After a week of mixed messages from the U.S. intelligence community about Russia's plans to influence the 2020 election, Diane talks to Shane Harris of the Washington Post what's really going on.
Guest Host: Susan Page
President Barack Obama will outline his strategy for fighting the Islamic State, or ISIS, tomorrow in a televised address to the American people. Today, he’s conferring with congressional leaders. The White House has been criticized by some for not taking quicker, stronger action against the extremist group responsible for beheading two American journalists. Secretary of State John Kerry is traveling to the Middle East to bring partners into the fight, saying every country has a role in eliminating the threat of ISIS. In Baghdad, parliament just formed a new government, but it’s not clear what role the Iraqis can play in defeating ISIS. Guest host Susan Page will talk with experts on the Middle East, terrorism and domestic politics.
- Michael Eisenstadt Senior fellow and director, military and security studies program, Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
- Nora Bensahel Senior fellow and co-director of the Responsible Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security.
- Siobhan Gorman Intelligence correspondent, The Wall Street Journal.
- Ed O'Keefe Congressional reporter, The Washington Post.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a voice treatment. She'll be back later this month. This week, President Obama is presenting his strategy to fight the extremist group called ISIS. The president will try to sell his plan to Congress and the American public. Polls show most Americans support air strikes, but do not want U.S. combat troops involved in the fight.
MS. SUSAN PAGEHow to deal with this emerging threat has become a political minefield in the midterm elections. Joining me in the studio to talk about Obama's strategy and the battles ahead, Michael Eisenstadt of The Washington Institute, Nora Bensahel of the Center For A New American Security and Siobhan Gorman of The Wall Street Journal. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. MICHAEL EISENSTADTGood morning.
MS. NORA BENSAHELGood to be with you.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. Our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email at email@example.com. Find us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Well, Siobhan Gorman, President Obama famously, about two weeks ago, said I don't have a strategy yet on ISIS. Does he have a strategy now?
MS. SIOBHAN GORMANWell, I think the White House was quick to clarify that he meant that he didn't have a strategy on Syria and ever since he made that statement, they've been trying to sort of explain and re-explain at least what the outlines of their strategy are. I think it's certainly fair to say it's nascent. You know, what they describe is a lot of different components. It's not quite clear to me, at this point, how they're all going to come together.
MS. SIOBHAN GORMANAnd the biggest one, sort of how robust a role the U.S. military plays remains undecided.
PAGESo Michael Eisenstadt, what do you make of the president's -- nascent, that, I guess, means not fully...
GORMANNot fully developed yet.
PAGEIs that a surprise to you, Michael Eisenstadt?
EISENSTADTWell, look, strategies are always a work in progress. And it was a surprise that, by now, we didn't have a strategy to deal with ISIS, but to be fair, this is, perhaps, one of the hardest problems that any administration in recent memory has been dealing with, merely because it occurs against the background of a region that is roiling. And inherently, the problem posed by ISIS is a very complex one because these are inherently organizations that have a great deal of resilience and you can't expect that you're gonna actually destroy them by the end of the day.
EISENSTADTAnd the president has even said that they'll probably be remnants and that's very unsatisfying. But in terms of partners on the ground to work with, in terms of the targeting challenges, there's all kinds of challenges that ISIS poses that there are no obvious answers to. So it's not surprising that, even when he has a strategy, there will be a lot of problems in implementation.
PAGEEven so, Nora, I wonder if you were surprised when the president made that statement because I've covered the White House since 1980. That's a statement, I think, I believe I've never heard a president say before, even in situations where the situation's really difficult, the policy is a work in progress. It seems like an unusual thing for a president to acknowledge.
BENSAHELI think it is and I'm sure he regrets saying that because that's what, you know, a lot of the media coverage has been and he opened himself up for a tremendous amount of criticism from the Hill, lawmakers from both parties. I think what that was reflecting was that the situation has been changing and evolving. Folks inside the government who track these kinds of threats have known for a long time about ISIS, about its roots and about the threats it was posing.
BENSAHELBut, you know, the statement that President Obama made came after -- I believe it was after the beheadings of the first journalist, not the second one quite yet, and that really marked a phase change in how the United States calculates its interests, how it looks at the situation, how the American people respond. The figure you gave at the outset about the majority of people supporting strikes against ISIS in Iraq now, over 70 percent according to two polls, you know, that was 54 percent three weeks ago.
BENSAHELSo it's happened very rapidly in terms of changing American public view and I think the administration's view of the urgency of the situation and the need to rally a coalition together because of recent developments.
PAGESiobhan, do you agree with that, that just this brutal video now followed by a second video of the beheading of two American journalists, did that change both public attitudes, as we've seen in the poll, but also the calculation of U.S. interests, as Nora said?
GORMANVery much so. I mean, I was talking with someone -- I've talked with folks both inside the U.S. government, you know, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere and I was speaking with one person who specifically said it has changed the calculus, that the beheading of James Foley, 'cause this was a conversation before, unfortunately, Steve Sotloff was also beheaded, the video came out, they've been very clear that it completely changed their calculus.
