TOPICS > World > no end in sight

Can Obama’s plan ‘defeat and destroy’ the Islamic State?

June 10, 2015 at 6:40 PM EDT
The White House has announced it will send more troops to fight the Islamic State group in Iraq. To discuss the multi-front war with the militants, Judy Woodruff talks to Michèle Flournoy of the Center for a New American Security, retired Col. Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of the U.S. Central Command.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joining me now to review today’s announcement and the fight against the Islamic State are former U.S. Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta, former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, retired General Anthony Zinni, former Undersecretary of Policy at the Department of Defense Michele Flournoy, and retired U.S. Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich.

Welcome to all four of you.

Let me just quickly go around the group, to begin, and get your response to this addition of 450 more military advisers in Iraq.

Secretary Panetta, you first.

LEON PANETTA, Former Secretary of Defense: Well, there’s no question that I think the president’s taken the right step in adding these trainers and advisers.

We’re in a tough situation there. ISIS, obviously, is resilient. They have got a lot of momentum. I think we need to do this. I suspect that we’re going to have to take more steps, particularly that now that we’re in a combat zone, where we’re going to have to have more flexible rulings of engagement.

I think we do need additional special forms to help not only with C.T. operations, but with targeting. And I do think we have to ensure that arms do flow both to the Sunnis and the Kurds. All of that is going to be necessary in order to be able to achieve the mission that we have embarked on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michele Flournoy, good move or not?

MICHELE FLOURNOY, Center for a New American Security: I think it’s a good move and a smart move.

It allows us to start training the Iraqi security forces and, most importantly, the local Sunni militia forces in Anbar province much more fully and intensively. I think the real question is whether this is a first step in a broader series.

I think, if we’re going to be effective, we need to also allow our forces to advice during operations, when the Iraqis actually go into combat, but also be able to call in more effective airstrikes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Bacevich, what about you? Is this the right thing to do right now?

COL. ANDREW BACEVICH (RET.), Boston University: Well, I think it’s a very modest adjustment to the existing policy. And the emphasis here is on very modest.

The policy is based on the assumption that we have the capability to create effective Iraqi forces. Now, when you think about it, we have been trying to do that for 10 years now. We have not succeeded, and I’m a little bit skeptical that the addition of 450 trainers is going to make that much of a difference.

I’m sure that they will be able to transfer some important skills to the people that they train, but will they be able to transfer the will to fight, which would seem to be the fundamental problem with the Iraqi forces that have basically been taking a licking from ISIS?

JUDY WOODRUFF: General Zinni, what about you?

GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.), Former Commander, U.S. Central Command: Well, I think it’s an indication that we continue to underestimate the capability of ISIS, the enemy, and overestimate the capabilities of the Iraqi military to deal with this.

The strategy from the beginning has had several flaws, in my view. One, it believes that time is on our side. It’s been a year now that ISIS has occupied land inside Iraq and has basically not moved much, and we haven’t been able to move them much. And, second, it depends on some magical ground force that’s going to appear through some coalition or the resurrection of an Iraqi military that’s effective.

That hasn’t happened. Third, it’s based on an Iraqi government that is — to follow what Andrew said, is going to create more in the hearts of the Iraqi military to be willing to fight, and that hasn’t materialized either.

So I think this is almost deja vu to Vietnam before we committed the ground forces. We dribble in more and more advisers and support. It’s not what’s in the hands of the soldiers. As Andrew said, it’s what’s in their hearts, and that’s going to be the difference. And I don’t think we can continue to let this thing just go on as it is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me turn to Secretary Panetta.

Why are not those concerns yours, Secretary Panetta? Why shouldn’t Americans be concerned that, if the Iraqis don’t have the will to fight, why should more U.S. trainers make a difference?

LEON PANETTA: This isn’t just about Iraq. This is about a threat to our national security.

If ISIS is allowed to have a base of operations in Iraq, make no mistake about it, their intentions are to use that as a base of attacking our country and attacking our homeland. That’s why we have got to push the Iraqis to make sure that the Sunnis do engage and that they’re armed, and that the Kurds do the same.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Colonel Bacevich, though, you’re saying that you don’t think the Iraqis have that will.

COL. ANDREW J. BACEVICH: Well, more than that, with all due respect, I think Secretary Panetta is vastly exaggerating the threat posed by ISIS.

