JOHN HARWOOD: The president goes to Europe to deal with global hot spots and growing terror threats. I’m John Harwood, in for Gwen Ifill. The strategy and the options, tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) Those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget and that our reach is long and that justice will be served.
MR. HARWOOD: Resolve and outrage after Islamic State extremists execute a second American journalist.
VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From videotape.) They should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice.
MR. HARWOOD: But how will the president take the fight to ISIL? And will he get the political support he needs?
SENATE MINORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From videotape.) He needs to remind everybody that this is not just some Middle Eastern dispute here. These are people that want to kill us here at home.
MR. HARWOOD: And Russia’s Vladimir Putin moves to consolidate portions of neighboring Ukraine.
ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN (NATO secretary general): (From videotape.) Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has been a wakeup call.
MR. HARWOOD: But is NATO poised to stop the Kremlin?
Covering these global flashpoints, Indira Lakshmanan, foreign policy correspondent for Bloomberg News; Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Yochi Dreazen, managing editor of Foreign Policy Magazine; and John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for Slate and political director of CBS News.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
MR. HARWOOD: Good evening.
President Obama has just wrapped up a week with NATO allies under the backdrop of two crises brewing all summer: Russia’s expansion into Ukraine and the growing threat from Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
Earlier this week, video emerged of a second execution of an American journalist, Steven Sotloff, at the hands of ISIL, an act that appeared to strengthen the resolve of the U.S. and NATO.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) Have no doubt, we will continue and I will continue to do what is necessary to protect the American people. And ISIL poses a real threat. And I’m encouraged by the fact that our friends and allies recognize that same threat.
BRITISH PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: (From videotape.) So our message is clear. We are united in condemnation of these barbaric and despicable acts. They should be very clear, these terrorists. Their threats will only harden our resolve to stand up for our values and to defeat them.
MR. HARWOOD: So, Peter, reality check here. They also came out of this meeting at NATO saying they had a coalition of 10 countries. Is that going to make a difference? Is that enough to take the fight to ISIL?
PETER BAKER: Well, it’s President Obama’s version of the coalition of the willing, right? We’re not – in tapping all of NATO, which has 28 members and can’t agree on very much at times. So he pulled aside, in effect, the main partners he wants – Britain, France, Germany, Australia, a handful of others.
And, no, I mean, in some ways it’s a matter of politics and diplomacy. There are some specialties that each of these countries has that can contribute to the fight. But in reality, the United States will do the main bit of the fighting when it comes to airstrikes. And the Free Syria Army on the ground will be the proxy force, in effect. The Syrian rebels, who are more moderate than ISIL, will be the proxy force on the ground.
The more important actors probably will be Saudi Arabia, Jordan, actors in the region in terms of their ability to help cut off the flow of funds and men and weapons and so forth, ISIL. So he has yet to bring them on board, but that’s the next step.
MR. HARWOOD: So, Yochi, the president talked about a broader approach, using allies, taking the fight to ISIL. But he also said that there were not going to be any boots on the ground, reiterating that policy. So is this a credible strategy, a credible approach to degrading, destroying ISIL?
YOCHI DREAZEN: He’d also said there’d be no boots on the ground in Syria. We now know there was a rescue attempt to try to get back James Foley, a colleague, before he was murdered by ISIS, by ISIL. So there were boots on the ground. They left. The mission failed, unfortunately. There will be boots on the ground in Iraq. It’s a matter of time. To call in airstrikes, you need Americans on the ground to say hit this, don’t hit that.
But this talk that they use now of destroy ISIS, eliminate, eradicate, they’ve really ramped up the language, as Peter indicated. The idea of destroying a group that has this broad swath of territory when we could not destroy al-Qaida in Iraq - Israel could not destroy Hezbollah; Israel could not destroy Hamas. So the idea that you’re just going to somehow magically destroy this giant, well-armed, well-funded army is magic talk. It’s wishful thinking. But it can’t possibly happen.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, Indira, do you see it the same way? I mean, the administration said that it had, in effect, eliminated al-Qaida’s ability to hit us in the way that they did in 2001. So are the words significant? Is there a difference between dismantle, degrade, destroy, manageable problem? What do those mean? And can you eliminate a threat even if you can’t eliminate everyone who says they want to be part of an Islamic state?
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Well, the choice of words was really interesting. And I think, in part, the president and his handlers were no doubt thinking about him having said just a few days earlier last week we don’t have a strategy here. And that played so badly, and having, you know, a few months ago referred to ISIL as the jayvee squad.
MR. HARWOOD: Did the president get a bad rap on no strategy? Or was that to you a stunning admission, given where we are in this process?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Well, I think he was admitting it, but usually you don’t want the president admitting something like that to the entire world. That’s sort of like –
MR. HARWOOD: But is it reasonable that the administration was at that place, that they were still working on what the approach was?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Yeah. And I think that they are still to this day working on that approach. I mean, what he tried to say very clearly today was we’re not going to be containing them. Our aim is not to just limit them in Iraq or a small part of Iraq and Syria. We actually want to destroy them.
And Secretary of State Kerry actually took it further. He afterwards said, you know, this isn’t a short battle. We do think we can win it, but it might take one year, two years, three years. So I think that is a more realistic approach, to look at it as a long game. These terrorists are rich –
MR. HARWOOD: But, now, Yochi just said that destroy is a fantasy.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Yeah. I think –
MR. HARWOOD: So is contain really the more realistic and accurate way to think about this?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Well, I actually think that they’re trying to do more than just contain them. And let me talk about what I mean here, this – the multilayered sort of menu of options I think they’re doing here. In trying to bring together this coalition that Peter was talking about, I think they’re sort of wanting different things from different countries.