GORMANAnd what's interesting about it is that, at least in our reporting, we were told that the administration actually one of the reasons why they pursued the rescue mission was that they saw the probability that they were going to be launching air strikes in Iraq on ISIS and they thought that there was quite a strong chance that especially American hostages would be killed if the U.S. sort of stepped it up with air strikes. And unfortunately, that was the case.
PAGEThe Wall Street Journal had a story yesterday that talked about why that rescue mission failed. Why did it fail?
GORMANWell, I mean, it was a hugely calculated risk. It was very risky, particularly because they had major intelligence gaps. They weren't doing the kind of persistent surveillance that the U.S. has done in other counterterrorism operations beforehand. They didn't have the 24/7 surveillance so they were going in without all that much information about what they were going to face and it turned out, among other things, that the hostages had been moved probably somewhere between a week and 72 days before they got there.
PAGEWere they moved because their captors knew that there was a rescue mission coming or just as a matter of moving them around?
GORMANThe folks inside the U.S. government aren't quite sure yet. They're still looking into that, but what I was told was that the thinking is that they probably were not tipped up, that they were moved for some other reason.
PAGEI know I feel, as a journalist, I'm sure you feel the same way, that -- just incredible grief at the sight of these brutal beheadings of journalists who were on the ground just to do their jobs. Michael Eisenstadt, the president says he has the authorization to move ahead, but he also says he wants buy-in from Congress. Can he move ahead without Congress, signing on? What's the situation there in terms of his authority to move ahead with more military action?
EISENSTADTWell, I assume that Congress -- it's very clear Congress wants to be consulted on this, but I'm not sure they actually want to vote because going for a vote for an authorization vote is potentially very dangerous because there's the possibility of failure or the possibility of terms that would handcuff the administration. So I think the president wants to tread a very narrow line or a fine line between getting Congressional buy-in, which is extremely important.
EISENSTADTI mean, from his point of view, it's very important, to put it cynically, to politically implicate Congress in any military action he takes in order to insure that they're on board because they are one of the main potential sources of, you know, criticism of any policy he'll embark on. On the other hand, he doesn't want to allow them to handcuff him.
PAGEHe says he wants buy-in. Nora, what does buy-in mean?
BENSAHELWell, it's obviously not a legal term. It's very different from authorization. I think he wants some amount of political support, exactly as was just said, so that there's some skin in the game from Congress, too. But I don't think that he's particularly seeking an authorization of military force for all of the reasons just mentioned and, frankly, I don't think Congress wants to vote on it, either. That puts them in a tenuous situation before the midterm elections precisely because it would increase, you know, their stake in what happens in the next eight weeks.
BENSAHELSo both sides may find it, you know, convenient to hold talks and consult and for, you know, individual members of Congress to say, you know, yes, we generally support what the president is doing or at least not criticize him for what he's doing without taking a formal vote.
GORMANWell, I think also buy-in also means, literally, buying in, you know. He's asking for $500 million toward counterterrorism, military counterterrorism operations in Syria. And if we're talking about what could be, you know, a multi-year endeavor, this is going to require sustained funding from Congress as well and, you know, certainly we saw the funding bills in previous, you know, conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, you know, that often sort of set up major debates on the Hill.
PAGENora mentioned some of the polling that's showed broad support for the idea of air strikes on ISIS. The poll, some of these polls, including a new CNN or C-International poll showed that 7 in 10 Americans believe ISIS has the resources to launch an attack against the United States. Is that right, Michael? Could they pose that kind of threat to Americans on American soil?
EISENSTADTWell, look, I think it's quite possible that individuals associated with ISIS could come back. And we've already seen in Europe where an individual, French individual, committed a murder in the Jewish museum in Belgium. So I think we could see these kind of operations conducted by individuals who receive military training over there and have returned. But in terms of the ability of the organization to pull off a 9/11-like attack or the kind of attacks we've seen in Spain and the UK, they've not, at least until now, shown that they have the kind of logistical capability to pull that off.
EISENSTADTKeep in mind that al-Qaida pulled that off, 9/11, after years of doing similar operations elsewhere where they build up skills and capabilities. Now, it's possible that ISIS could partner with other groups, such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, who have tried to conduct attacks on the homeland in the past, but there's no sign they've done that yet. And right now, in the -- until now, they've prioritized operations in the Middle East to operations against the United States, although now that we are, in effect, at war with them, that could change.
BENSAHELThe threat right now is much greater to our allies in Europe than it is directly to the United States. The individuals that Michael was talking about are these foreign fighters who have joined the fight in Syria and in Iraq, an estimate of about 2,000 to 3,000 people holding Western and American passports out of about the 12,000 estimated fighters in ISIS. The vast majority of those, though, are European passport holders. The United States government originally said there were about 100 U.S. foreign fighters.
