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Analyzing potential challenges of fighting the Islamic State

September 11, 2014 at 6:22 PM EDT
Judy Woodruff gets a broad assessment of the president’s plan to combat the Islamic State from former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, former State Department official Richard Haass, former Defense Department official Michèle Flournoy and retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich of Boston University.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we get a broader assessment of the president’s plan now from Stephen Hadley. He was national security adviser to President George W. Bush. He now has his own consulting company. Richard Haass was the director of policy planning at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. He’s currently president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Michèle Flournoy was undersecretary of defense for policy during the first term of the Obama administration. She’s now chief executive officer at the Center for a New American Security. And retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich is professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University. His latest book is “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.”

And we welcome all four of you back to the program.

I want to go around and ask all of you to start with whether you think the president has laid out a plan that is headed in the right direction.

Michèle Flournoy, you first.

MICHELE FLOURNOY, Former Defense Department official: I would say absolutely.

I think the president made — laid out a very comprehensive strategy, a very clear strategy, showed a lot of resolve, determination to put together an international coalition to go after the ISIL threat. I think the real challenge here is the devil’s in the details.

And as has been alluded to by many commentators, the — making this work on the Syrian side of the border is going to be a lot harder than making it work on the Iraqi side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we’re going to get to that.

Stephen Hadley, overall, is this a plan that sounds like it’s doing the right thing?

STEPHEN HADLEY, Former U.S. National Security Adviser: I think so. I think the president had a very good night last night.

I think, as Michèle said, he laid out a clear assessment of the risk, what he wanted to do. And he reminded the American people that America is uniquely positioned and really the only country that can put this together.

The question will be: Is this a one-time speech, or will he continue to talk to the American people about the importance of this issue? And will they have an implementation and execution plan that works? And I think the appointment of Gen. Allen to coordinate this is a very good sign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s retired General John Allen, who, as we reported a few minutes ago, the president has announced will be heading up the overall effort.

Col. Bacevich, what about you. The overall plan the president’s outlined, what do you make of it?

COL. ANDREW BACEVICH (RET.), Boston University: Well, it’s not a comprehensive strategy.

Let’s understand that ISIS emerged because of certain conditions in this region, disorder, dysfunction, alienation, the residue of European colonialism. And even if we succeed in destroying ISIS — and I certainly hope we do — those conditions will persist.

And, therefore, when ISIS goes away, it will be followed by another equivalent threat to the region. What we are engaged in here is a game of Whac-A-Mole, and that doesn’t qualify as a comprehensive strategy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Haass, how do you see it?

RICHARD HAASS, Former State Department official: Well, I applaud the fact that the president expanded the purposes of what we’re doing. It’s no longer simply to protect American personnel or humanitarian concerns, but essentially it recognizes ISIS for the strategic threat that it is, to both the region and to the United States and the world.

And, again, I support the expansion geographically, the idea that you can’t allow them a sanctuary in Syria or anywhere else. The real challenge or problem, as I see it, and many have alluded to it, is that if the United States is somewhat successful from the air, the question is whether we can supplement or complement that success on the ground.

In Iraq, we have some potential partners. The big question mark is the Iraqi government and its forces. In Syria, there’s a much bigger challenge. The last thing we want to do is push back ISIS, only to have the Assad government fill the space.

And I am skeptical that the moderate or secular Syrian opposition is going to be ready or organized any time soon. So I would put a much greater emphasis on trying to get ground support from local tribesmen, Sunni or Kurds, and I would also put much more pressure on some of the Arab countries to put together their own pan-Arab force to work with us on the ground.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, and I do want to get to Syria, but I also want to come back, Michèle Flournoy, to what Andy Bacevich just said, that this is not a strategy, it’s Whac-A-Mole, that ISIS is there, it’s a persistent force that’s on the ground, it’s — with this kind of strategy, the United States is not going to be able to eliminate it.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Yes, I do think it’s true there are fundamental conditions in the region that are giving rise to these violent extremist groups.

But I think the president’s strategy is broader. You saw him withhold or hold back on fully engaging with promising airstrikes, aid to the Iraqi forces, et cetera, until we had the formation of a more inclusive Iraqi government, because that is key to taking an alienated Sunni population, which created the sort of opening for ISIL to come in and into Iraq, and trying to move them back into being part of Iraqi society, bought into the government and so forth.

And so that political change has been huge, and now that that’s happened and the formation of a more inclusive government is under way, that opens the door to much more support on the Iraqi side of the border.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Col. Bacevich, what about that? Doesn’t — why doesn’t that make this strategy something that could work in Iraq?

COL. ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think the whole discussion ignores a set of facts that are staring us in the face.

And the key facts are that efforts on the part of the United States to use military power to bring, what, stability, democracy to this region of the world have not worked. If anything, our efforts have actually fostered greater instability.

So to imagine that now trying once again, albeit this time relying only on American airpower, with proxies on the ground, to imagine that this is going to produce a significantly better outcome strikes me as, frankly, silly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stephen Hadley, how do you answer that?

STEPHEN HADLEY: Well, I think that, you know, it is one thing to say there’s no military solution to this problem. And that is true.

There needs to be a comprehensive solution that addresses political, economic, social and other factors. But when you’re dealing with a group like ISIL, you’re not going to have a successful strategy if it doesn’t have a military element. If you don’t have a military element, then basically ISIL is going to hold and expand its territory.

