previously he spent years entrenching himself within some of these sensitive institutions. And he's going to be difficult to dislodge.

  • 10:11:05

    MR. FAYSAL ITANIThere's another complicating factor as well beyond the balance of military power, which is that the Shia at this point, facing ISIS, are going to be very hesitant to have a sort of internal showdown that will put immense pressure on the solidarity of the sect in terms of their ability to coordinate broader strategy against ISIS, their ability to continue to receive U.S. support, and their ability to represent the central government vis-à-vis the Kurds.

  • 10:11:32

    REHMAnd, Robin Wright, it seems very complicated at this moment.

  • 10:11:39

    WRIGHTOh, it does indeed. In fact, you have three crises in one in effect. You have the power struggle playing out politically that could drag on for up to 30 days until a government is in place with all the repercussions that could have and spark even new internal tensions and some kind of physical combat. You have the devastating humanitarian crisis of the Yazidis stranded on this mountain. The estimates now go as high as 70,000. And there was a incredible story in The New York Times on Sunday talking about parents spitting into the mouths of their children to keep some kind of liquid in their bodies.

  • 10:12:16

    WRIGHTAnd the third is the loss of one-third of the territory of Iraq to the most virulent form of extremism anywhere in the world. And then you have just the (unintelligible) problem to the rest of us in the world about what this threat represents, whether it's the threat to the homeland somewhere down the road or what it does in drawing jihadis from across the region.

  • 10:12:39

    WRIGHTThere's no question that the U.S. had a role or had a right to try to help prevent some kind of genocide. The question is, does it in the end have unintended consequences in actually drawing more people to the cause? Be they from the Arab world or from the West, does this backfire in a way and give this force, which is double this year alone, even more fighters for the cause?

  • 10:13:09

    REHMAnd, Robin, what do you see for the U.S. role now?

  • 10:13:16

    WRIGHTWell, in many ways, having watched the last three presidents grapple with this problem, I think President Obama faces, in some ways, what could be the toughest decision because Americans are not willing to go back in. And yet there is no military force in the world, particularly the Iraqi Army, that can push back ISIS. It has proven very effective in taking territory, redrawing the map already. And let me just give you a little bit of perspective. President George H.W. Bush dropped 265,000 bombs on Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. President Clinton dropped 600 bombs and 400 missiles during a four-day campaign, Operation Desert Fox.

  • 10:14:07

    WRIGHTAnd then George H.W. Bush dropped 30,000 bombs in that Shock and Awe campaign. So a few 500-pound bombs are not going to make a difference. Remember, the earlier presidents were fighting various forms of the Iraqi Army. Today we're fighting ISIS. And the danger is that it's going to take an awful lot more to make a dent with ISIS. And if the ISIS continues to hold even one inch of Iraqi territory from where it is now, not being pushed back, not being contained, the danger is that the U.S. mission is automatically seen as a failure in an election year when it becomes a very divisive source of debate.

  • 10:14:46

    REHMSo, Faysal Itani, you have the problem of Maliki refusing to give up power. You have the problem of ISIS. You have a dilemma for the U.S. as to exactly how much it does. But tell me first how much of a problem it is for all of that if al-Maliki refuses to give up power.

  • 10:15:16

    ITANIWell, you'll be adding one more element of uncertainty into the equation, which is, who is going to control the Iraqi State? And what passes for the Iraqi armed forces and their ability to, if you like, protect the core geography of Iraq, as they see, which are the southern oil fields. So far, ISIS hasn't shown a lot of interest in going after that area, probably because -- although ultimately they wish to do that -- they feel that that will be one challenge too far, given their current capabilities.

  • 10:15:47

    ITANII wonder whether that would encourage them to, if you, like, push the timeline for that sort of offensive forward a little bit. And in a sense it would make rational sense to do so if its opponents are in such disarray in the south.

  • 10:16:00

    REHMMichael Eisenstadt.

  • 10:16:02

    EISENSTADTYeah, just a few things. First of all, I mean, this -- if they fall to fighting in Baghdad, I mean, this could be extraordinarily -- an extraordinary game changer. One of the big problems of the opposition in Syria is the degree to which they've been fighting each other. And at a time of maximum peril for the, you know, members of the different political class in Baghdad to be fighting themselves at this time, I can't think of the worst possible thing to happen. Let me just also say with regard to the president -- and I think the president has been very careful to telegraph that he has limited goals.

  • 10:16:41

    EISENSTADTBut the problem is, whenever you employ force, you abdicate some of your independence because the enemy has a vote. And right now he's used to forcing the limit -- limited way to set down markers to ISIS to indicate we don't -- they don't use the term red lines anymore. But they indicate, you know, that we've drawn some red lines. And as a result, you are now -- unless you maintain those red lines, unlike we did in the past, you will be challenged again. And then you are at the mercy of your enemies. So this is the problem for somebody who wants to conduct limited operations against an enemy that has very ambitious and expansive goals.