BENSAHELThat number has gone up and down. Most recently, they've said that number is wrong, there were only 12. So in terms of the difficulty of coming to the United States, it's still -- it's definitely there. There is still a possibility, especially as U.S. military action increases. But our European allies are more immediately worried than we are right now, I think.
GORMANYeah, the numbers are interesting, but I think the folks who generate them also admit that they're very, very squishy. And speaking with folks on the British side, for example, they estimate that about 500 of their folks have gone to Syria in general and about 250 have come back. On the American side, it's, I think, more than 100 that have gone to Syria and roughly a dozen that have gone specifically to ISIS.
PAGEWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk to a correspondent on Capitol Hill about what the attitudes are there before the president's speech and as the president confers with Congressional leaders today. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And I'm joined in the studio by Michael Eisenstadt. He's senior fellow and director of military and security studies program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And Nora Bensahel. She's senior fellow and co-director of the Responsible Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. And Siobhan Gorman, the intelligence correspondent at the Wall Street Journal.
PAGEAnd now we're joined from Capitol Hill by Ed O'Keefe. He covers Congress for the Washington Post. Ed, thanks so much for joining us.
MR. ED O'KEEFEGreat to be with you, Susan.
PAGESo tell me, the president is meeting today with Congressional leaders. What is their attitude as he prepares to detail his strategy toward ISIS?
O'KEEFESo far they prefer to sort of not detail their attitude until they meet with the president and hear what he has to say. There's been a lot of sort of noncommittal behavior up here so far this morning. Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor saying the president needs to lay out a strategy. John Boehner has told reporters this morning that he's sort of waiting to see what the president has to say as well before decided whether or not anything should happen.
O'KEEFEBut we can -- we know, having talked to senior House and Senate aids, that they're not anticipating up here that the president is going to be asking for any more formal authority to go into Iraq or Syria, sort of falling back on his comments from over the weekend to Meet the Press, that he has the authority whenever needed to go out and protect Americans.
O'KEEFEThere are some though up here that have been saying, look, we probably should, at some point if this is going to be a prolonged exercise, give him some more authority to continue these military operations into both countries. Of course I think the general sentiment would be though, let's wait and do that after the elections and not before.
PAGESo there is a general agreement that they don't want to have a vote -- the White House doesn't want to ask for a vote for the authority to move forward, is that right?
O'KEEFEThat is right.
PAGEWe shouldn't expect that debate.
O'KEEFEThat is right. Not only because the elections are so close but also because, you know, there's -- well, primarily because the elections are so close, but also because the White House, or folks over there at least, believe that he doesn't necessarily need to come to them at this point for the authority. And if that's the case, it looks like a majority of lawmakers agree with him, that he can continue doing this.
PAGEAnd the president says he wants buy-in from Congress. We've been talking about what that means. One thing it might mean is money. Is Congress likely to appropriate more money for these actions?
O'KEEFEYeah, that remains unclear as well. They've got to pass a short-term spending bill to keep the federal government open when the new fiscal year begins October 1. And as of yet there's been no serious discussion about doing that. Instead it's expected that they would just continue spending at the current levels and return to the issue at some point in December before the holidays. Now by then the conditions might've changed. Perhaps there will be a need for more funding, it would come up then. But otherwise, so far this week -- and remember it's only Tuesday -- there has been no serious discussion about that.
PAGEAnd tell us who exactly is the president meeting with today?
O'KEEFEHe'll be meeting with House Speaker John Boehner and the Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the big four, as they're known up here. It's a 3:15 or so Oval Office meeting. We'll see what they have to say when they get back from that but I would suspect that if they don't hear detail from him on what exactly he's thinking, that it's going to bring a lot of consternation, not only to Republicans but also Democrats.
O'KEEFEBecause remember, while Republicans are more than willing to support him, they're saying that they need to see some kind of a detailed strategy in order to do that. Democrats, in the meantime, want to see a strategy because they want to know that we're not heading into another open-ended commitment or some kind of mission creep that might lead to a more intensified and expanded military campaign into those two countries.
O'KEEFERemember we have a poll out this morning at the Washington Post that says 71 percent of Americans support airstrikes. About 50 -- low 50 percent support airstrikes into Syria. But when you ask about things like ground troops, the number starts to drop. And I think lawmakers are very wary of that, especially following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and frankly, the approaching 9/11 anniversary.
PAGEAs is President Obama, he has indicated he doesn't plan to send U.S. ground troops there. I wonder, Nora, to what degree does this feeling of kind of war weariness by a lot of Americans in the wake of the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to what degree does that affect what the United States is willing to do in this situation?
BENSAHELI think because the situation has changed and there now is so much public support for taking action, that the Obama Administration has more room to maneuver on this issue than it perhaps had before. But that is the big concern, you know, that explains why people don't want to become engaged in another long war in the Middle East from their perspective.
BENSAHELAnd I think it's one of the reasons why the president has gone to such great pains to say that there will be no ground combat forces. There might still be some advisors and special operations forces. We see that today. But, you know, to emphasize that so that it is not the same in the American public's view as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan of the past decade.
