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President Barack Obama has faced a litany of foreign policy crises in recent months, and Americans have less confidence than ever in his handling of issues abroad. The threat posed by the militant group ISIS may prove to be the most significant challenge of his presidency. Last night, Obama addressed the nation with a plan to combat ISIS, in what he called a “comprehensive and sustained” strategy to defeat the terrorist organization. Following the beheading of two American journalists by the group, polls show increasing support by the American people for strong military action. But many remain wary of getting too deeply involved, and skeptical of the leadership of a president who vowed to end our conflicts abroad and bring troops home. A look at ISIS and the challenges for the Obama administration.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is recovering from a voice treatment. She'll be back later this month. In his address to the nation last night, President Obama outlined a four point plan to combat the militant group, ISIS. The campaign almost surely will outlive his presidency and define the final two years of his tenure.
MS. SUSAN PAGEHere to discuss the president's strategy and the challenges ahead, Peter Baker of the New York Times, Margie Omero of Purple Strategies and James Thurber of American University. Thank you all for being here.
MR. PETER BAKERThank you.
MS. MARGIE OMEROGood morning.
MR. JAMES THURBERGood morning.
PAGEWe invite out listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call 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, Peter Baker, you wrote the front page analysis in the New York Times this morning of the president's speech. What was the task he faced? What did he need to do last night?
BAKERWell, I think one of the things he needed to do, explain to the public the threat that he saw and what he was planning to do about it. He needed to explain that he does have a strategy now, after having told us a week or so ago he didn't and catching some flak for it. And I think he also needed to reconcile this new course that he was taking with his past reluctance to assert American power in the region, particularly in Syria where he spent three years trying to avoid exactly that kind of entanglement.
BAKERAnd it's a hard, you know, square to circle and I think he, you know, he did what he could in 15 minutes to do that, but it probably will require additional communications efforts on his part to continue making that message heard by the American public.
PAGEJames Thurber, what are the challenges you saw him facing as he went before the cameras last night?
THURBERWell, he has the challenges internationally all focused on the challenges in Congress. He seems to have all the leaders behind him on training, the training of people from Syria and elsewhere in Saudi Arabia. But all the leaders are not in agreement with respect to a thing called Title Ten Authority, to use force, continue to use force and have that attached to the CR, continuing resolution, the appropriations, temporary appropriations, the battle there is for him to persuade them to add it to the continuing resolution and to have it extended to December, not March.
THURBERAnd I'm sorry, I'm getting into such detail, but that's the big battle behind the scenes now. Republican want it extended to March. Some Democrats say that, oh, let's just let him go without authority. He says he can go without authority. And Boehner wants to have a vote on this thing.
PAGESo he's got a couple audiences in mind last night, one was foreign leaders, one was members of Congress, but the main one, Margie Omero, I think, was probably the American people. What is the mood of the public when they look at this issue?
OMEROWell, the mood is worry and concern. I mean, we did some focus groups with swing voting, Wal-mart moms a couple nights ago and I was amazed at how ISIS was one of the first things they said about things they were concerned about and that's something I just really rarely hear in a focus group, swing voters talking about international affairs. And it made them concerned about their own safety and it made them think about crime and violence in their own communities and really the sense that the world is scary place.
OMEROAnd when you look at those focus groups also, a flurry of national polls that have come out this week showing clear majority support for taking action, I think the American people are going to be receptive to what the president said last night.
PAGEYou know, it's remarkable. It was exactly a year earlier that the president had an address to the nation about air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria. The public wasn't with him. Congress wasn't with him. The strikes didn't go ahead. A big shift in the space of precisely on year.
OMEROYeah, I think the grotesqueness of the beheadings of two journalists really moved a lot of folks. It's certainly helped galvanize -- I think it galvanized a lot of voters' mood. And you also have a variety of other threats and concerns. I think there's a multiplier effect. So when you hear about one international crisis and you hear about others, it just starts to build into a concern that really things are getting out of control.
PAGESo Peter, a big shift in public views toward military action. How big a shift in public views toward President Obama, his leadership, his handling of foreign policy?
BAKERYeah, interestingly, they support the policy, not the president, right? Sixty, seventy, eighty percent, depending on how you word the question, favors some sort of action in Iraq and/or Syria, as long as you're not talking about boots on the ground, right, that's the caveat everybody lays down, Republicans and Democrats and the public itself. But they don't -- they're not rallying around the president, you know. There's not this normal sensation we see of a, you know, rising support for commander and chief in a time of war.
BAKERHe's still at 42 percent in the latest Washington Post poll overall approval. Lower ratings on his handling of international affairs and terrorism specifically. And it does suggest a certain weariness in the public with his tenure, with his leadership and they have not been impressed by how he has handled this particular international challenge, as well as a series of them this summer that have kind of, I think, weighed down his approval ratings.