  • 10:17:16

    REHMLimited operations, Yochi?

  • 10:17:19

    DREAZENSo you had this kind of remarkable moment yesterday at the Pentagon where the general who was doing the briefing very bluntly said, this is containment, this is meant to just stop their advances. It's not meant to reverse them in the slightest. So they are actually explicitly now saying, the strategy is to contain, not to destroy. And if you read between the lines, what they're basically saying is, Kurdistan is off limits, the rest of the country, not as much. It's also worth pointing out that right now -- we did a story about this this morning -- the U.S. is saying Maliki has to go.

  • 10:17:48

    DREAZENAnd there are two questions that flow from that. There's a carrot, and there's a stick. The stick is, if you don't go, we cut off aid. The carrot is, if you do go, then we'll expand our military support. We haven't said at all what that expansion would be. If we're saying that the goal right now is containment, but we're also saying that we're willing to expand it, at some point, one of those things has to change.

  • 10:18:07

    DREAZENThe goal gets bigger, or the military support actually isn't what they're saying it might be. The other question is, what's the stick? If the stick is we cut off aid, the only aid we can really cut at this point is fewer American trainers -- we only have 800 as it is -- fewer weapon sales, which are not all that significant as they are. And that's cutting off our nose to spite our face. We want Maliki to beat ISIS. This would be harming his ability to do so.

  • 10:18:28

    REHMYochi Dreazen, he's managing editor for news at Foreign Policy. He's author of the upcoming book "The Invisible Front." Short break here. We'll be right back.

  • 10:20:01

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the latest from Iraq, the difficulties there both politically and militarily, and the difficult choices ahead for the United States. Faysal Itani, we've heard an awful lot about the Yazidis. Tell us who they are and why they're under persecution.

  • 10:20:33

    ITANIWell, these are a relatively small sect basically northwest of Iraq. They are -- they faced near distinction several times throughout their history. And the significant thing about them and the reason they face particular threat is, under strict interpretation of the Islamic Sharia, particularly in ISIS's eyes, they're not people of the book. So they are not Christians or Jews or Muslim. And therefore, unlike the others who can be fit into a framework of Islamic law as effectively second-class citizens, these are outright infidels in the eyes of ISIS. And therefore their blood, if you will, is forfeit. And they do -- the Islamic faith has no obligation to protect them.

  • 10:21:20

    ITANISo they face a particular kind of threat that, for example, ISIS's handling of the Christian population in Mosul was a bit more nuanced and sophisticated, gave them option of retreating or being subjugated. I don't imagine that the Yazidis would have an option like that.

  • 10:21:36

    REHMI don't understand. If you say they are one of the oldest Christian minorities in the world, why does ISIS not consider them to be Christian?

  • 10:21:51

    ITANIThey are not Christian in that classical sense of ISIS's understanding. They -- their religious beliefs and practices predate -- some of them predate Christianity or derive from practices and beliefs that predate Christianity. And obviously, in the eyes of ISIS's worldview, plenty of people who we would consider offshoots of Islam or Christianity would not qualify such.

  • 10:22:16

    REHMSo now how many of them have become refugees?

  • 10:22:21

    ITANII think there's several tens of thousands trapped in that area. I don't have the exact number, but this is not a very large group of people to begin with. So they don't really have a lot of capacity to take losses.

  • 10:22:35


  • 10:22:36

    DREAZENThis group is often derided as devil worshippers. I mean, that's the -- in English. That's also what you hear in Arabic, that they are worshippers of the devil. And part of the reason for that is they're an offshoot of Zoroastrianism. They are in some ways closer to that than they are to any of the religions currently in place today. They are not devil worshippers. But in their belief system, as best it is understood in the West, they believe that there is a god, and there's also a devil that are in constant conflict whose power is roughly the same.

  • 10:23:01

    DREAZENSo it isn't that they believe or worship the devil, but it is that they believe in the devil's existence as a powerful force. So in the eyes of Muslims, the heretics, arguably in the eyes of Jews and Christians, it's also not a monotheistic religion. But this notion that they are devil worshippers, that's the kind of shorthand, and that's the reason why they're seen as alien and other.

  • 10:23:20


  • 10:23:20

    EISENSTADTYeah, I just wanted to bring up, the first time I was on this show was in 1991 after I served in Operation Provide Comfort in northern Iraq in one of the refugee camps there. And we had Yazidis in our camp. And they were often kidded and good-naturedly teased about being devil worshippers. So among the Kurds, it was a source of joshing, but I think among this crowd, ISIS type, this is a death warrant for them that they are the worst kind of polytheists and, you know, either convert or die.