PAGEWell, we talk about the president having more negotiating, more running room because the public sees this as a big threat. But I wonder to what degree his own war weariness is reflected. I mean, he has been very reluctant to use military force, even when his secretary of state, his defense secretary are urging him to do so.
EISENSTADTYeah, I mean, I think there will be two things that will shape more than anything else the nature of the forthcoming campaign. First of all, it's the president's own weariness and his own reticence. And I think he has -- as a result of the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has a great deal of -- he doesn't see military power as providing a solution to the problems of this region.
EISENSTADTSecondly, it's regional dynamics. We've learned from our experiences in Iraq twice in '91 and 2003, that even if you win big, the results are only short-lived. And therefore it's not worth investing a lot of blood and treasure in advancing our interests there. We have to advance our interests there and we have to do what's necessary in order to blunt ISIS, to constrain it and to limit it. But if you look at what he says, he says there will be remnants even at the end of the day.
EISENSTADTSo for results that are not absolute, that are -- that will be unsatisfying for much of the American public, I think he's reluctant because of his, you know, suspicion of what American military power can accomplish and the nature of the problem. He's reluctant to devote a lot of blood and treasury to this anyhow.
PAGEYou know, a very tough piece though by David Remnick in the New Yorker this week, David Remnick who's been not unfriendly to President Obama, had a big interview with him last year. But in the new addition of the New Yorker talks about President Obama projecting a sense of weakness when he discusses these issues. Siobhan, has that emerged as a problem for the president, this perception that he's not a strong leader?
GORMANWell, it certainly emerged as a main line of criticism, particularly from Republicans on Capitol Hill. I mean, Senators McCain and Graham, I think, have really pushed that particular issue. I think what you're seen from Republicans is just growing frustration over the last three years because a lot of them have been pushing for action for years at this point. And what's interesting is just to see how much the president's sort of language on this has shifted, even over the last few months.
GORMANI mean, you know, I'm not sure that we would've expected two months ago that President Obama at this point would be talking about wanting to dismantle and destroy ISIS. Because destruction is a major long-term commitment.
EISENSTADTAnd I think a lot of people also point out that some of the problems they're facing now in Ukraine and visa vie China are at least in part due to the perception of weakness of U.S. policy in the Middle East. So any effort to short up U.S. position globally has to start at least with the crisis of the day, which is ISIL now.
PAGESo degrading ISIS seems entirely doable. Destroying ISIS seems like quite the task. Nora, is that a realistic goal for the United States to set?
BENSAHELIt's not realistic in the short term. You know, to the extent that that is a U.S. objective, it's going to be a very long-term campaign indeed because that involves a whole variety of things that go well beyond the issues of military power we're talking about here today. Military power will certainly be an important part of it but it also involves the diplomatic coalition to do things like cut off sources of external financing. ISIS is quite a wealthy group but in order for them to scale up their operations, the sources of money that they get from oil smuggling and assistance from other countries becomes very important.
PAGEAnd through ransoms for the people that they've kidnapped, Michael.
EISENSTADTLook, I think this is one of the reasons for the president reticence. We defeated al-Qaida in Iraq and it returned in different form as ISIS. And as a result, we have the ability to defeat and destroy ISIS but we can't destroy the ideology. And it's likely that even after we defeat ISIS, it will morph and reemerge as another group because this ideology, this Jihadist ideology is deeply imbedded in the region. It's been disseminated through social media on the internet.
EISENSTADTAnd as a result there is really no end to this war. There is not exit strategy and Americans don't want to hear that. This is something that will be around for decades to come, if not longer.
PAGEAnd certainly for the rest of President Obama's tenure in the White House. Siobhan.
GORMANWell, and it's also just sort of this group itself represents kind of a real tale of caution. I mean, intelligence estimates had the size of the group in 2011 when the U.S. left Iraq at 500 to 1,000 fighters. And at this point they now say it's past 10,000, which is what it was probably roughly at the height of the Iraq war in 2007. So these guys can buy their time and rebuild and come back, you know, over a fairly short span of years.
PAGEEd, you know, there's a tradition in American politics, often not observed now, of partisanship stopping at the water's edge, that when it come to national security and foreign policy issues, American will unite behind a president, especially at a time of crisis and challenge. And I wonder, do you think that when -- after the president delivers this speech tomorrow night, will Congress at least, for a time, be supportive?
O'KEEFEI think they will be if he is seen to be presenting some kind of specific ideas on what exactly he's going to do. Obviously he doesn't want to show his cards too much for the sake of military strategy but if he just speaks in platitudes and generalizations and doesn't really suggest to be saying anything new, I think you're going to not see -- you're going to see Republicans not hesitate to perhaps needle him a bit more for not delivering on a little more of his strategy.