So what we need is a comprehensive approach. Getting an inclusive Iraqi government, helping that government politically and economically alike, is an important element of it. But when you’re dealing with folks like ISIL, you’re going to have to have a military element. We should rely as much as we can on the Iraqi people and the various arms that they have to get the job done, but they can’t succeed without our support in terms of intelligence, training, special forces and airpower.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Richard Haass, as you were just saying a moment ago, you think Syria is an essential piece of this strategy and that the U.S. needs to give serious thought to how it works alongside or in some manner with President Assad. Spell out for us what you have in mind.

RICHARD HAASS: Happy to do this.

Just give me 30 seconds on the other. What was interesting to me about the president’s speech last night is what he didn’t say, and one of the things he didn’t say is he’s going to try to make the Middle East safe for democracy. We’re not talking about that. I think the United States has wisely lowered some of its ambitions there.

In terms of Syria, my own view is that we need a partner on the ground. As I said before, I think there are some possibilities. What I would probably do, though, is two things. One is with the Syrian government. I would say they are the less urgent problem for the United States. They are a local threat. They are not a global threat.

So I would essentially have some kind of a tacit arrangement, temporarily, for the time being, where Mr. Assad should be allowed to remain, if you, will as mayor of the Alawite aspects of the country, but we need to now be able to act with somewhat of a free hand against ISIS in the majority of the country.

And if Mr. Assad tries the take advantage of any of our attacks on the — on ISIS, then he would be putting himself into the line of fire. And I would then diplomatically talk to countries like Iran and Russia to try to get an understanding about how we are going to try to pursue ISIS, bringing in the Sunnis and others, without having it be an advantage for Mr. Assad.

What’s in it for Mr. Assad, though, is, temporarily, he can survive in the part of Syria he controls.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michèle Flournoy, Richard Haass is going further than the president did last night in talking about what alliances need to exist. Why wouldn’t the president go that far at this point, or shouldn’t?

MICHELE FLOURNOY: I think the principal reason not to work directly with Assad, beyond the lack — his lack of legitimacy to lead his own country, is the fact that, if we did that, you would basically lose the very Arab coalition we’re trying to build.

You’re not going to have the full support of key countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others if you’re collaborating with Assad. And so I think that — I think it’s a nonstarter politically. There will be situations where we have to make a choice whether to strike a target in Syria, given the second- and third-order effects. Will it actually empower the Syrian opposition or will it ultimately empower the Assad government?

And those choices will be — will be tough as this unfolds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Col. Andy Bacevich, what about Syria? You hear Richard Haass saying that’s an essential piece of this, that it won’t work unless Syria’s involved. Where do you come down on that?

COL. ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I hear all this discussion about arming and training moderate Syrians. I’m not exactly sure how we identify who is a moderate.

But I think we should temper our expectations about what that sort of effort is likely to produce in the near term. I mean, the comparison there, I think, is Iraq, where we spent about eight years trying to train and equip a competent force, and that effort failed.

So any expectation that we’re going to be able to pull an effective Syrian opposition fighting force out of a hat, I just think we should be wary of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me — and I was going to say I want to turn to Stephen Hadley, because, of course, you were working with President Bush when he was doing some of what Col. Bacevich describes.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Well, you know, it is true that we — the reason Iraq fell apart from the relative stability that we had with al-Qaida really largely defeated in Iraq in 2008, ’09 and ’10 was because of what happened in Syria, and not getting on top of that situation early.

So we do have to solve the Syria problem, but this has been a long time building. We’re not going to get it done overnight. We need to start and focus on Iraq, and then develop the capabilities over time to deal with Syria. And the point about our principles, the president did talk about standing up for our principles.

Democracy and freedom is one of them, and it does have a role, because if there is not democracy in Iraq in which Sunni, Shia and Kurds can work together in a democratic framework, if there is not an inclusive democratic government in Iraq, it won’t hold together and we will fail.

So our principles have a role in this in ultimately stabilizing this situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Col. Bacevich, you want to respond quickly to that?

COL. ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, it’s just hard for me to take seriously any expectation that the United States has an ability at this point to form that cohesive, unified Iraq. Guess what? We tried. It failed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Haass, I want to come back very quickly here, as our time draws to a close, on this question of boots on the ground. We heard Susan Rice tell Gwen that boots on the ground have proved counterproductive. And then we heard Committee Chairman Congressman Buck McKeon say they are going to be essential, that it’s inevitable.

Who is right on that?

RICHARD HAASS: Well, the only American boots on the ground for the most part are going to be Special Forces in places like Syria.

And then you will have some trainers and advisers, but you are going to need boots on the ground. I think they’re going to have to come from some of the Arab countries or from local tribesmen or Kurds. It has got to be local. It has to be Sunni. You can’t do this from the air alone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michèle Flournoy, what about that?

MICHELE FLOURNOY: I think the principal boots to be ground have to be from Iraq and from Syria, but those should be enabled by our intelligence assets, by our special operations forces, by people who can help to advise and assist them in being more effective on the battlefield, who can help train them, equip them and so forth.

I do think that those — that — that part of our force commitment may grow somewhat over time, but I think the president’s very determined to keep combat — U.S. combat units out of the ground part of this campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re going to leave it there.

We thank you all, Michèle Flournoy, Colonel Andy Bacevich, Richard Haass, Stephen Hadley. Thank you.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Thank you.

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