  • 10:23:51

    REHMAnd, Robin, to what extent is U.S. or Iraqi aid actually getting to them as they have fled into the mountains?

  • 10:24:05

    WRIGHTWell, the numbers the Pentagon has released in terms of meals and water are pretty meager. I mean, this is -- remember, this is scorching desert in August, the hottest time of the year. This is a desperate situation where they don't have cover in most cases. And at one point, three days into the aid -- remember the Yazidis had already been up there for a while -- they'd only dropped 74,000 meals. I think that was as of either Sunday night or Monday morning. And with estimates going as high -- some -- you know, 40-, 50-, even 70,000 Yazidis, that's not a lot to save these people.

  • 10:24:39

    WRIGHTAnd the Brits actually suspended aid in part because they weren't able to reach -- there were problems with delivery of the aid flows. But at the end of the day, you know, we focus on this issue of genocide of the Yazidis and the question of Erbil. Is Erbil, in effect, the new Benghazi? Is it trying to protect? But the stakes really are far larger.

  • 10:25:02

    WRIGHTAnd that's the dilemma for the Obama Administration. How far does it go down this road? How -- and Michael's right. You don't -- you know, you do lose a certain amount of control the minute you use force because that gives -- that cedes in effect some of the control to the opposition because they're the ones who are doing battle with you.

  • 10:25:23

    WRIGHTAnd so the Obama Administration, I think, is -- was candid in saying this is something that's not going to end soon, matter of weeks. But I actually think this is crossing a threshold that we could be in again for the long haul and something that, you know, we can see lingering on in some form, not just for this election season but for the presidential season in two years.

  • 10:25:46

    REHMWould you...

  • 10:25:47

    WRIGHTISIS is not going to go away.

  • 10:25:49

    REHMWould you agree with that, Faysal?

  • 10:25:52

    ITANIAbsolutely. And I'd add something else. I think ISIS can certainly live with any U.S. strategy that allows them -- that contains them really to the areas that they see as the core of their nascent state. I mean, this is a state-building enterprise over and above anything else. And as long as they remain secure in parts of Anbar and Nineveh Province, Northeaster Syria, they have no problem with a strategy like this.

  • 10:26:14

    ITANIThey can live with it while they build up their capacity. Their only real vulnerability is to the Sunni population they control within these areas. As long as they can keep the Sunnis subjugated in these areas and they can maintain sort of lines of communication, move men and weapons around, they're fine.

  • 10:26:31

    REHMBut you've heard President Obama say again and again that our involvement will be limited however long term. What does that mean, Yochi?

  • 10:26:46

    DREAZENLimited is such -- it is vague, right, so you can have -- we already have a thousand troops on the ground. You could have 10,000 and still say it's not what it was during the surge. One issue that is not being talked about enough -- airstrikes are only as effective as the intelligence directing where the strike's to go. The U.S. has the personnel, the Kurds do to a small degree, the CIA does.

  • 10:27:05

    DREAZENBut at some point, if these airstrikes need to really do something, you need American personnel on the ground to say, hit this, don't hit that. They're called ATACs. That's the military acronym for air controllers basically who target and relay that information to the planes above or the aircraft or drones above. But you need that. So at a certain point of this sustained campaign really meant to hit ISIS, it simply cannot happen without some measure of American troops closer to front lines.

  • 10:27:30

    REHMMm hmm.

  • 10:27:32

    DREAZENOne other quick thing on ISIS, we continue to be surprised in the West. The Kurds are now being surprised in the north by how good ISIS is and how smart it is as a military force. A week ago, two weeks ago, the conventional wisdom was, they have the center of the country. The Peshmerga are unbeatable. They're going to stop in the center.

  • 10:27:48

    DREAZENNo way will they try to fight the Peshmerga. It turns out the Peshmerga are beatable. ISIS is aiming north, and, within a matter of days, they were within 30 minutes of driving to Erbil. So we continue to think ISIS, in terms of its ambitions, are constrained and in terms of its skills are constrained. And every few days, we discover they're not.

  • 10:28:04


  • 10:28:05

    WRIGHTJust to point out in terms of the timeframe, remember that we had no-fly zones in Iraq for five years. No one would've envisioned that we would've stayed that long. And in the end, we did put boots on the ground anyway. So when we tried to figure out what happens next, how long we might be involved, what it takes, this is something that could play out well into the next presidency.

  • 10:28:28


  • 10:28:29

    EISENSTADTWell, more broadly, I mentioned before, you know, we -- when I was on in '91 -- and I think we'll be dealing with this problem for the rest of our lives. This is a movement that is global in scope in some ways and that what happens -- first of all, it's not just an Iraq problem. It's an Iraq-Syria problem, but it's not just an Iraq and Syria problem.