The threat posed by ISIS to the United States of America is actually very, very limited. We probably should be worrying more about drug lords in Mexico, in terms of a direct threat to our safety. ISIS threatens the stability of a region that we ourselves destabilized, as a result of our own folly back in 2003. And that’s worth remembering, because we therefore ought to be just a little bit humble about thinking some kind of commitment of American military power directly or indirectly is going to fix the problem.

The evidence is quite clear. U.S. military intervention in this region creates greater instability, not stability. If we want to somehow find a way to put the region back together again, we need to look to someone else to assume the principal burden for taking the fight to ISIS.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me turn to Michele Flournoy.

Why isn’t he right, that the U.S. really is overestimating the strength of ISIS; we should be more worried about what’s going on in our border to the south than we are about this fighting forces thousands and thousands of miles away?

MICHELE FLOURNOY: I think we need to look beyond the snapshot of ISIS today.

ISIS is the new jihad — violent jihadist vanguard in the Middle East and globally. They are displacing al-Qaida as the — sort of the group to follow and the group to emulate. They are gaining ground in Libya. They are gaining ground even in Afghanistan.

They, I think in the next few years, if not stopped, will displace al-Qaida and be a global network that will not only have objectives locally, but will have transnational objectives. We already see thousands of foreign fighters coming from Europe, primarily other states in the Gulf. Those fighters will eventually return and be looking to carry out jihad in their home countries.

But on this question of will to fight, I think the key question is political. The Sunnis have been persecuted by a Shia-dominated government in Iraq. They will fight if they believe that there is a — they’re going to be treated differently in the end. That’s what will create the will to fight on the part of the Sunni population.

JUDY WOODRUFF: General Zinni, what about this question of whether — whether this is a fight that the U.S. should be making at all at this point? Why should the U.S. be investing more of its men and women and materiel in that part of the world?

GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI: Well, you know, I sort of come down in between.

I do think it’s in our national interest to have a stable Middle East, for all sorts of reasons. Could be with energy resources. Our trade routes go through there. The threats tend to — as Michele pointed out, tend to metastasize and spread globally. So we do have interests.

Now, my problem with the secretary’s position, if it is in our vital interest, then we have the ability to crush ISIS. They have stepped up to a conventional fight. We’re not fully committed to this fight. We use terms like destroy. I can tell you, you could put ground forces on the ground now, and we can destroy ISIS and we can send them back into Raqqa and could even get there.

I would also tell you that there are coalition forces out there that would join us if we put forces on the ground. The trouble with that — and I go to Andrew’s point — that, if you do — and I know it’s the concern of this administration — we’re going to get bogged down into an enduring commitment.

That can only be mitigated by having the Iraqis develop into the kind of force that can replace a coalition force that may be initially there to defeat, in the initial stages, ISIS. I was in Iraq when Maliki was elected. And everybody in Baghdad, Iraqis, our embassy, our generals included, said, Maliki is the key. If he doesn’t have an inclusive government and reach out to the Sunnis particularly, this thing will come apart.

It was prescient of what happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me come back to the point you made, you directed, I think, to Secretary Panetta.

And that is, the U.S. could send, we just General Zinni say, a few brigades in and dispense with ISIS in the short run. Why not — Secretary Panetta, why isn’t that — I mean, that’s clearly an argument that is out there. Republicans running for president, some of them, are advocating that. Why is that the wrong step to take right now?

LEON PANETTA: Well, look, again, I don’t think there’s any question that our national security interests are involved here.

Otherwise, why would we even be there in the first place? But the reality is that we know how to do this without deploying the 101st Airborne or a large number of brigades there. The fact is, we’re good at counterterrorism. That’s what we did in Iraq before we left. That’s what we did in Afghanistan before we left.

We targeted the enemy effectively. We helped train their security forces. They were in a position where they were doing very effective security operations on the ground. And the reality is, we know how to do this, and we know how to win at doing this.

And so all we really do need to do, it seems to me, is to be able to give our military commanders the flexibility to design not only the strategy to degrade ISIS, but the larger strategy we need in order to defeat ISIS. I think what’s missing now is what the president himself acknowledged was not there, which is the larger strategy that is needed to show, what are we going to do in order to move ISIS out of Iraq and then take on ISIS in Syria?

This has got to be part of that larger strategy. And if it is there, if we can define that larger strategy, then I think we can not only work with our Arab allies in that region. We can also develop the kind — the consensus that we need from the American people to continue this commitment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I understood the president, when he said there is not a complete strategy, to be referring to the fact that the Iraqis have not yet trained — recruited and trained sufficient troops to carry out the fight.

