What should we be doing to defeat the Islamic State?

Militarily and diplomatically, what can the U.S. and others do to stop the Islamic State? Gwen Ifill gets views from James Jeffrey of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    So what should the U.S. do and what shouldn't it do?

    We have two views. Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey served in the infantry, and he is now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute. And John Mearsheimer, a West Point graduate and former Air Force officer, he writes extensively on strategic issues and is a political science professor at the University of Chicago.

    Welcome to you both, gentlemen.

    JAMES JEFFREY, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Thank you.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Jim Jeffrey, let's break this up into two parts, the military and diplomatic options. We hear a lot about boots on the ground, commitment of U.S. forces. Is that the only thing we should be thinking about? Is that where the debate is right now?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    In terms of taking down ISIS as a state and as an army, we have to go on the offensive. That requires ground troops.

    We have tried for 15 months to create a set of ground troops from the units and entities and forces on the ground that we have. It isn't working all that well. We don't have the time to keep trying to do this. Some insertion of U.S. forces, both as advisers, special forces and some ground maneuver units are absolutely necessary to move this forward.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Quantify what you mean by some.

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    Well, General Jack Keane in congressional testimony on the 18th talked about two brigades to be deployed, and that would be about 10,000 combat troops to stand by to move forward if needed as we try this expanded incremental approach that the president is suggesting.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    John Mearsheimer, this is called having skin in the game, theoretically. What are the opportunities for that and what are the risks?

    JOHN MEARSHEIMER, University of Chicago: Well, I think there is virtually no chance that we're going to put large-scale ground forces in Syria, and President Obama has made it clear that he's not going to do that.

    And the principal reason is you would have to put a lot of ground troops in to defeat ISIS. And there is no question that if you put 100,000, 150,000 troops in there, you could defeat ISIS, but then you run into the what-next question. What are we going to do, stay in there and occupy the place? And the end result will be dealing with insurgents, won't know how to get out and will just make a bad situation worse.

    So it's quite clear to me that there is no way we can defeat ISIS from the air or with ground forces. And, therefore, we have to find some sort of diplomatic solution.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, before we get to the diplomatic, what are the options here? Are we talking about occupation? Is that inevitable?

  • JOHN MEARSHEIMER:

    No, occupation is not inevitable. And I don't believe we will end up occupying Syria, because we have tried this before, in both Afghanistan and in Iraq, and it didn't turn out very well.

    And we would be remarkably foolish to try to duplicate that task. And there is no way we can win this one with airpower alone. The only hope is that Assad's forces can be rebuilt, to the point where they can deal with ISIS, and then we can get out of the region militarily.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let me ask you both this question. You know that Francois Hollande is coming to Washington tomorrow, going to meet with the president. What should he be asking for?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    What he will be asking for is a far more aggressive American campaign against ISIS, because, if he doesn't get a yes, an affirmative answer to that, he's going to in any case go off to Moscow and ask the same thing of Putin. Putin has perhaps one-tenth of our military capabilities, but Putin will give him an affirmative on a very aggressive campaign against ISIS.

    So, we're going to have that one way or the other.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    John Mearsheimer, what do you think that Hollande should be or will be asking for?

  • JOHN MEARSHEIMER:

    Well, first of all, I think that what he should ask for is a coalition that includes the United States, the Russians, Iran and a number of other actors in the region to work for the purposes of propping up the Assad government.

    The only hope we have here is to prop up Assad and make him powerful enough that he can deal with ISIS. That way, we don't have to put in ground forces. And the Russians of course are not going to put in ground forces themselves. So the only hope is Assad.

    But the principal problem we face is that the United States is incapable of working with the Russians. We still continue to pursue this policy where we're trying to topple Assad and the Russians are trying to support Assad. This is crazy, because we're working at cross-purposes and, if anything, we're just going to make the war worse and that is going to play to ISIS' advantage. I think Hollande understands this.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let me stay with you, Mr. Mearsheimer, for a moment, because you brought up the question of diplomatic solutions. Do we have time to pursue that? We're right in the middle of this now.

  • JOHN MEARSHEIMER:

    Well, we really have no choice. There is no simple military solution. There is nothing the Americans or the Russians can do militarily to win this, because we're not willing to commit ground forces, for good reasons.

    So, what we have to do is, we have to work with Assad and we have to create a situation where he's powerful enough to push back ISIS and then work to get some sort of peace settlement in the region. It's going to be remarkably difficult to do, in large part because, as I said, the Americans are incapable of working with the Russians.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Ambassador Jeffrey, let's talk about this Assad question. It's clear that we're not on the same side of the discussion with Russia on Assad. And you just heard what Mr. Mearsheimer said about, hey, listen, let's forget about this idea of ousting Assad for now. What do you think?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    Gwen, in this business, we can never be totally sure, but I'm about as sure as I ever can be that, if we tried to throw our weight behind this unholy coalition of Assad, the Russians and the Iranians, we would ensure that ISIS will not only survive, but prosper, because the entire Arab Sunni world and Turkey will throw their weight against us on this.

    This is a double-barreled problem we have, the Assad regime, which helped create ISIS and is now supported by Russia and Iran, and ISIS itself. The way to do this is to keep Assad out of the battle and take the fight to ISIS. ISIS has 30,000 troops. We have about 200,000 or 300,000 of our allied troops, but they don't have the capability to take the offensive without America leading.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let me ask you. And I want to ask this also to Mr. Mearsheimer.

    What is our long-term or even our short-term strategic objective in Syria? Why should we be more involved?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    First of all…

  • JOHN MEARSHEIMER:

    Well, I think…

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    … it's in the center of the Middle East.

    Secondly, we have allies to the north in Turkey, to the south in Israel and Jordan, and we have extraordinary interests that President Obama has emphasized time and time again. He acknowledges that we are fighting a war against ISIS. His goal is to destroy it. He said that again yesterday. The question is how to do that.

    And our long-term goals are to try to bring some kind of resurrection of the state system in these very, very fragile countries, because they can't stand up against these movements otherwise.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    John Mearsheimer?

  • JOHN MEARSHEIMER:

    First of all, I don't believe that the United States has any strategic interest in Syria. I think, from a strategic point of view, Syria is an insignificant country. It's not like Iraq or Iran that have lots of oil.

    Second, I think the principal two reasons that we should want to shut down this conflict as soon as possible is, number one, for humanitarian reasons — this is a human rights disaster — and, secondly, because if we don't stem the flow of refugees into Europe, it's going to cause all sorts of problems in Europe. You can already see that happening.

    So we have a deep-seated interest, I think not for strategic reasons, but for human rights reasons and because of Europe, to do what we can to end this one as quickly as possible. But I don't think that's going to happen, because I think the ambassador's view of dealing with the Russians is correct in the minds of most Americans. And most people disagree with what I say.

    And, therefore, we won't work with the Russians and we won't solve this problem. It will only get worse. More Syrians will die and more refugees will go into Europe.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Interesting listening to you argue against your own point of view there.

    Professor Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, thank you very much, and to Ambassador Jim Jeffrey here in Washington.

  • JOHN MEARSHEIMER:

    Thank you.

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