  • 10:28:46


  • 10:28:49

    EISENSTADTIt's a much larger problem because what happens in this part of the world has great resonance and impact on certain parts of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. And a lot of people are from around -- Muslim communities throughout the world, the more violent and extremist types, are coming to participate in this grand historical event of re-establishing the caliphate. So this will be something that has -- they have a very deep well, you know, to draw resources from. And we will be dealing with this problem for many, many years whether we like it or not.

  • 10:29:25

    REHMIt sounds as though you are all saying that the U.S. is not only going to be dealing with this but involved in this for a lifetime, Yochi.

  • 10:29:42

    DREAZENRight now there's a large push both in England and Australia and elsewhere. The U.S. is trying to find allies to help. The Brits are saying, we'll help with the humanitarian side of it. No way on Earth are we getting involved in combat. So this again becomes a U.S. issue as much as the U.S. wants this to not be U.S. issue. The Turks have a stake in this. They have not yet done anything militarily. The Gulf States have a stake in this. They have not done anything militarily.

  • 10:30:04

    DREAZENSo, for the moment, as seems to be the case for right -- for good or for bad, this is a U.S. issue. ISIS is the strongest best-funded, best-trained, best-armed, best-equipped, largest terror force in the history of the terror movement. There's nothing that remotely compares. It can fund itself. It has an endless flow of new recruits. Right now Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Defense Hagel and Australia, they're talking vaguely about we'll provide more aid if Malaki goes.

  • 10:30:29

    DREAZENIn the Australian newspapers, those photos are being juxtaposed with another photo which is horrific. But if the listeners haven't seen it and are willing to have the stomach to do it, I'd recommend just to get a glimpse of what this is like of an Australian boy holding the severed head of a Syrian soldier. It turned out that not only has this Australian boy moved there to fight, behead Syrians. His father has also left Australia to fight and behead Syrians, Christians, et cetera.

  • 10:30:54

    DREAZENSo the nightmare scenario of Westerners willing to go to fight in large numbers and come back, that isn't simply an American problem. It isn't simply a European problem. It's now an Australian problem. So you're looking at the most powerful terror group in history with lines out to more countries than any terror group in history. This is not ending any time in the near future.

  • 10:31:12


  • 10:31:14

    ITANINo. I totally agree about the magnitude of the threat. I think there's also something that we touched on here, a really deep incongruence of ambition between the group itself and between what the United States perceives the nature of the threat to be, at least under this administration, and what they're willing to do about it and also an inability to understand sort of deep resonance this ISIS project is having among many people worldwide, many Muslims worldwide, certainly not the majority, but a good amount of them, the dignity it offers them, the historical resonance it has because of its tieback to the caliphate and a sense of brotherhood it offers.

  • 10:31:53

    REHMBut here's my confusion. I had heard initially that the ISIS group was relatively small and that, had we gone in with bombs targeting those individuals, we would have been able to contain that group. Now what I'm hearing you say is that it's far larger, far beyond our capacity to contain. And then the question becomes, what is their goal, Robin?

  • 10:32:35

    WRIGHTThere's a lot of armchair quarterbacking and hindsight revisionism about what the United States could've done at any juncture to prevent the growth of ISIS. And the tragedy is that ISIS first gained territory in Syria. And there frankly weren't a whole lot of great options for who to arm in those early days of the uprising against Bashar Assad.

  • 10:32:57

    WRIGHTThe internal opposition was so divided among themselves, and not just secular versus religious. This was even among the seculars. There were problems of political egos. They didn't want to cooperate. They didn't want to come up with a common vision of viable internal government. Again, you were dealing with exiles. It was kind of a problem we had with Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 invasion. And there weren't a lot of popular alternatives, viable alternatives.

  • 10:33:28

    WRIGHTAnd the danger was that ISIS, in a way, filled that vacuum. And I think it's -- you know, we all want to think there was at some point something we could've done, but I'm not sure that's really true. And the greater danger is that the outside world, having seen that -- our failure the last time around in Iraq is not eager to get back in. And as a result, that dumped it in our lap effectively. It's tragic that the rest of the world has been almost speechless about this.

  • 10:33:55

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Faysal, I know you wanted to add something.

  • 10:34:02

    ITANII think we need to be intellectually honest with ourselves. They are a small group. They've been able to succeed simply because their proximate rivals have been so weak among the Sunni community and because the Assad regime was more or less OK with coexisting with them for the first few years of the conflict. I think right now we continue to ridicule or ignore their Sunni opponents who in Syria are already fighting them and have been for a while.

