TOPICS > World

Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and Islamic State — What should Obama do?

September 3, 2014 at 6:20 PM EST
Unrest in Ukraine, and Islamic State militants in Iraq have dominated news coverage for the past three months. Judy Woodruff evaluates the Obama administration’s response to these challenges with Vali Nasr, a former State Department official, Eric Edelman, a former State and Defense Department official and David Ignatius of The Washington Post.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, as we have just heard, there are a number of crises around the world which are dominating the public’s attention.

Tonight, we explore how the Obama administration is responding and what else, if anything, should be done.

Joining me now is Vali Nasr. He was a senior State Department official during President Obama’s first term. He’s now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Eric Edelman is a former ambassador to Turkey and a senior state and Pentagon official who was also on Vice President Cheney’s staff. He’s now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments — and David Ignatius, who is a foreign affairs columnist at The Washington Post.

And we welcome all three of you back to the “NewsHour.”

So, whether — what we just heard from Margaret, whether the Russians moving on Ukraine or ISIS moving in Syria and Iraq, or just until recently the Middle East, with Israel and Hamas, the world seems to be lurching from one crisis to the other.

Ambassador Edelman, what — is the United States doing what it needs to be doing, either to prevent these crises or to address them once they’re happening?

ERIC EDELMAN, Former State Department & Defense Department Official: Well, I think, first of all, some of the crisis that we’re seeing in Iraq or Syria potentially could have been avoided earlier, but we are where we are now.

My own view is, we do need a strategy for dealing with the problem of ISIL, and it needs to be a strategy that covers both Iraq and Syria. And I think, on Iraq, right now we have had some effect with airstrikes, we have had some effect with working with Kurdish Peshmerga, with some of the Iraqi security forces, largely Shiite, but mostly in border areas along the Kurdistan regional government border and in Baghdad.

I think we’re going to need a broader effort. I think we’re going to need a broader advisory presence. It takes an army to defeat an army. It doesn’t need to be our army, but we’re going to have to have an advisory presence with the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga to help them execute this. And it does mean probably we’re going to have casualties, because folks will be in proximity of combat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so a number of different steps that need to be taken in different places.

How do you come at this, Vali Nasr?

VALI NASR, Former State Department Official: Well, I think the administration is doing what it can, both in Ukraine and in Iraq, to address the immediate issues that either ISIS or Russia is creating.

But now in both of these places we’re dealing with larger forces that have been unleashed that are not going to be resolved by a single sanction or a single airstrike, that we’re seeing a change of map of Iraq and Syria. There’s a large territory that is ungoverned in Eastern Ukraine. We’re seeing also collapse of state authority.

It actually requires a much broader strategy beyond just airstrikes or the immediate challenging of Putin as to where we’re going to go. And we’re not going to get there unless the administration and U.S. foreign policy actually makes a commitment to presence there.

We have to convince other actors in the region that we are in it for the long haul, we understand that this is not a one-month, one-week problem, and that we have a game plan, and this is our game plan for actually what happens after ISIS, what happens after you bomb them out of a certain stronghold?  How do we actually restore a certain order to both Ukraine and to Iraq and Syria?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do these sounds like the kinds of recipes that the U.S. should be pursuing?

DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: Well, I think the heart of good policy is to work with partners who share U.S. interests to try to combat these really difficult problems.

That’s obviously what President Obama is trying to do. He’s meeting with his NATO allies to talk about the common responses to Russian aggression.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we just heard in Margaret’s report.

DAVID IGNATIUS: In Ukraine, as Margaret’s report said.

He’s working with — to build a partnership in the Middle East that could combat ISIS. There’s been a lot of work behind the scenes with Saudi Arabia, with the United Arab Emirates, with Jordan to begin to pull together the kind of advisory forces that could roll ISIS back.

The problem, I think, Judy, is that these group efforts require a strong American center. You can pull countries together behind a policy if it’s well-communicated by an American president. And President Obama, I think by the account of even many people in the administration, has not done that until recently. He’s beginning to speak more clearly and powerfully, but it’s late in the game.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it that you’re saying he hasn’t done specifically?  Is it verbal?  Is it — what is it, persuasion?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, he has a country that really is war-weary and he’s tried to respond to and reflect that.

Let’s remember, he got reelected as the president who was going to end this decade of war and turn a page in our history. And all of a sudden, he’s confronted by these huge problems. I think in the case of Iraq and Syria, you really can fault the administration for not having put together a coherent policy.