O'KEEFEJust looking at the rhetoric in the last few days, I mean, the Republicans have said, we are willing to support him but we've got to see some specifics. And, you know, this has been a president who in the past hasn't necessarily done that. And I think if he does, and especially considering his unpopularity in general, that there will not be hesitancy in perhaps needling him a little more.
PAGESo we're going to go to the phones now. But first I'm going to raise a question that a number of listeners have asked about. Here's one of them who reached us on Twitter. "Why does the administration insist on referring to them as ISIL when everyone else used ISIS?" Nora, what's the answer to that?
BENSAHELIt is the more technically correct version of their name.
BENSAHELThe Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant as opposed to in Syria. There's -- because of the dynamics and the history of the group, as I said, it's more technically direct. It also has to do with some translations from Arabic.
EISENSTADTAnd I think they don't want to also advance their brand. By calling them the Islamic State, they believe that resonates among the Jihadist audience that they try to appeal to. So by giving them -- calling them this name, which is a foreign appellation, they're not kind of playing their -- you know, kind of playing to their propaganda efforts.
PAGESo Siobhan, what are you calling them at the Wall Street Journal?
GORMANWe call them the group that is calling itself the Islamic State or we call them Islamic State militants. It was funny actually. Last week the director of the National Counterterrorism Center got together with a relatively small group of supporters. And the question came up of, you know, this nomenclature issue. And Matt Olsen of NCTC said, I don't think you'll ever see the U.S. calling them the Islamic State. That gives them too much credibility.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, our toll free number 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Well, let's go to Rema calling us from Cleveland. Rema, thanks so much for joining us.
REMAThank you for taking my call. I am actually calling because I am a Muslim and I'm outraged about these people calling themselves Muslims. I am actually so upset about how they are using Islam to slaughter people, and even Muslims. These are animals and they need to be taken care of. And we need to take care of them and eradicate them.
REMAThe second thing we need to do is to really find democracy in the Middle East, the true democracy. What happened in Iraq in 2003, we left Iraq in shambles. We handed Iraq to Iran on a silver platter and the injustice, and there was no democracy in Iraq when we left. The same thing happened in Syria. We had the opportunity in Syria to go in and really show the world how we care about democracy. But instead we let Assad slaughter his own people for three-and-a-half years, and we didn't do anything. We promised we're going to help and we did not do anything.
REMAAnd this is what brought ISIS to the whole area. And actually Assad helped ISIS in the beginning because he was like saying to the world, look, if I go this is what you're going to have. And this is our mistake and we need to learn from our mistake and not let the Middle East go to shambles. We would be much better off in having a democratic Middle East, an educated Middle East instead of having a (word?) Middle East...
PAGEAnd Rema, let me ask you, where are you from originally?
REMAI am from Syria.
PAGEAnd Rema, thank you so much for your call and for sharing your perspective. Rema raises a good point which is, if we attack ISIS in Syria, are we helping president Assad, who we have said must go? Is that part of the complication here, Siobhan?
GORMANThat is definitely part of the complication. And I think that that is a factor, perhaps not the key factor but a factor in why you've seen the White House so reluctant to get too involved. I mean, for a while you were hearing some of the national security officials in the U.S. government saying, well, maybe there's a way that they can all kind of fight it out. And we don't want to necessarily pick winners because, you know, maybe they'll all kind of deplete each other. But we have not seen that happen.
PAGETo what degree do decisions made in the recent past create the problem we have now, Michael? I'm thinking, for instance, on the decision not to do more to arm Syrian rebels who are not ISIS a couple years ago.
EISENSTADTWell, it certainly makes things much more difficult now. We don't know how it would've ended up if we had armed, you know, the moderates. And let's, you know, be careful when we use these terms because...
PAGEThe so-called moderates, yeah, right.
EISENSTADTYeah, it's really a mélange of all different kinds of groups with different agendas. We don't know how it would've turned out. It's hard to imagine it would've turned out worse than it has but there's no guarantee that we would've necessarily seen things much better. But I think we'll never know the answer. And it would've been desirable had we armed them now. It'll be much harder but we need to do it. And that needs to be a piece of the Obama Administration's policy moving forward because we need to be able to put pressure on ISIS on two fronts, both in Syria and in Iraq.
BENSAHELMaybe I'm just more cynical than Michael, but I actually think if, you know, we're in the realm of what could've been, it actually could have been worse. I'm not saying it would have been. But if we had intervened in some of the more aggressive ways that members of Congress are now saying we should have done, that would've prevented ISIS from re-gathering strength.
BENSAHELIf we had gone in and militarily intervened directly as part of the conflict, as many of the criticisms have said, you know, one, two or even three years ago beyond just our main the so-called moderates, we would be in a very, very different situation today with regard to the extent of U.S. intervention in Syria with the counter reaction. That could have been a rallying cry for extremist groups like ISIS.
BENSAHELI'm not saying that that is necessarily what could have come to past but it's not as simple as saying if we had gone in earlier, we would be in a better position than we are today. We might not have the ISIS problem exactly the way that we do but we would certainly have other problems. It's hard to predict exactly how those would have unfolded.