  • 10:34:25

    ITANII would think that they would present an ideal opportunity to build up allies, particularly because any other group that fights ISIS from without the Sunni community is only doing to reinforce their sectarian narrative. And they've done that very effectively.

  • 10:34:39

    REHMMichael Eisenstadt, let's talk about what's going on here in this country, the debate within the administration and even outside the administration comments, for example, from Hillary Clinton who many believe undermined President Obama with her comments. How much dissension is there within the administration about what to do and how?

  • 10:35:10

    EISENSTADTI think that there is a tremendous degree of frustration among mid-level and even senior people about how the administration has been handling this problem. I mean, you know, talking about a related problem, you know, dealing with the, you know, moderate opposition in Syria, we know that all of President Obama's senior advisors, you know, secretary of state, defense, head of the CIA, advocated arming the opposition. And he was the sole, you know, disagree and decider in charge, with the exception of perhaps a couple of his key political advisors.

  • 10:35:43

    EISENSTADTSo he -- I think, you know, he has a campaign promise to keep, and for also reasons of national interest, which I think actually are very good reasons, to be honest with you, he wants to keep the United States out of another war in the Middle East in order to also accomplish his domestic agenda. But the bottom line is -- and not to be a little glib, but I always say, if you don't visit the Middle East, it will visit you. And there is no -- our vital interests are affected by what is going on there. And in the end, the president has seen that he has to, in some way, get involved.

  • 10:36:14

    EISENSTADTI understand Erbil though, but, to be honest with you, I don't understand the Yazidis because we've sat on the sidelines while 170,000 Syrians -- it's mass murder. Whether you want to call it genocide or not, it's still mass murder and mass killings. And yet we didn't act in Syria. And why do we act in the north? I'm glad we're acting in the north of Iraq with the Yazidis, but I would've liked to have seen us more proactive in Syria. So...

  • 10:36:37

    REHMWhat about that?

  • 10:36:39

    DREAZENIt's a great point. I mean, you had one question that was asked not glibly, but when Obama said there was a red line with chemical weapons -- set aside the fact that he then ignored his own red line. But then the question was asked, why is the death of a thousand people through a chemical weapon, as horrific as it is, different in any way from the death of a hundred thousand people from conventional weaponry?

  • 10:36:58

    DREAZENAnd, you know, this isn't simply Monday morning quarterbacking. As Michael said, you had this debate at the time. It is a fair question to ask and will be asked probably for decades. Had the U.S. armed moderate rebels before the rise of ISIS, would this have played differently? That's the debate we're beginning to see, and that debate won't end.

  • 10:37:13

    REHMYochi Dreazen, Faysal Itani, Michael Eisenstadt, Robin Wright, they're all here to answer your questions, your comments when we come back.

  • 10:40:01

    REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about the ongoing crisis in Iraq and the U.S. response. Here's an email from Jonathan: "Are these limited airstrikes a mistake? Specifically, have we simply driven ISIS to the ground and spread them out? Would we have better to conduct a more aggressive air campaign that could be followed up by Kurdish and Iraqi ground troops?" Yochi?

  • 10:40:40

    DREAZENI mean, the strategy, very clearly, I see something on the Libya model, where the West provides the air force, indigenous forces are the ground forces. And that's the hope. When you talk to the Kurds, the question obviously is the Peshmerga, the great name, those who face death or thought to be invincible, how have they lost? What they say back is, we don't have the weapons, and we have this massive front line where ISIS pops up in Village X. We go there, and they pop in Village Y.

  • 10:41:03

    DREAZENWe go there. And they just simply can't afford to defend this whole multi-hundred-mile stretch. But, you know, you and I have talked about -- others have made the point -- that the time to hit ISIS was when they were still moving and consolidating, when they had masked convoys moving all over central and northern Iraq -- well, they're now entrenched.

  • 10:41:19


  • 10:41:20

    DREAZENAnd they're in civilian areas. We don't have people on the ground to say this mosque is a target, this one isn't. Hitting an entrenched force, you know -- whoever sent the email is exactly right -- is extraordinarily hard.

  • 10:41:31

    REHMAnd here's something we were talking about during the break, an email from Douglas, who says, "I felt 12 years ago that pursuit of War on Terror would surely create more terrorists than it could possibly remove. I have not heard the question addressed. Will these terrorists come here?" Michael?

  • 10:41:59

    EISENSTADTFirst of all, some of the people fighting there are from here. So there's -- you know, again, the intelligence community is estimating that there's about 100 Americans perhaps and 1,000 Europeans. And when they come home -- unless we know about them -- and some of them, I'm sure, are going to be watched, but some of them will probably escape the dragnet. And Europeans -- we have visa waiver program so that people with E.U. passports can come here without a visa. And that makes it even more complicated. So it will be coming home to roost eventually, I think.