PAGEWell, one of the things I think that's been a problem for President Obama and his aides are the need to keep explaining things that he said. He said, for instance, we didn't have a strategy yet. He said in an interview last week that our goal was to make ISIS a manageable problem. That is really different from the tone he took last night. Has he changed positions? Was he expressing himself inartfully before? How big a shift is it in policy for him?
BAKERWell, in the most -- the one you heard the most about lately, of course, is the idea that he called ISIS a JV team or at least groups like ISIS, a JV team. And remember, this is the president who told us the tide of war is receding and so on. He really didn't want to be in this place at this point in his presidency. He wanted to be able to take us out of Iraq, to eventually get us out of Afghanistan and be able to move the country forward, focus more on nation-building at home, as he put it.
BAKERAnd I think in that desire, the things he said in the past have come back to haunt him because now, in fact, here we are once again enmeshed in a Middle East war, which he didn't want to do, which the American public didn't want to do and yet now seems necessary.
PAGEJames Thurber, such an iron, in a way, because it was his opposition to the war in Iraq that was his prime selling point against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. And clearly, in his presidency, as Peter said, an animating principle to get out of these long wars and here we are back into a military conflict in that region and surely one that will outlast his presidency.
THURBERIt's riddled with irony. He ran against Hillary Clinton in the primary on the issue of the war and now she advocated in the administration to arm rebels in Syria. He rejected it. He also said the redline in the sand one year ago yesterday and then he pulled back on that. He's a guy who doesn't want to get into another long term war. We've been at war for 13 years post-9/11, as of today. It's likely to continue for many more years. He'll give it to the next president.
THURBERAnd the irony will be he may give it to Hillary Clinton if she gets elected. You know, if there are rally effects as a result of this speech and the speech in New York today, that could hurt Republicans. But let's talk about Republicans a little bit in the polls. There's a 23 percent gap between people thinking Republicans will keep us safe versus Democrats. It's huge. And indeed, the American people say that we should use force, but they don't trust the president. So this is a very difficult situation for him.
PAGEMargie, you talked about the focus groups that you did in Des Moines and Little Rock this week and the concern you heard about the general state of uncertainty and threat in the world. What was the attitude you heard from these swing voters when it came to President Obama himself?
OMEROWell, some were disappointed that he has been hamstrung in his ability to fulfill some of his promises. I didn't hear a lot of the anger that you sometimes hear from folks in Washington or from strong partisans. Instead, they felt he was hamstrung by the political climate, which loomed so large, was, they felt, so toxic, like this big black cloud that just was preventing anything from happening at all.
OMEROAnd you heard some folks, even Romney voters, past Romney voters saying, well, anyone, even if you had a Republican president, I don't know if they'd be able to get anything done. I don't know how anyone can get anything done in this situation. There was just this sense that we're in state where absolutely nothing can get done in Washington and there is no foreseeable way to get around that.
PAGESo Peter, the president outlined a plan to combat ISIS. What should Americans look for to happen next? What will happen to implement this strategy he outlined?
BAKERWell, some things we'll see and others we won't, right? So what we'll see is we'll see more air strikes of the kind we've seen in the last four or five weeks in Iraq on the other side of the border. In effect, what President Obama has done is erase the border between Syria and Iraq when it comes to that kind of an air campaign. Things that we won't see is clearly will be trying to get allies, like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and so on to both help train the Free Syrian Army, which is the more moderate, supposedly, Syrian rebel group that would fight on the ground against ISIS, as well as the Assad government.
BAKERWe probably won't see, but will be very important, efforts to cut off financing, efforts to cut off the flow of foreign fighters and so forth into this caliphate that ISIS has more or less create across Syria and Iraq. But, you know, it's going to be an interesting situation. We will not see American troops shipping overseas. It may not feel, to a lot of Americans, that we are at war because they won't see it in their own communities and won't see it in their own lives as viscerally as they did in the last decade.
PAGEThe president said last night that we're going to be fighting ISIS in Syria, but that doesn't mean we're trying to help the Assad regime. Is it possible to thread that needle?
BAKERRight. It's an incredibly complicated situation we're being embroiled in. You know, Jim mentioned the year ago speech and that effort to, at one point, strike Assad for chemical weapons use and the public didn't, as Margie said, the public didn't support that, didn't want to get involved in their civil war. Now, they've changed their mind because a couple of Americans have been killed, because it's seen as more of a threat, in theory at least, to the United States, if not directly to the homeland right now.
BAKERAnd so there is a greater willingness to take them on, but we're now suddenly on the same side against ISIS, which has been fighting him. And now, we're not coordinating with him, but that's the bottom line.
PAGEWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll go to the phones and take some of your calls. Our lines are open, 1-800-433-8850. And we'll read your emails, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, James Thurber. He's professor and director at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. He is the author of "Obama in Office: The First Two Years." And Peter Baker, reporter for the New York Times, he's the author of "Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House." And Margie Omero. She's a Democratic strategist and pollster, managing director of research at Purple Strategies.
PAGEWe talked about how the developments in Iraq and Syria and especially the beheading of those two American journalists has affected American public opinion. How about the world leaders, foreign leaders, especially in the region, James Thurber, has it affected their willingness to form a coalition with the United States?
THURBERIt looks like it has. Certainly the Saudis have been very supportive of us but it looks like they're willing to allow training to go on in Saudi Arabia as well as pay for it. There's not a lot of details about that. The United Arab Emirates have been with us for a long time. Qatar has other nations. The question is, will Europe, will the United Kingdom, will Turkey and others step up and help with this effort? I don't know at this point.
PAGEPeter, what do you think, is this -- does this mark a kind of pivot point in the effort to get this new Iraqi government, the Saudi government, Jordan's king onboard with doing more in a coalition?
BAKERI do think that once these countries see that the United States and the President of the United States makes this a top priority, they're more willing to work together with him. As long as it was sort of a clear sideline for him, as long it wasn't something he was very focused on, they could play their own games and play their own ways. And they may still.
BAKERBut, like, let's look at Turkey for instance, a good example, right. This is how complicated this is. Some of the people in Syria that we would like to fight ISIS are the Syrian Kurds. But the Syrian Kurds are connected to the PKK which has been the bane of Turkey's existence for years and years and years. And so are we going to get Turks to work with the PKK? Hard to see that. There are so many different layers in that bloody area, and navigating that is going to be a real challenge.
PAGEMargie, the president talked about what he would do. He also spent what I thought was a lot of time talking about what he wouldn't do and trying to distinguish what he was doing from what George W. Bush did during his presidency. Did he succeed in assuring Americans that they were not going to see the kind of long war that cost George W. Bush and the country so dearly?
OMEROI think so. I think he has a long track record, I mean, as Jim was saying, of not seeming un-cautious. I mean, if you look at past polling, there's recent polling, more Americans feel that he is too cautious when it comes to foreign policy than not cautious enough. And that's what a lot of Americans want after what we saw from the Bush Administration. So I think he succeeded in continuing to demonstrate his carefulness in, you know, risking our troops and our military abroad.
THURBERHe's careful but he's also using the 2001 authority to use force against al-Qaida pushing it to ISIS which is a spinoff from that. Very controversial because of the way hostilities were define in Libya but also out of that resolution. You know, we've had 200 deployments of troops since the founding of this Republican and only five times have we had a declaration of war.
THURBERSo that gets us to the War Powers Act and that's -- last discussion is about the War Powers Act. And he is a constitutional professor turned back a whole lot of people in the White House on that question of hostilities. And it's very important this time because he defines hostilities as people -- as having our troops on the ground and having them threatened. And hostilities are not bombing and that's what's going on, or not training people. And so it's a very clever thing that he's doing right now.
BAKERWell, and you've got not only a legal debate about what's required, what's not required -- and, by the way, this is one thing Republican and Democratic presidents always agree on, they don't have to get congress's approval to use the military in almost any circumstance, they seem to think. But you had these cross currents between Republicans and Democrats. Some really want to have a vote on it, some don't, each party for different reasons, left and right.
BAKERAnd then you have this -- the politics of this. You know, you've got an election coming up. Do you want, as a member of congress, to be voting on this with X weeks left to a vote? Very uncertain environment in which to kind of sort of weigh in on that, even though the polls show support for the actions.
THURBERPlus they have to have money to run the government -- excuse me.
THURBERAnd that's what the CR is about. The money runs out September 30. October 1 is the beginning of the fiscal year. They have to pass this thing or the government shuts down. And he actually called Harold Rogers, the first time he's ever done this. He sounded like LBJ or something. He called Harold Rogers, the chairman of the appropriations committee, and said, geez Harold, we really need your help to add this Title Ten Authority to the CR. I mean, that's what LBJ used to do.
THURBERAnd this is a president that doesn't like Congress. He doesn't like the members of congress and he did this. And Rogers said very positive things about him as a result of it.
PAGEYeah, it shows why presidents tend to lobby congress and the price they pay when they don't have -- when they don't do that.