PAGENora Bensahel who's joining us is with the Center for a New American Security. We're also joined by Michael Eisenstadt from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Siobhan Gorman from the Wall Street Journal, Ed O'Keefe from the Washington Post. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go back to the phones. We'll take your calls and questions. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about the president's speech tomorrow night to the American people, describing his strategy toward ISIS. We're taking your calls and questions. Let's go to Lorraine. She's calling us from Tampa, Fla. Lorraine, you're on the air.
LORRAINEHi. Good morning. First of all, I don't call these people animals. I wouldn't insult -- would not insult animals by calling them animals. I call them devils because they seem to become -- they seem to have come straight out of hell. But anyway, what I wanted to ask you all was it seems to me like they've been able to take so much territory in Northern Iraq because they've met with little or no resistance.
LORRAINEAnd it seems to me -- and I'm not military strategist, but if the United States was to go in either alone or in coordination with its allies and do a full-out attack on these devils, that they would be relatively easy to wipe out. And I don't know if I'm correct about that or not.
PAGEAll right. Lorraine, thanks so much for your call. Would it be relatively easy, do you think, Michael?
EISENSTADTWell, I think we have the capability, we're we willing to go in big, to defeat them or at least to cause their collapse and to cause them to be scattered. The president of the American people do not support that. And secondly, actually we found, as a result of our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, that actually causing the rapid defeat of an enemy or at least the collapse of the enemy, without defeating them, actually causes more problems in the aftermath because then they go to ground and they fight as insurgents.
EISENSTADTAnd some of them get scattered to neighboring countries. And we saw this in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And then they destabilize the neighbors. So actually what we want to have -- we want to do is a long squeeze. And I think that's actually basically the strategy that the administration is setting up. Whether they'll implement it well is another thing.
PAGEAnd what is a long squeeze?
EISENSTADTWell, basically what the president said. You basically combine with local allies to roll back, to -- first of all, to break their momentum, which I think we've done at least in Iraq -- not in Syria, yet. They're still grabbing terrain in Syria. Roll them back, limit their -- the ability of the -- their ability to operate and to conduct offensive operations. And then basically shrink their base of operations until they're destroyed.
EISENSTADTThe problem is there will always be people who will go underground and then they'll revert to a terrorist insurgency again. But that's at least a more manageable problem then operating as a state.
BENSAHELThis strategy, which I think is accurate, that -- what the United States is going to pursue -- requires the United States to increase its training and assistance to the local forces because, in essence, what the strategy does is it replaces U.S. powerful combat ground forces with the ground forces of locals, combined with U.S. air power. And so that will require additional training and assistance.
PAGEYou know, Ed, here's an email we've gotten from Sharon, who writes us from Ravenna, Ohio. She writes, "The American people don't buy in. Four trillion for the unnecessary Iraq War, with thousands killed and injured. Meanwhile, we are told that we can't have infrastructure investment or health care for our citizens. Yes, ISIS beheaded two reporters, but we can't overreact. That's what ISIS wants."
PAGEAnd I'm struck that Sharon's remarks are very similar to ones that Senator Mark Udall made on Monday in a debate, and then apologized for. Is this an attitude that you think a lot of Americans have?
O'KEEFENot only the Americans, but certainly the people that represent them. I think there is an understanding that there has to be a response. And that's why I think a lot of lawmakers appear saying, yes, there needs to be a response and the president can do that through his current authority. But don't drag us into this and have a bigger debate about a more robust response because our constituents don't want it. So I think that's why you've seen some of this reluctance.
O'KEEFECertainly there are, you know, members of both parties appear who say it has to be muscular, it has to be as aggressive as possible. You had Johnny Isakson and Lindsey Graham, among others, two Republican senators, advocating for the use of Special Forces in Syria if need be.
O'KEEFEBut others are certainly much more wary of this. Even Ted Cruz, in a floor speech he gave yesterday, went out of his way to acknowledge that the country is war weary after the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And yet then said that, you know, there has to be a pretty aggressive response and that President Obama has a responsibility to lay that out in the coming days.
PAGEWell, Siobhan, is Sharon right? Is that what ISIS wants? A big response from the United States?
GORMANTo some degree I think that's probably true. You know, one of the things that they have, you know, one of the things that gives them credibility and legitimacy is engaging with, you know, one of the largest enemies they have, which is the United States. And so, in a way, we, you know, even just the airstrike campaign in Iraq has kind of done that for them. You know, and certainly it's possible that if the U.S. essentially started a new war in Iraq, that that could give that to them.
GORMANBut, you know, I mean, the administration is now in a position where they have to calibrate their response. And I think that getting that getting that right is really, really hard for all of the reasons we've discussed in this show.1
PAGEBut, you know, Americans don't want -- Americans would prefer not to be involved in another war. But Americans also want to feel safe in the world. And they look at these developments elsewhere and they do feel that it threatens our interests. Michael?