  • 10:42:32

    REHMWould you agree, Faysal?

  • 10:42:35

    ITANIYeah, no. I think there's a valid concern about backlash for the War on Terror. But there is something a bit different. I mean, this -- not everything is about U.S. policy. This is a locally-based movement, based on Muslim grievances stemming from the dysfunction of the Arab-Muslim world. These grievances would be there with or without U.S. policy. So I don't think it's a question of U.S. disengagement, as unpopular as it is to say. I think it's a question of getting politics right in this part of the world and creating fair and prosperous political order.

  • 10:43:04

    REHMBut suppose the U.S. got out completely. Then what?

  • 10:43:11

    ITANIThen we see exactly what has just happened in Syria and Iraq over the past four years because the United States did very little there.

  • 10:43:17

    REHMAnd then what?

  • 10:43:19

    ITANIAnd then we could project forward from the situation we are right now -- that we're in right now. ISIS manages to build a quasi-state in northeastern Syria and critical parts of Iraq. They hang on to strategic assets. They continue to attract recruits from their sort of unending success story that they presented to the Muslim world. And therefore -- I think I agree with Mike -- it's something we're going to be dealing with for another generation at least.

  • 10:43:45

    REHMRobin, how do you see the and then what?

  • 10:43:50

    WRIGHTWell, look, I'm worried about the unintended consequences. I mean, we have now been involved in Iraq for a quarter century. It's hard to believe that it goes back that far. And it shows you the most important lesson. Once you get involved, you're stuck there, even if you pull out. I mean, look at Afghanistan. We, again, were involved against -- in arming the Mujahideen against the Soviets. And, you know, we pulled out there, and you saw the collapse of the state into warlord-ism and the rise of the Taliban in response to the power vacuum.

  • 10:44:21

    WRIGHTAnd then we had to go back in against the Taliban. That -- you create a cycle. And one thing that's important to remember, there was no al-Qaida in Iraq before the U.S. invention. There was on Hezbollah in Lebanon before the Israeli invasion in 1982. The unintended consequences of intervention often end up creating a greater problem down the road. And that's why the use of force has to be done in measured, thoughtful ways that have an exit strategy.

  • 10:44:48

    WRIGHTAnd one of the things that Obama has not yet addressed is, what is our strategy? What is -- what exactly are we trying to achieve? We went from mission slip within 24 hours. He said we were into help the Yazidis, prevent genocide and to Erbil. And then, within 24 hours, we're bombing ISIS. And that is a moment that will be perceived by ISIS as our mission, is now either trying to destroy them or to confront them.

  • 10:45:16

    REHMAll right.

  • 10:45:17

    WRIGHTWhatever we say about trying only to contain them.

  • 10:45:20

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Omi, you're on the air.

  • 10:45:27

    OMIMy question is what are the -- if ISIS expands, what are the implications for Israel? Let's say ISIS expands into Jordan or if they take over Syria completely. Whoever controls Syria controls Lebanon. And I would imagine that the Lebanese would beg Israel to take over just to keep ISIS out of the way. Are we seeing a situation in which, if ISIS expands, Israel will be forced to expand its borders just to keep ISIS as far away from its local population?

  • 10:45:59


  • 10:46:00

    DREAZENI think expanding its borders is unlikely. I think expanding its support for countries, particularly like Jordan, is highly likely. I mean, what we're seeing here and on Iran is this really extraordinary alliance in everything but name between Israel and pretty much all of the Gulf, with the exception of Qatar. Israel and the Emirates, Israel and the Saudis, Israel, to a degree, with the Bahranis. They do not want the Muslim Brotherhood. They do not want ISIS. And there is real fear that Jordan will collapse.

  • 10:46:25

    DREAZENSo you have already tens of billions of dollars flowing into Jordan, tens of billions of dollars flowing in Egypt. So this notion of Israel might taking -- take over Lebanon, the Lebanese welcoming Israel in, I think is hard to picture. The notion that Israel and its allies in the Gulf do something, even if it's mostly financial, I think is a near certainty.

  • 10:46:42

    REHMAll right. To Ahmed, in Cincinnati, Ohio. You're on the air.

  • 10:46:49

    AHMEDYes, I'm here.

  • 10:46:51

    REHMGo right ahead, sir.

  • 10:46:53

    AHMEDOK. Yeah, I have just two comments. One of them is about, you know, the peaceful transition that Iraq has been witnessing in the last eight years which were very peaceful. I heard one of the guests talking about, you know, how Maliki has (unintelligible), and it might be difficult to, you know, it might create a kind of chaos in the middle of that.

