GWEN IFILL: Last week’s execution-style murder of journalist James Foley has intensified the debate over how the U.S. should handle the expanding Islamic State group. Officials at the White House and the Pentagon have signaled they will act against the militant group soon, perhaps striking within Syria.
Jeffrey Brown takes a closer look at the choices facing the Obama administration.
JEFFREY BROWN: U.S. jets flying off the carrier George H.W. Bush kept up airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Iraq over the weekend. There was also growing talk of expanding the air campaign across the border into Syria.
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said last week that’s the only way to defeat the militant group. But at the White House today, spokesman Josh Earnest was noncommittal.
JOSH EARNEST, White House Press Secretary: The president thus far has not made a decision to order additional military action in Syria.
JEFFREY BROWN: Also today, Syria’s foreign minister today rejected any airstrikes, unless Damascus is consulted. Still, he said Syria welcomes all help, despite repeated U.S. calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
WALID AL-MOALLEM, Syrian Foreign Minister (through interpreter): We are ready to cooperate and coordinate with regional countries and the international community in fighting terrorism following the resolutions of the Security Council. We welcome everybody.
JEFFREY BROWN: The need for help was evident Sunday, as Islamic State forces captured the last major military base in northeastern Syria. They celebrated in the streets of Raqqa with vehicles honking horns and shots fired in the air.
Calls for U.S. action to extend into Syria have mounted since American journalist James Foley was beheaded by Islamic State captors. Sunday, on NBC, the British ambassador to the U.S., Peter Westmacott, said investigators are close to identifying the British-accented militant in the video. He also acknowledged that some 500 Britons have joined the Islamic State.
The chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Mike Rogers, warned that Westerners in the group pose a mortal threat.
REP. MIKE ROGERS, R-Mich.: And one of the problems is, it’s gone unabated for nearly two years, and that draws people from Britain, to across Europe, even the United States to go and join the fight. They are one plane ticket away from U.S. shores, and that’s why we’re so concerned about it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, the U.N. human rights chief, Navi Pillay, accused Islamic State forces of widespread crimes in Iraq, including slavery, sexual abuse, and mass executions of hundreds of prisoners.
How great a threat is the Islamic State group? And what should the U.S. do about it?
We join the debate now with retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor. He was executive officer to General David Petraeus in Iraq during the surge in 2007 and ’8. He’s now an associate professor of military history at the Ohio State University. And Stephen Walt is professor of international relations at Harvard University. He’s written extensively about security policy issues.
Peter Mansoor, let me start with you.
How do you define the threat and how urgent is the need to act?
COL. PETER MANSOOR (RET.), U.S. Army: Well, ISIS is a group that is well-funded, well-armed, and has thousands of fighters under its ranks and more joining it every day.
It’s a threat to the region. It can destabilize the Middle East, from which we get most of our oil, in terms of the global economy. And it can inject terrorism into Europe and the United States, given that it has hundreds of fighters in its ranks who hold Western passports.
So this is a group that is a threat to the United States and the global community and it needs to be dealt with.
JEFFREY BROWN: Stephen Walt, how do you respond to that? How do you define the threat first?
STEPHEN WALT, Harvard University: I think that there’s no question ISIS is a bunch of very bad guys. But it’s primarily a threat to the people in the areas they control and not a direct threat to the United States.
It’s a predominantly Sunni group which will not be able to expand into non-Sunni areas. And the potential terrorist threat there, I think, has been greatly exaggerated. There are lots of groups around the world who would like to be able to go after the United States. Most of them fail. And, in fact, the way to deal with it is primarily with intelligence and counterterrorism here at home.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so, Peter Mansoor, what exactly would you propose? Are there — are airstrikes into Syria required? Are special forces on the ground required? Spell it out for us, what you would like to see.
COL. PETER MANSOOR: Well, if the goal is to destroy ISIS, you have to do it on both sides of what is now a nonexistent international border, because, otherwise, if you just deal with the group in Iraq, it will just move back into Syria and remetastasize.
I believe we need to wait until there’s an inclusive and legitimate government in Baghdad. But provided that happens under Prime Minister designate Haider al-Abadi, then I think we need to provide advisers and trainers to reform and retrain the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga, ramp up the equipment effort, especially to the Kurdish forces in the north, ramp up our airstrikes and provide more drone strikes and aircraft, and base them in the region, so they don’t have to be based on ships floating out in the Gulf.