BAKERWell, and interestingly he's actually stage-crafted this announcement in a way that he hasn't done a lot in the past. Not only did he have members of congress in and make some phone calls, he had in groups of different experts and foreign policy poobahs, including some Republicans by the way. Steve Hadley who was the National Security Advisor to George Bush, doesn't darken the doors of the White House very often in this administration, brought in to talk to the president.
BAKERAnd I think that helps him because it means the people who are going to be out there talking on shows like this and in the public will at least reflect his point of view a little bit more sympathetically than they might otherwise, something that he hasn't always done to build support.
PAGEA pretty critical speech yesterday though by Dick Cheney, the former Vice-President endorsing some of the steps he's taking but really castigating him for the policies he's pursued up to now.
BAKERYeah, it's interesting. Republicans are in this interesting position where they kind of -- they support more or less what he's doing, because they don't want to have boots on the ground either. They see that that's both a geopolitical loser as well as a political loser. But they have to -- in finding a way to criticize him they're talking about how we got to this point in the first place. Why is it this took so long? Why is it you didn't see the threat? Why is it you didn't -- you were blind to the developing situation out there. But in the end they are going to support what he's doing for them.
OMEROAnd that's the key line in finding a way to criticize him because what the American people see are a lot of folks on the Republican side looking for a reason or a way to criticize the president rather than looking for a way to work together and figure out what the right solution is.
THURBERBut he has a serious problem with the Democrats, especially in the House of Representatives. They're split between doves and hawks. The Republicans were initially reluctant to demand congressional authority on this. Now they've flipped. Now they say that they should. McConnell who is in a competitive race in Kentucky is taking a hard line saying we need more explanation for this before we give him authority. So this is very complex and it's not a unified Democratic Party taking a position or a Republican Party. They're split really four ways.
PAGESo of course President Obama's not on the ballot in November. To what degree, Margie, do you think this issue is going to play a role in the midterm elections?
OMEROWell, I think it will play a role in that it will elevate concern that the world is unstable, that things are uncertain and volatile. And I think that hurts everybody. I think that huts candidates from both parties. And it should really temper how they talk about politics. Are they being too political? Are they using heated rhetoric that's too partisan or are they sounding more interested in actually really finding solutions? That's what a lot of people are going to be thinking about. Whether they are single-issue ISIS voters, I'm not sure. That's going to depend a little bit on what happens between now and Election Day.
THURBERI want to disagree slightly, sorry. This election is already over in the House of Representatives. I mean, there's only about 22 seats that are competitive because of redistricting and the phenomena of sorting. You know, it's a pretty safe place. The Senate is where the action is. There are three seats that are gone, maybe three more seats that'll be lost to the Democrats. I think you have to look at each of those races to see whether foreign policy and ISIS is an issue.
THURBERI think the issues in those places are things like immigration, attack on health care, size of government, other issues like that. I think the polls will show that in places like Montana and Nebraska and elsewhere.
PAGEBut it is interesting in looking at this controversy, ISIS is a phrase, a word that most Americans would not have recognized, what, two or three months ago? And now it's something that we're talking about, that the president gave an nationally-televised speech about that's shaping the debate. It's kind of a reminder that things happen that affect elections, even when elections seem like they're pretty cooked.
THURBERYes. When -- well, let's look at 9/11. Bush was at about 48 percent in the poll. Within seven days he went up to 91 percent. Congress was in the 30s, it went up to 68 percent. Wham, when things happen and there's a clear focus on the problem and consensus about the problem in America, things change. I don't think there's consensus in America about this problem even though, you know, there's high percentages saying use of force. They don't even know, is it ISIS, ISIL or IS or, you know, what is it? It's very...
BAKERWell, we don't know. Why should they? I mean, we can't agree among ourselves.
THURBERI'm not criticizing them. You know, they care about violence in their own communities, quality of education, health care. And the immigration issue is really hot. I think that's what 2014 is going to be about. And it's about the Senate not the House.
OMEROWell, I mean, I think it's also about can government get something done And ISIS...
THURBERWell, it can't.
OMEROWell, I mean, that's what voters are reacting to. And that's what voters are concerned about. And if they see this as just yet another issue where congress can't work together, work with the president, that's just going to continue to erode confidence in our institution.
THURBERYes, but where do they go to vote for that because it's already set in the House because the primary's reelection or conventions are for most of those races in the Senate. You know, there are people running against the institution saying it's not -- elect me, I can get it to move. But, you know, it's really about the individual and what they're saying on a bunch of issues that are related to their lives. Yes, they don't like congress but they don't know where to go to change congress.
PAGEThis is of course the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. And we have the -- we have in our thoughts the people who lost their lives on their day. I'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Let's talk to Sarah. She's calling us from Houston. Sarah, hi, you're on the air.