  • 10:47:16

    AHMEDBut I don't think this would be a possibility because I think the militias that the guest was talking about and Maliki has the ability to move them is not correct because being Iraqi, I understand that those militias, which actually they call the Public Defense Forces, were called by (unintelligible). And they were only called to fight ISIS, not to support Maliki or, you know, any other kind of people. I also think that Maliki has done a lot of good thing to Iraq. And he has saved Iraq in 2008. And he was very much cooperative with the U.S. So I think there will be a…

  • 10:47:58

    REHMAll right.

  • 10:47:59

    AHMED…another peaceful transition of power. The other comment is about nobody is talking about the SOFA, the strategic care agreement between Iraq and the U.S. Because this agreement has been signed in 2009 and according to the agreement that U.S. should assist Iraq when exposed to danger. And I don't there is a bigger danger than ISIS nowadays.

  • 10:48:21

    REHMAll right. Michael Eisenstadt?

  • 10:48:24

    EISENSTADTI hope there will be a peaceful transition, but whenever you have a situation like this where you have both an army as well as militias that are not under government control and do not respond to the government, there is the potential for violence. So I hope you are right, but we just don't know. In terms of the -- I think you were referring to the strategic agreement between the United States and Iraq.

  • 10:48:49

    EISENSTADTAnd, yes, it does entail cooperation to deal with mutual threats. And I suspect, in a certain way, that's part of the justification for our being involved. But it's clear that the United States does have shared interests with the government of Iraq to deal with ISIS. And that's why we are involved. So we are acting on the basis of that agreement.

  • 10:49:11

    REHMAll right. To Gabriel in Portsmouth, N.H. You're on the air.

  • 10:49:18

    GABRIELHi, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 10:49:19


  • 10:49:19

    GABRIELAnd thank you to all your guests.

  • 10:49:20

    REHMThank you.

  • 10:49:21

    GABRIELI heard from a report just from a friend that there was some really bad things going on in Mosul that sounded like they were starting on genocide, I mean, chopping of kids' heads off, of Christians. And then I went on -- the only thing I saw online was on Catholic Online. I don't know if those are legitimate reports, but it seems scary that these were -- things are going on and that you guys are talking about how Mosul is relatively -- how ISIS is sort of normal there, everything's OK there. But it sounds like they're putting kids' heads on pikes in the central (unintelligible).

  • 10:49:53

    REHMAll right. Now, hold on. Let's see whether anyone has heard anything of that. Yochi?

  • 10:50:00

    DREAZENYeah, there have been videos and pictures posted -- in some cases, the authenticity is hard to verify -- of people being crucified. There are videos of people being -- in one case a Christian man being forced to convert. Right after he converts, he's then beheaded. I don't think there's any question of mass atrocities being committed against Christians. Whether you're talking about tens of thousands, thousands, hundreds, there's no question that the caller is correct. There is horrific violence being visited on Christians across northern Iraq.

  • 10:50:27

    REHMAs we look both back and ahead, Michael, what do you see as the Obama administration's choices?

  • 10:50:40

    EISENSTADTWell, I'd like to just to build on something that -- if I -- Robin said and some of…

  • 10:50:44


  • 10:50:44

    EISENSTADT…the other speakers said. I mean, I think we face a catch 22 in a way because when we get involved, as Robin mentioned before, it does become a recruiting device for groups like ISIS and the like. On the other hand, our not being involved created the situation where ISIS was able to grow stronger, and, in a way, they've become what Osama bin Laden used to call the strong horse.

  • 10:51:11

    EISENSTADTAnd that's why so many people are flocking to them. One reason they've been able to grow so much recently is they've been able to co-opt a lot of the other Islamist groups in Syria that were not originally aligned with them. But they see ISIS as the up and coming, you know, force, and they all want to hitch their wagons to the ISIS…

  • 10:51:29

    REHMIs it true that even Iran is frightened of ISIS?

  • 10:51:36

    EISENSTADTI have no doubt. And for them, what happened as well was a strategic setback because now they have practically on their border this organization, which their whole -- the reason for their hostility to the government in Baghdad is they call them Safavids. They call them the Persian Shiite government in Baghdad.

  • 10:51:55

    EISENSTADTAnd they've already said that they're, you know, they have their sights set on Iran. Iran has a Salafist problem of its own among its Sunni minority in Baluchestan, in Khuzestan, among the Kurds to some extent. It's very small, but I think they are worried that this will have implications for Sunnis living in Iran as well.

  • 10:52:14


  • 10:52:15

    WRIGHTOne of the most striking things I heard when I was in Tehran recently was from the ringleader of the takeover of the U.S. embassy, who could only talk about today's common mission between Iran and America, in fighting off ISIS. And, you know, it's true that Iran and the United States share a fear of this Salafi extremism that is sweeping across the region and is -- the Iranians now feel that this force in general, the Salafis in lots of different forms are circling their borders.