EISENSTADTYeah, I think, look, we have vital interests still in the Middle East. And if we don't -- we've seen what has happened in the last few years by not being engaged, at least on a military level. That ISIS metastasized and became this large -- created this large terrorist state spanning two states. So that's the price of inaction. The problem is we've also seen in the past when we overreact it also causes us grief. And we've seen, you know, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
EISENSTADTSo the challenge is to find, you know, the happy medium -- the right way to respond to this. And I think, again, by and large it seems that the president is going down the middle path in that regard. Again, as a result of his own reticence and the public opinion. The question will be in implementing this policy effectively.
PAGENora, here's an email from Wesley, who writes us from Greensboro, N.C. He writes, "I've heard very little about the response of Muslim governments against ISIS. I don't understand why this is an American or European problem, when it would be in the interest of moderate Islam, Shiites and Sunnis alike, to eradicate this perversion of Islam." Have we not heard much about other governments in the region and what they might do?
BENSAHELThat gets into the very complicated assessment of not just the behavior of the governments of the region, but also of individual within those states that the governments don't necessarily control. I think at a practical level of cooperation with the U.S. government on things like intelligence sharing and so on, there is a fair amount of cooperation. My guess is that's increasing as a result of the developments of the last few weeks.
BENSAHELBut all of these countries in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar and others, are sources of funding, sometimes through government channels, but often through wealthy individuals in those countries who are sending money in support of the Islamic extremists that are fighting in Syria and Iraq.
BENSAHELAnd so it becomes a very difficult calculation for governments -- particularly repressive ones that require a certain amount of coercion to stay in power -- about how they need to manage their domestic politics and which constituencies they can crack down on safely without risking too much to their hold on power versus their desire to defeat this form of extremism and to work with the United States.
GORMANWell, and prior to the sort of greater U.S. engagement this year, the Gulf countries were not all on the same page about what to do. And you saw a split, say, between Saudi and Qatar about how aggressively to arm, you know, so-called moderate Syrian forces. And what you ended up with were a lot of arms going from Qatar to forces that are now taking up with ISIS.
GORMANAnd so, you know, one of the reasons why the U.S. has been so cautious is that they didn't want U.S.-provided weapons to end up in extremists' hands. And, you know, some -- there were disagreements with the other Gulf countries about the risks in doing that.
PAGEAre they on the same page now?
GORMANI think more so, although I think Michael would probably be more expert on that than I.
EISENSTADTThey're coming around. The bottom line is the people who contribute the most are the people on the ground in those countries. You know, the Iraqi government and security -- Iraqi security forces, the Kurds, and members of the opposition in Syria. In addition to that we have to work with the neighboring countries in order to bolster their ability to deal with potential blowback. In other words, to deal with, you know, leakage of fighters who will, perhaps, as the military pressure increases, flee the battlefield and try to destabilize the neighboring countries.
EISENSTADTSo we have to work with them on that. The coalition is important, too. And I think most importantly for altering the psychological dynamic. ISIS has succeeded because they've had a run of military successes and they look like a juggernaut. And everybody wants to be on a winning team. So all these -- they have a coalition that they've assembled involving tribes, involving other Islamist groups, and foreign fighters who have come to join a winning team.
EISENSTADTIf we show them that their fate is doomed and their days are numbered because the whole region and the whole world is against them, we'll be able to start stripping away opportunists, you know, among other Islamist groups who you kind of joined to fight under the ISIS banner and we'll be able to discourage at least some percentage of foreign fighters who go to fight in the region. And that, again, will be part of, you know, dealing with this problem and moving forward and achieving success.
BENSAHELI think this desire to be on a winning team is one of the reasons why the beheadings happened when they happened, particularly the beheading of James Foley. It's not coincidental that happened shortly after ISIS was pushed out of the Mosul Dam area by a combination of Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground, supported by U.S. airstrikes.
GORMANAnd I also think that you're seeing this dynamic of competition between ISIS and al-Qaida. And I think that that dynamic will be affected certainly by what this international coalition does.
EISENSTADTAlso, per the question about what ISIS was trying to accomplish by beheading of Foley and Sotloff. I don't really know, but I suspect they -- looking at the president's behavior until now, they took the measure of the man. They said, "He's not going to respond and we could get away with taunting him without a lethal response. And that will only enhance our image among our supporters." So I thought from their point -- I think from their point of view it was a way of enhancing their image. And that's something that we have to show that they can't get away with again.
PAGEAre they frightened or delighted that there'll be a speech by the president of the United States to the American people focused about what to do about them? Is that a good thing for ISIS?
GORMANIn their perspective, certainly.
GORMANI mean it raises their profile. They have engaged with the United States. For them, that puts them on par with al-Qaida, that puts them, perhaps, ahead of al-Qaida because they're getting -- they're literally getting the air time.
PAGEAnd talk a little more, if you would, about the relationship between al-Qaida and ISIS. They are competitors. Are they potential allies?