SARAHHi. I have one question and then a couple of comments. My question is for ISIS, isn't it the direct result of the invasion of Iraq, this existence of Middle East chaos? Didn't we cause this?
PAGEAll right. Sarah, let me take that question. These are -- this is a complicated region, Peter but to what degree does the invasion of Iraq figure in what the situation that we see today?
BAKERYeah, I mean, clearly, it's clearly related, obviously. We went into Iraq and we sort of pulled the Pandora's Box lid off of an area that we didn't fully understand who's sectarian and ancient sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites, you know, then exploded into the kind of, you know, conflict that we've been seeing the last number of years.
BAKERYou know, at the same time, this -- she makes a fair point about, you know, we obviously had a role in this. And then the next question is, okay, so what? I mean, we have to deal with reality as it is now. I mean, we can re-debate the 2003 decision again and again but it doesn't change what is happening on the ground right now. And the question is for this president, what does he do about it? And he's made a decision about what he'd do about it.
THURBERYeah, it doesn't change the sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites even though we plowed in lots of money for education, all kinds of infrastructure, all kinds of ways to bring about democracy. And again I say, you can't force people to have democracy and you can't force them to treat minorities fairly, although we've tried to do that.
THURBERSo behind all of this -- yes, the invasion was a predecessor to what's happening right now, but behind all of this it's still this deep split between the Kurds, the Sunnis, the Shiites and other tribes in that area.
OMEROAnd I think we need to be careful too of not overestimating our responsibility either as the cause or as the solution to regional strife.
THURBERWell, I'm sorry.
PAGEGo ahead, please.
THURBERThat's a fair point, but ISIS is not, in fact, formed to attack America. I mean, it formed because it wanted to create this caliphate. They didn't want to -- they didn't suddenly want to do a caliphate because we invaded in 2003. There's a whole history here that we dove into, we got in the middle of. Maybe we should or shouldn't have, but, you know, we're there now.
BAKERAnd they split from al-Qaida because of this.
BAKERAl-Qaida basically got rid of them and they went off on their own. So they have a slightly different agenda, it looks like.
PAGESarah, thanks so much for your call. We've gotten a lot of comments along the lines of this one which we got from M writing "Obama did not say he was against war but against unnecessary or stupid war. This should not be categorized as something similar to the conflicts we were part of under Bush. He is choosing the best path, even if not ideal." Let's take another caller. We'll go to Rick calling us from Fairfax, Va. Rick, thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
RICKThanks for having me. I'm frankly shocked, amazed and disappointed that we seem to be jumping to a military option so quickly. The biggest fear about this ISIS or ISIL group is not that they're going to come rolling across our borders with tanks or attack us by air, but that they plot a terrorist attack. And if that being the case, we should be using our intelligence resources. And it just seems to me that I smell the military industrial complex working behind the scenes yet again to create yet another war so that it can glean more profit from a bad situation. Does anybody else share that point of view?
PAGERick, thanks so much for your call. Does anyone share Rick's point of view?
BAKERI'm sure a lot of people share his point of view. I mean, there is a lot of suspicion, a lot of skepticism in the American public after 13 years of war. There's a certain, you know, weariness we keep saying. I think that's true. There's a lot of people who look at this and say, why should we be there?
BAKERThe American intelligence agencies say that ISIS does not present a direct current threat that we know of to the American homeland. What the president tried to say last night is, okay, that's true but we think they've threatened American interests and American allies. And if left unchecked could pose a direct threat to the United States. In fact, it's kind of almost a preemption argument a little like President Bush made about Iraq. In other words, don't wait for the threat to gather. Attack it before it actually hits you. Now that's something that the caller and others, you know, feel quite skeptical about.
THURBERWell, I -- yes, there are a lot of people who think that there's conspiracy between the military industrial complex going back to Eisenhower's famous speech. I would like to say that the military generally is extremely cautious. They've seen people die, their troops. And so they are very careful, sometimes people say too careful, about rushing to war. So I'm sure that there are people on that side within the military that are very cautious about this. In terms of the corporations and others, I see no evidence of that pushing for this.
PAGEMargie, you're a Democratic strategist. Does President Obama potentially have a problem with his core supporters who may be the most antiwar of anyone?
OMEROI think there will always be a group of people who think that war is just never appropriate. The military engagement is almost never appropriate. And those folks are going to tend to be on the Democratic side more often than not. Will they feel -- will they hold the president accountable? I think they recognize by and large that he is reluctant to do this. He doesn't relish the fact that there is a -- that he needs to use force.
PAGERick, thanks so much for your call. We're going to take another short break. When we come back, we'll go back to your calls and questions. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Marie Omero of Purple Strategies, Peter Baker of the New York Times and James Thurber of American University. We're taking your calls. Let's go to Miami Beach and talk to Enancencio. I'm hoping I'm saying your name correctly.