They stayed with Nouri al-Maliki, the divisive prime minister of Iraq, way too long. Many people were saying, this was a mistake. They didn’t come up with a way to beef up the moderate operation in Syria, so that it could stop ISIS. And here we are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were saying, Ambassador Edelman, the mistake in not moving more in Syria. But some people are saying it’s easier to say that in retrospect. At the time, it wasn’t at all clear what — who and how the U.S. could have been involved in Syria.

ERIC EDELMAN: Well, I think some of us were saying at the time that we needed to have a more engaged policy in Syria.

The only way you can shape an event and to find out exactly who the actors are on the ground and who you can count on and who you can’t is by having the presence and being involved. And we decided not to do that, for a good and sufficient reason, I suppose. But it left us with fewer options as we move down the road than we could have had otherwise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But right now, given what David Ignatius is saying, Vali Nasr, you’re all talking about in one way or another coalitions, building a group of actors.

It sounds like that’s what the administration is doing. And yet, is it that it’s not happening fast enough, that it’s happening too late?

VALI NASR: Well, somewhat, it is happening too late. I think David is correct.

But, you know, the administration’s working against the background of several years of communicating to this region that we are pivoting to Asia, that we’re shrinking our footprint, we’re not really committed to this region, and that the region has to figure out its own conflict on its own, so it really didn’t matter for us whether Maliki was governing right or not.

Now we have a difficult job of convincing the region that we have actually reset. I don’t think anybody believes that American policy has been reset, so basically we’re just doing the minimum amount that is required to address the current beheading or to the current — you can say, in the case of Europe, Russian action, but not that we have actually a proactive foreign policy for addressing the problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are you saying, when people sit across the table from the president, David Ignatius, they don’t — they don’t take him at his word?  Is that what is going on?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, I think, looking at these crises that are unfolding, they’re not President Obama’s fault, but you can see that people are skeptical that this president will use the American power decisively.

And so I think, in that sense, President Obama has a credibility problem. I think he’s wise not to act impulsively. The problem is, when people doubt your willingness to take action, you’re tempted to take rash actions. He hasn’t done that. He’s cautious.

But there is a need to reestablish a sense that America is a guiding and decisive force in the world. And the president is going to have to work with that the rest of his time in office.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think this president, this administration, Ambassador Edelman, is capable of doing that?

ERIC EDELMAN: Well, I agree with what David said.

And I think there is one important element here that we haven’t addressed. In order for that kind of leadership, the kind of that David is talking about to work, foreign leaders have to have a sense that the president has a theory of the case, that he understands how these different regions tie together and how actions in one can have an impact on the other.

And I think the administration, unfortunately, has tried, as Dean Nasr was saying, to look at these as one-offs. OK, we are going to deal with the problem of Ukraine, and we are going to have sanctions on Russia today. We are going to have some airstrikes to deal with ISIL. We’re going to have a presidential visit to Asia to deal with the problems of the East China and South China Sea.

These are all connected. And the president has not, in my view, articulated a coherent case for how they’re connected, how U.S. interests are connected in all these regions and how we have to act to further them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, coming up with a world view, Vali Nasr, is that what is — we’re talking about here?

VALI NASR: I think coming up with a world view, articulating what is America’s interest in these conflicts, understanding what are the interests of other countries in these conflicts, and also I think communicating that we’re not reluctant actors to events on the ground, and that I think you have to assert, what does America see in its global leadership, why it’s essential.

And I think people are looking for the president actually try to articulate this to the American public. If you’re not actually really trying to change the mind-set of the American public, you can see that it’s not going to translate into effective foreign policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s my question, David Ignatius. How much does the administration, does the president need to keep in mind the reluctance of the American people to get engaged, deeply engaged militarily in yet another, yet another part of the world?

DAVID IGNATIUS: The president has to keep it in mind. Effective leadership is leading the public.

The president said today that the United States will degrade and destroy the ISIS extremists who have beheaded two Americans in the most horrifying way imaginable. He has to deliver on that now. And he has to bring the country with him, including a Congress that’s very reluctant before the election to get involved in another war in Iraq.

He has to deliver on his promise that Russia and President Putin will pay a price in Ukraine. He has to make clear that — that he means that. And so that’s what he — he has to deliver now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, do you think these terrible images we have been seeing make that any easier?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, I think the public is going to be more willing to say it’s worth committing American power to fight people who do things like this, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK, lots of big questions. They go on and on.

We thank you all for being with us, David Ignatius, Ambassador Edelman, Vali Nasr. Thank you.