GORMANWell, I mean, they come from the parentage and ISIS used to be al-Qaida in Iraq. They sort of formally split earlier this year. And ever since then they've kind of been in competition. But, you know, I mean these can be sort of marriages and divorces of convenience. And, you know, I don't think that -- at least within the U.S. government, counterterrorism analysts -- I don't know that they feel any of these shifts are permanent. They're always sort of of the moment.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones. We'll talk to Ollie, calling us from Falls Church, Va. Ollie, thanks so much for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
OLLIEThanks a lot. I appreciate you taking my call.
PAGEYes. Please, go ahead.
PAGEYes. We -- do you have a question or a comment?
OLLIEYeah, actually I have a comment. I'm just, you know, regarding ISIS. You can defeat ISIS, you know, the West can defeat ISIS militarily, but ideologically I don't, you know, it's hard. And also, ISIS is the result or is the consequence of a response of the regimes in the Muslim world. It's just, I mean, myself, growing up in Morocco, we never had a problem going to the mosque.
OLLIEBut yet, if we had a book about Friedrich Nietzsche or Santayana or any other philosopher, we -- you can go to jail for stuff like that because you're not allowed to think freely. And that's my comment. You know, the education part or the education element is missed most of the time. I believe that the West needs to tackle this in the Muslim world. So that's my comment.
PAGEOllie, thanks so much for your call. Michael?
EISENSTADTI just want to make -- the caller raised an important point and I just want to elaborate on it. The problem we face is -- I agree. We can ultimately defeat ISIS. The problem is with the ideology. It has its roots in the early days of Islam. This (word?) kind of rejectionist ideology, which is kind of annalist, and sees all Muslims as all -- as non-Muslims who reject their ideology as enemies, has been around since the early days of Islam. And we can defeat the organization, dealing with the ideology will be much, much more difficult.
PAGEHere's a kind of related email that was sent to us from Mike, who writes from Grand Rapids, Mich. He writes, "How is it possible to destroy these militant groups without a strategic focus on the disenfranchisement among young men that feeds their numbers?" Siobhan?
GORMANI mean, I don't think that you can. I think that it's, you know, the problem is that counter-radicalization is very difficult to do. I mean, this is something that certainly folks in the U.S. government have been looking at, you know, ever since 9/11 or even before. And we've really yet to come up with, you know, anything that was strategic.
GORMANI mean, they come up with tactical things, certainly. The FBI meets more with people in the Muslim community here. In the U.K. they've taken similar measures. But we, you know, defeating an ideology is a very difficult thing. And we've had a very tactical kind of approach to it.
PAGEEd O'Keefe, how big an issue do you think this will be in the midterm elections?
O'KEEFEThat remains to be seen. You know, considering that, you know, the economy has continued to dominate when we ask this question of sort of what is the top of a voter's mind and immigration has even snuck into the top tier in recent months. I think it depends a lot, again, on what he says this coming Wednesday. And then, you know, potentially in how Congress responds to that, if at all. You know, there are Democrats who don't want to take this vote.
O'KEEFEThere are Republicans who are eager to not upset the apple cart and just sort of keep going with the way they're running thing right now because things are looking good. But, you know, if things go really well, it might give a boost to the president and his party. If things go poorly it might just compel voters to go with Republicans even more to provide a check on him. And so we'll just have to wait and see.
PAGEYou see both sides trying to run out the clock until November, but we have another presidential election coming up in two years. And I wonder, Siobhan, to what degree is this shaping the landscape for that, the debate over who succeeds President Obama in both parties.
GORMANWell, I think it's going to shape it quite significantly, particularly if Hillary Clinton decides to run for president, because her views on Syria are at least fairly well known for being, you know, more aggressive than the president at the outset. And we have seen positioning, you know, of lawmakers like Ted Cruz, you know, also pretty aggressively on these things. And you also have the contrast with Rand Paul, who, you know, is far from an interventionist. And so certainly that dynamic -- you're going to see a spectrum and you're really gonna see the polls of that spectrum.
PAGEAnd, Michael, what do you think?
EISENSTADTYeah, well, look, this is going to be a long war. And it's not going to be resolved by the next elections. And Americans don't like their wars -- they like them neat and clean and decisive. And as a result, by the very nature of the kind of conflict it is I think it will be a debate.
PAGENora, we'll give you the last word.
BENSAHELAnd by its nature, it's very hard to tell two years out what kind effect it will have because so much will develop and the U.S. response will change so much. But we do know that it will have a very important effect.
PAGEAnd we'll know that we'll all be watching tomorrow night when the president addresses the nation. Let me thank our panel for being with us this hour. Siobhan Gorman from the Wall Street Journal, Nora Bensahel from the Center for a New American Security, Michael Eisenstadt from the Washington Institute. And joining us from Capitol Hill, Ed O'Keefe. Thank you all for being with us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show."
O'KEEFEGreat go be with you.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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