ENANCENCIOYeah, that's good enough, Enancencio.
PAGEAll right. Thank you.
ENANCENCIOYeah, that's fine. Thank you for taking my call. I appreciate it. And bear with me I'm a little nervous. But I think a lot of people agree with the previous caller from Houston. That since our country's invasion and destruction of Iraq's society and infrastructure created a vacuum for ISIS to rise up and fill in, that we're also then responsible for their, you know, destruction and elimination. And also that, you know, I'm a member of an ethnic minority that's native to the Nineveh Plains, which is in Iraq.
ENANCENCIOAnd they're threatened with extinction now by ISIS, because of being chased from their homeland. And so I think that it's our country's responsibility, you know, to provide the Assyrian Christians, again the Assyrian Christians, not Syrian, but the Assyrian Christians with a safe haven in the Nineveh Plains, which is in Iraq, because if they're just, you know, you know, shipped out of the country to, you know, third countries for asylum, then they eventually become subsumed by the larger cultures of those countries through assimilation.
PAGEAnd let me ask you, do you have family still in the area?
ENANCENCIOWell, not that I'm aware of, no. Because my family's been here in the U.S. since the early 1900s. But, again, the -- as far as other ethnic religious minorities in Iraq, and specifically the Assyrian Christians, which are never mentioned by name, are threatened with extinction because their homeland is in Iraq. They lived there for thousands of years, like, I don't know, I think more 6,000 years. And they're being threatened with extinction because of ISIS, which, again, rose up, I believe, and filled a vacuum that was created by the U.S.'s invasion, our country's invasion of Iraq and destruction of their society and infrastructure.
PAGEAll right. And, Enancencio, thanks so much for your call. The president did mention protection of minority groups as one of the things that he aimed to do with this action last night, Peter.
BAKERHe did. He expanded the mission as he'd originally set it out with -- when he was talking just about Iraq, about four or five weeks ago. At the time he said, "We're going in specifically to protect American personnel and institutions and to relieve the humanitarian crisis," like that. It meant Mt. Sinjar at the time. But as he -- as expanded last night, it's a broader mission. A broader mission to destroy ISIS and to protect the targets, in terms of -- including minorities like the ones that Enancencio talked about.
THURBERThis gets tricky when you're trying to support the Kurds -- that's a minority in Iraq -- because there's -- there are Kurds in Iran, Syria, Turkey. Turkey gets very concerned if you start rolling in help for them, in terms of munitions. And then we get strange bedfellows with -- a coalition with Iran. But then they get concerned about the Kurds. So this is really a very tough situation when you have so many minorities in Iraq and they're linked to international connections. I think he's got a tough situation there.
OMEROI think he did a good job in at least trying to give some context to folks who are maybe just beginning to follow the region for the first time, saying, "Look, this is not Islamist. This is not -- this is not Islam to behave this way. These kinds of atrocities are not part of Islam." And I think that gives a little context, given rising concern in the country about Islamic extremists.
PAGEYou know, this was a subject of some humor last night by Jimmy Fallon. He wrote -- he said on his show, "There's a new poll out there that shows if the presidential election were held today, Hillary might actually beat Chris Christie in New Jersey. While another poll shows that if the election were held today, President Obama would be psyched." It goes to the perception that he is really a reluctant warrior at this point.
BAKERYeah, no, I…
PAGEPeter, you're there every day. Is that your sense?
BAKERYou do get that sense from time to time. Certainly from the body language and some of things he says. David Letterman had his own version of this. He said, "Obama called Hillary Clinton the other night and said, 'Can you start early?'" And I think there is a sense that, you know, he's had a rotten run the last couple of years. Since running -- winning reelection he hasn't had a lot of good things he can kind of hang his hat on and feel really good about, either domestically, legislatively or internationally. Right?
BAKERWe're talking a lot about ISIS here, but at the same time he's having meetings on Ukraine. He's having, you know, he has to worry about the Gaza War, which just flared up. You know, so many other crises right now. And it's got to be wearing on you.
PAGEPlus, he's got a very resistant Republican Congress, Republican-controlled House, possibly a Republican-controlled Senate after the November elections. Here's an email from Linda. She writes, "Why would other countries have confidence in the U.S. at this point? In business terms, we have a CEO -- the president -- attempting to lead and a COO -- Speaker Boehner -- who is devoted to insuring the failure of the CEO. Who wants to jump in that recipe for failure?" Margie, that's how it looks to a lot of Americans, too.