Andrew Bacevich, let me come back to you.

What about — if the U.S., working with Iraq, were to do what Secretary Panetta just described, were to have the support of allies in the region, countries in the region, why isn’t that the right way to move forward now?

COL. ANDREW J. BACEVICH: Again, with all due respect, we don’t know how to do this.

I mean, we were in — the U.S. military was in Iraq from 2003 and 2011. Four years later, we have this basket case on our hands. So, the notion — I think it’s important for us to recognize that there are some problems that American military might cannot solve, and the disorder and dysfunction in this part of the world is at the very top of the list of those problems.

So, it is true that we have an interest in restoring stability to that part of the world. What’s not true is that American military power is the way to make that happen. And, therefore, I think it’s important to widen the discussion, to consider the possibility that there may be others in the region better able to bring about stability than we ourselves can do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michele Flournoy, why not? Why not do as Colonel Bacevich says?

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Well, I think we could — if we were to use U.S. forces to dispatch ISIS, I take General Zinni’s point from a tactical military perspective.

But that doesn’t solve the problem, because the real problem is making sure that there is Iraqi capacity to hold the territory, secure it long-term, so that ISIS doesn’t come back again. And that involves the larger political compromises we were discussing before. It also involves building this longer-term capability.

I do agree with Professor Bacevich that this shouldn’t be a U.S. effort only. It’s isn’t one. It is one that involves a coalition of many countries. And particularly the neighboring states have a very important role to play to try to underwrite Iraq’s stability longer-term.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Secretary Panetta, I hear Andrew Bacevich saying that the U.S. hasn’t shown that it can do this kind of fight and it should be leaving it up to the countries in the region, whether it’s Iran or anyone else who feels ISIS is a threat.

LEON PANETTA: Well, again, with great respect to him, you know, we have learned time and time again, particularly in these last few years, with crisis after crisis, that if the United States doesn’t provide leadership in these crises, nobody else will.

I don’t know who the hell he expects we’re going to be able to turn to, to be able to protect our national security in this situation. The United States is going to have to provide that leadership. And, yes, we need to work with the Iraqis, and, yes, we need to work with other allies in the region, but we have to provide that leadership.

We can’t just stand on the sidelines wringing our hands. I mean, ask — ask the people of Paris what happened there with ISIS. Ask the people in Brussels what happened there with ISIS. What happened in Toronto? What’s happened in this country as a result of the threat from ISIS? This is a national security threat. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: General Zinni, what would you say to that?

GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI: Well, several points.

The last victory, clear victory that we had was in the first Gulf War. And there were several reasons for that. We used overwhelming force. We ended it quickly. We went to the U.N. and got a resolution. We built a coalition.

And that ought to be a model we ought to look at. Now, in terms of building a coalition in this region, we have to realize several things. They’re incapable of putting it together themselves, for several reasons. Some of it is political, but a lot of it has to do with capacity, command-and-control, logistics, intelligence. The backbone that they need is us.

More importantly, they need us to share the risk up front, too. And that’s why I’m an advocate of some ground forces from us on the ground.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just final word from Andrew Bacevich to Secretary Panetta, when he said, if the U.S. doesn’t do it, who is?

COL. ANDREW J. BACEVICH: Well, I think there is another country in the region that actually does have the will and may well possess the capacity to defeat ISIS, and has a very powerful interest in doing so.

And, like it or not, that country is Iran. And we should look to the possibility, not of forging some kind of formal partnership with Iran, but of seeing if there’s some way to assist them informally in their efforts.

And one might say well, gosh, they’re the bad guys. Well, let’s think about World War II. In World War II, in order to defeat the immediate threat, Nazi Germany, we made a partnership with a mass murderer called Joseph Stalin. So, sometimes, when you can’t fix the problem on your own, you need to make some compromises and find the partners who can get the job done for you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I heard so many heads shaking. I give Michele Flournoy the last word.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: It is not in U.S. interests to empower Iran’s role inside Iraq or anywhere in the Middle East, given their support for terrorism and their destabilizing activities throughout the region.

I think that is — might be a very appealing from a tactical perspective, but I don’t think that’s in our strategic interests, with — again, with all due respect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With a lot of due respect…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … our thanks to all four of you.

Michele Flournoy, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, General Anthony Zinni, and Colonel Andrew Bacevich, we thank you.