  • 10:52:49

    WRIGHTBut what's striking is the fact that it's not just the numbers because the numbers actually of ISIS are comparatively small. You have 400,000 people who were in the Iraqi Army and a million, if you include the various domestic security forces, police and so forth. And these numbers are -- in ISIS are only somewhere, 20,000, maybe a little bit more. But they have three very effective tactics, one is creating fear. And fear is the biggest weapon of them all.

  • 10:53:21

    WRIGHTThat's why the Yazidis fled. It wasn't, you know, they had not faced the kind of persecution others -- but there was a momentum of fear, the psychology of being the strong man and the winning force in the region. And that's what's likely to attract them. It's not just their ruthlessness and their fighting -- their willingness to be martyrs in droves. It's all of it. It's a package that terrifies us this far away.

  • 10:53:48

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." There is no question that fear is a powerful weapon. You mention that there were three things, Robin.

  • 10:54:01

    WRIGHTWell, I meant the fear, the psychology, and the momentum. You put those three together, they're far more important. And the irony is -- the fourth factor is we're fighting our own equipment. The fact is ISIS captured the equipment left behind by four divisions of the Iraqi Army that defected or that fled. And so we're basically bombing our very own stuff.

  • 10:54:23

    REHMAll right. To Martin in Quincy, Mass. You're on the air.

  • 10:54:29

    MARTINHi, Diane. I have a question for all of your panelists and you and everyone. What percentage of the global 1.5 million Muslim population believes that beheading infidels is a good idea?

  • 10:54:44

    REHMCan anyone answer that? Faysal?

  • 10:54:48

    ITANII'll venture a guess based on the many Muslims I know, growing up in the Middle East, very, very few. But I think the question isn't as important as who shares that ideology, has the means to actually carry it out. How many people do you need to do a lot of damage in a part of the world that's already riven with sectarian tension, where states are collapsing? You need a few thousand, maybe perhaps even a few hundred to carry out the actions. And everybody loves a winner, so people are going to hop on board and make their peace and come to terms with a group like that if they're succeeding.

  • 10:55:19

    REHMFaysal, from your perspective, what is the best action that the U.S. could take now?

  • 10:55:27

    ITANII think what it shouldn't do is try to conflate this problem with a common interest with Iran. Iran is going to do and has been doing what it wants anyway in Syria and Iraq, with or without our participation. And their role in building political orders in the Levant base on indefinite repression of Sunnis is exact -- is the actual cause of this problem.

  • 10:55:47

    ITANIOur answer can only lie in a Sunni military and political mobilization against ISIS. Those are the only people who have this answer. And as long as we continue to ignore them and concentrate on Maliki and concentrate only on the Kurds -- although they are worth helping as well -- then we are only going to indefinitely recreate the problem.

  • 10:56:03


  • 10:56:04

    EISENSTADTLet me just build on that. I think partnering with Iran would sound the death knell of any effort to try to build up a critical mass among the Sunnis to fight ISIS. So…

  • 10:56:14

    REHMBut aren't we reaching out diplomatically to Iran on other areas?

  • 10:56:20

    EISENSTADTWell, I would just say, first of all, in terms of government formation, I think we're probably -- have been working in -- on parallel paths. So I think that's an area where our interests have converged, and probably we -- I doubt we've been coordinating with them, but I suspect we've been operating along the same path here.

  • 10:56:38

    EISENSTADTBut, you know, I just wanted to say that, you know, it's important to also recognize that ISIS has its vulnerabilities. They were a rich terrorist group, but I think they're not a rich state because it costs a lot of money, billions, to run a state. And I don't think they have that money. That's a potential vulnerability.

  • 10:56:54

    REHMAll right. We'll have to leave it there. Michael Eisenstadt, Yochi Dreazen, Faysal Itani, and Robin Wright, thank you all for joining us.

  • 10:57:07

    EISENSTADTThanks, Diane.

  • 10:57:07

    WRIGHTThank you.

  • 10:57:07

    DREAZENThank you.

  • 10:57:08

    REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 10:57:12

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Denise Couture, Susan Casey, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn, Danielle Knight, Alison Brody, and Alexandra Botti. The engineer is Timothy Olmstead. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts and podcasts. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is drshow@wamu.org, and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington, D.C. This is NPR.

Topics + Tags

Most Recent Shows

A Push To Improve America’s Nursing Homes

Thursday, Sep 28 2023The Biden administration has released a proposal  to raise standards in nursing homes. Why one expert calls it the most significant development for the industry in decades -- and why it might still not be enough.