OMEROYeah, I mean, that's why you heard in the speech last night, the president saying, "I'm going to work with these other countries, you know, maybe I can work with Congress, who knows. But I really want to work with these other countries on the ground," because that's how unwilling to work together Congress seems to everybody. And Linda's absolutely right. I mean, the -- in that people view both domestically and internationally that the -- that Congress is really holding back any kind of movement at all on any issue.
PAGEHere's an email from Daniel. He writes, "How are we going to pay for this new front on War on Terror? Will there be transparency on this to the American people?" James Thurber, maybe you could talk a little about what we expect when it comes to the funding that the president's requested and what Congress will be doing next.
THURBERWell, the next action in Congress -- and they have very few days, unless they extend this Congress beyond what they said they were going to do -- is to pass a continuing resolution to run our government at a certain level for all agencies and departments. And the first major issue -- in fact, there's a conference today that Boehner is holding or has held to discuss this -- is to have this Title10 authority. In other words, the -- give the authority to the president to use money for training, in particular.
THURBERAnd so there's some consensus about support for training, but Speaker Boehner, on the House side, has his problem of a mix of pro-war people and conservative worries about a lame-duck session. Let me get into this. Because if they pass a C.R. that only goes to early December, then there will be a lame-duck session. And there will be people who have lost -- Democrats -- that are willing to do all kinds of things in that budget to extend it. So there's some people who say, well, let's extend this C.R. to March. So that's the battle that's going on right now.
THURBERBut there's a division in the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in both the House and the Senate, and differences between the House and the Senate. And the president doesn't have unified party government. Obviously it's divided party government. And under those circumstances we know statistically that presidents do very poorly. Plus, he's down in the polls and we've got an election coming.
PAGELet's go to Charlotte, N.C., and talk to Pam. Pam, thanks for being patient and holding on.
PAMThank you very much. Some of your commentators have touched on this already, including yourself. And it's the ambivalence of the public as to which way -- what action we do want to take. One morning I wake up and I feel like yes, we need to take some action over in that part of the world. And the next day I wake up and say, no, no, you know, war is wrong and we just shouldn't be getting involved in ancient old disputes.
PAGEPam, that is -- I'm so glad you called because I think a lot of Americans feel that way. And, Margie, we've talked about the war weariness a lot of Americans feel. On the other hand, the USA Today/Pew Research Center poll, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, other surveys have shown an increasing willingness, more support for engagement in the world, than we've seen in recent past.
OMERORight. Absolutely. And Washington Post poll show the same thing. I think the concern -- I think Americans break it down like this. That this is a concern. We need to take some action. We'd like to see Washington take some decisive action on any issue, which they don't feel is happening. However, our concern is that this ends up becoming like our previous engagements where it just drags on too long.
OMEROWe don't have a plan to exit. However, that's tempered by the sense that the president is not interested in that kind of effort. He's not interested in a protracted, cavalier kind of engagement.
BAKERI think the president wakes up every morning like Pam. You know, one morning he thinks -- right -- we've got to do something. This is a terrible threat. And the next morning he wakes up, this is crazy. Why are we going to do this again? And I think he reflects, you know, a broader public ambivalence out there. And maybe that's a good thing and maybe that's not a good thing. We want our president to tell us what to think. Right? We want him to lead, not necessarily follow.
OMEROI think ambivalence is different than it's not clear what the precise answer is.
OMEROThat's different than maybe ambivalence.
THURBERPlus, he's got not only ISIS -- that's what we're talking about here. He's got Putin in Ukraine. He's got China threat. He's got Afghanistan withdrawing troops, with the Taliban looking like a threat. Yemen, Somalia, Libya -- which we're not talking about -- Pakistan. He's got so many things on the plate, it's very hard for him to focus. But he has focused on ISIS. That's what people are reacting to, but other things can crop up easily, especially Afghanistan.
PAGEJohn is calling us from South Bend, Ind. Hi, John.
JOHNHi. I just wanted to ask the panel, since they're members of the media, why Dick Cheney gets to stand up and say anything? He was on -- he gave a speech somewhere yesterday, basically lecturing and blaming Obama for ISIS. He knew, back in the first Gulf War when he was a secretary, George H.W. Bush's -- his -- one of his appointees. I don't remember exactly the position. But he said he was asked then what would happen, why didn't we take out Saddam Hussein, why didn't we finish that.
JOHNAnd he explained succinctly that we would -- there would be chaos and sectarian fighting. And there's no one to take his place. He knew exactly what he was doing and, yet, now he gets to stand up and say anything. I would just like to tell Dick, sit down and shut up.
PAGEAll right. John, thanks for calling. But note that we just have one member of the media on our panel. That would be Peter Baker from the New York Times. So I'll send the question to him.