And then I think — and this is probably the most controversial point of what I have to say — we need to provide special forces to embed themselves with Sunni tribes and rekindle the awakening that did so much to destroy the forerunner to ISIS, al-Qaida in Iraq, in 2006, 2007 and 2008. And they need to do that probably on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Stephen Walt, you didn’t see the same threat, so I assume you don’t see that same kind of ramp-up. What’s your response?
STEPHEN WALT: I think that, first of all, the United States should remember that we have spent the last 15 years trying to use military power, including military assistance, to try and organize the politics of this region. And we have failed miserably.
We have got a failed state in Iraq. We have a failed state in Libya, and we spent $25 billion training the Iraqi army, which then subsequently turned and ran when confronted by ISIS. So I think to believe that we can go in again with airpower primarily and some special forces and eliminate this problem is fanciful.
This is going to be ultimately a problem for locals to deal with, not for the United States to try and deal with. And because it is not a vital threat to core American security interests, it’s one we should stay away from.
JEFFREY BROWN: What about, though, Mr. Walt, the argument that if we don’t — if the U.S. doesn’t do something now, it may be too late later on if you are wrong?
STEPHEN WALT: Well, again, we have to recognize this is not the Third Reich. This is not an incredibly powerful movement. It has maybe 20,000 fighters, no air force, no navy, basically lightly armed infantry that has been able to expand in stateless area, areas that are stateless in part because we destroyed the states that were governing there.
And the idea that we are going to go in again with a few thousand special forces and reorganize the politics of that region, I think, has been tried and found wanting in the past. And it would be found wanting again if we tried it again.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Peter Mansoor, speaking of complications in your argument, Syria has warned against airstrikes into its space. Would your — would a push toward going across the border not complicate things even more there?
COL. PETER MANSOOR: Well, it’s a simple military mission of destroying an enemy armed force.
And we send Syria a simple message: Stay out of our way or we will start bombing you as well. And I think Bashar al-Assad and his forces would be happy to watch us bomb ISIS with or without coordination with them.
I think the main difference between Professor Walt and me is, he doesn’t see ISIS as a threat to the United States. And I see it as a direct threat to the United States. It has an ideology that will eventually lead it to attack us.
JEFFREY BROWN: But, Mr. Mansoor, even if it is a threat or not to the United States, one of his arguments, as I hear it, is history doesn’t bode well. It doesn’t show us that the U.S. has the kind of power, ability, efficiency to do what you think we can do.
COL. PETER MANSOOR: Well, I beg to differ.
I just finished writing a book on the surge. And in 2007 and 2008, we did turn around a war effort that had nearly failed, and had that country on the road to stability. Unfortunately, through political missteps, most of them by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, that victory was thrown away.
So I don’t see the same military dysfunction as Professor Walt. What I do know is that, without U.S. help, Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces cannot defeat ISIS.
JEFFREY BROWN: Stephen Walt?
STEPHEN WALT: I think, first of all, if the Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces can’t defeat them, then we’re not going to be able to defeat them ourselves.
And we disagree on the success of the surge. The surge was a tactical success, but a strategic failure, because it did not produce the political reconciliation that was a requirement for strategic success there. And there’s no evidence that we have the magic formula for recreating political order in Syria or in Iraq. And, ultimately, that’s going to be a task for the residents of those areas to do, and not expect the United States to do it for them.
JEFFREY BROWN: One other brief issue, starting, Peter Mansoor. What about the allies? Does — can — should the U.S. act alone if it doesn’t have the support of other allies?
COL. PETER MANSOOR: We actually do have the support of a lot of nations around the world who have been calling for U.S. leadership in this case.
European nations would like to see ISIS destroyed. They realize that a lot of their citizens are in ISIS ranks, and could be a threat to them as well. So with U.S. leadership, I believe that we actually will have international legitimacy for this mission, unlike the war in 2003.
JEFFREY BROWN: And a brief last word for you, Stephen Walt, if the U.S. has that kind of legitimacy?
STEPHEN WALT: There’s no question that almost everyone around the world would like to see ISIS weakened, but ultimately that is going to be a task for the people who are mostly threatened. And it is the people who are living right next door to ISIS, not the United States, which is an ocean away.
JEFFREY BROWN: Stephen Walt and Peter Mansoor, thank you so much. We will continue the debate.