BAKERWell, you know, look, I mean that's the question that he and the Republicans need to face. I think, you know, his message may be a legitimate message, but is it tarnished because of the messenger? Right? Are people willing listen to him deliver that message or should the Republicans have somebody else to deliver it? And I think that he speaks out in part because he feels very passionately about these issues. I think he thinks the country is at risk and that President Obama's handled it very poorly.
BAKERAnd he's trying to not just criticize President Obama, but actually shape his own party's direction at a time when the Republicans are split between isolationism and interventionism between, you know, his form of hawkish national security versus a more, you know, let's stay at home kind of view of things. And he's trying to push his own party in a direction that it's not quite certain they want to go anymore.
OMEROAnd usually people who are -- have been so unpopular in the polls for so long, either check out of public life for a little bit or try and rehab their image. You know, maybe they're going to go to Paris or work with animals or something to change that -- turn that around. But Dick Cheney doesn't seem concerned about that. He keeps talking and it -- he gets criticism like John's every time he speaks. And he keeps doing it.
PAGEI'm Susan Page. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've been taking your calls. 1-800-433-8850. James Thurber?
THURBERYes. Well, it's a little bit strange to see a vice president doing this. It's not unprecedented. If somebody's running for the next election for the presidency they come out. But the Bushes have not come out. Bill Clinton hasn't. Hillary has a little bit because she's running. But this is a guy who's not running for anything and he is battling over the heart of the Party, I think. I agree with Peter. And the Party's having a revolution over immigration, over use of force, isolationism and a variety of other things. And he comes down on a very hard side on this.
PAGEAre Republicans, who now hold office, enthusiastic about Dick Cheney being out there, making this harsh case against President Obama, Peter? Or do they wish he would -- as John said -- sit down and be quiet?
BAKERI do think there are some Republicans who respect him greatly. I think they admire his sense of principle, that he does not actually, obviously, respond to the polls. Right? He does not say what's popular. He says what he thinks and he's believed in it for a long time and he's very straightforward about that.
BAKERI think a lot of other Republicans, though, as you say, do wish he would sit down because they view him as a flawed messenger and that he -- every time he comes back out it becomes an argument about him and about Bush and about Iraq, rather than an argument about Obama, which is what they want the argument to be about.
PAGEWe have time for one more call, maybe, from Alexandria, Va. Let's talk to Ebbie. Hi, Ebbie.
EBBIEHi. Can you hear me?
PAGEYes. Please, go ahead.
EBBIEOkay. I have a very, very important question. And I think this is a big concern because we are at a very crucial time. Okay. We say we're going to go help the rebels take down Assad. Okay. We're going to do this, but after that how we contain the country? How we safeguard the country to make sure it's not another Iraq, it's not another Libya?
PAGEYou know, Ebbie, that's such a good question because, of course, there's this terrible civil war going on in Syria. Two-hundred thousand people have lost their lives in it. What would you say, Peter?
BAKERYeah, that's a great question. Because, in fact, one thing that President Obama made very clear is we're not going to be an occupying force again. We're not going to go in and try to govern the country. We're not going to impose a democracy on them, in that sense. And yet, if, in fact, Assad were to fall, which is in fact a national goal…
PAGEWhich we want to see happen, yeah.
BAKER…it is the American policy. Right. We don't actually, I think, have a very strong plan for what would happen next, what we would do to help them avoid a much messier situation, like we've seen in Libya, where Americans have just evacuated because things have gotten so chaotic there.
PAGESo the president gave this speech last night. How much difference, Margie, can a speech make for a president, addressing the nation on a big topic of the day?
OMEROWell, there's the speech and there's the aftermath of the speech. There are folks who are watching the speech. It's the coverage of the speech. It's hearing candidates respond to the speech and then what happens next. And also, what it takes the place of. Instead of hearing more about the back and forth between candidates or between Congress, now we're hearing about what's happening next and what the president's plan is. So I think it can change, in terms of -- and certainly is likely to change what people -- people's confidence that there is a strategy and a plan and that the president's taking decisive action.
PAGEAnd, James, I'll give you the last word. How much difference do you think this speech will make for President Obama?
BAKERI don't think it's going to make a great deal of difference. Speeches have to coincide with clear threats that Americans agree with. And that is -- well, let's go back to Pearl Harbor and FDR's speech of declaring war or post-9/11 and Bush gave a great speech. This is not a Pearl Harbor or 9/11 speech. And words do not change behavior. They're going to have to see what happens. I think it -- he had to do it and he has to honor the people who died in 9/11 today and that will reinforce this. And he'll have other events. But I'm not sure it'll change public opinion that much.
PAGEJames Thurber from American University, Margie Omero from Purple Strategies, Peter Baker from the New York Times, thank you all for being with us hour.
OMEROThank you so much.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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