And my colleague, Terry Atlas, referred to this as the pot-luck approach. And I love that analogy, because it’s the notion that everybody else brings something; everyone brings something to the table, and you may not like the dish that everybody brings.
So, you know, from the Saudis – because the president made explicit that he wants Middle Eastern partners to come on as well – you know, we’re going to want money. We’re going to want intelligence. From the Jordanians, from the Turks, who are part of this 10-member coalition already and are part of NATO, we’re going to want them to cut off the border flow of jihadists going back and forth.
You know, I think they’re going to do a number of things. And it’s not just kinetic, on the ground, inciting through proxies, which I think is a really difficult thing – like, how can we trust the vetted proxies? Who are the truly moderate rebels? And they’re not very good fighters, apparently, or ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra wouldn’t be in combat if they were; but, you know, the kinetic aspect; also financial; also hit their recruitment networks, intel. So I think everyone’s going to try to do a little bit.
And I do think that while destroying it entirely may be unrealistic, as Yochi said, I think that it’s entirely possible they can do more than contain them. And he’s – you know, look at what he’s done with al-Shabaab, for example, killing the leader there in Somalia. So, you know, they’re going to try to take out leaders, and they’re going to try to do it step by step.
MR. HARWOOD: John Dickerson, as the late great Joan Rivers would say, can we talk about the politics of this? I was in North Carolina this week for a debate among Senate candidates. And both the Republican and the Democrat strongly criticized the president for his approach – should have armed the Syrian rebels, should have been much more on top of this, doesn’t have a strategy. But when they were pressed by Norah O’Donnell, who was moderating, so do you support military action in Syria, they were very cautious about that.
So I guess my question is, does the White House want a vote from Congress? Do members of Congress want to vote? And will they give him a majority?
JOHN DICKERSON: So let’s unpack some of this. We’ve just had a pretty nuanced conversation about what’s possible and what’s not possible. But you mentioned both the Democrat and the Republican in that debate said, yes, it’s obvious the president should have armed the moderate Syrian forces.
Well, it wasn’t so obvious at the time. But in taking – that’s now conventional wisdom among all these candidates, which makes it seem like –
MR. HARWOOD: Including Hillary Clinton.
MR. DICKERSON: Well, that’s right, indeed. Kay Hagan, the Democrat, was taking the Hillary Clinton position. Well, now that makes it seem like the options are pretty simple. You know, you just do A and B and it’ll all be solved. Well, that’s not the case at all. But that was the way they were framing it.
Then when the question was asked, what would you do, the Democrat, Kay Hagan, said there’s got to be action in Congress. But I called around today to the Democrats and I said, so is there a real mood? Do they really want a vote here? They said no. I said but you have candidates saying in debates that they want to have a vote on action against ISIL.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, they’re only going to be in session for two weeks when they come back.
MR. DICKERSON: For two weeks. Well, that’s right. So they get to say they want the action and then say, oh, we didn’t have the time. So it doesn’t look like there’s going to be any action on the Hill. And the White House isn’t asking for it yet.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, Peter, is that what the White House wants? Do they think that they right now have the legal authority to send airstrikes into Syria? And are they just fine with doing that, without the back and forth with Congress, which turned out very badly for them when they considered action in Syria earlier?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, a year ago, yes. I think that the lawyers are churning and churning and churning on this very question as we speak, probably. They do think that they have the authority, under the president’s commander-in-chief powers against a threat like ISIL, to go ahead and launch airstrikes, should they need to. They also still have the authorization to use force from 2001, they might argue, which was against not just al-Qaida but al-Qaida-like groups. They might make that argument.
I think you’re right. There probably can’t be a vote in Congress before the election. But I think there’s still part of the White House – there are some people in the White House who think they want a show of hands from Congress and some buy-in; much the same argument they had a year ago with the idea of a retaliatory strike against Bashar al-Assad’s government for using chemical weapons.
And it might be something as simple as, you know, a vote on funding; maybe a vote of, you know, we support the troops. There may be some version other than an authorization kind of vote. But they do want to get some buy-in, if they can help it, perhaps after the election, from the lawmakers so they’re not on a limb.
MR. HARWOOD: Yochi, is it your view that, whether or not the goal is destroy, which you don’t think is realistic, but it’s something else, to hurt them very badly, can that be done without American troops going into Syria? Is there – are there enough tools between allies, moderate rebels in Syria already, airstrikes, that it’s not necessary? Or is it?
MR. DREAZEN: I think, in the old cliché of having to – have the devil in the details, it depends on how you define troops in Syria. If you’re describing small numbers of special operations troops who are there for a few hours, as in the James Foley raid, it can’t be done without that.
If you’re describing small numbers who are there to train the Free Syrian Army, it can’t be done without that. If you’re talking about a full-on invasion, a few hundred, a few thousand, I don’t think it’s plausible. And I also don’t think it would help.
But there was an interesting comment last week. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked about ISIS in Iraq, said you can’t do anything there while they have havens in Syria. And the clear implication from the Pentagon is we see the need to hit Syria - not that they want to, but they see the need to do it. So if you’re the White House, the question is, how far are you willing to go? If the military says hit Syria, do you hit Syria?
MR. HARWOOD: Certainly there’s a strong emotional imperative within the United States, after these videos, to hit Syria. But General Barry McCaffrey earlier today said no good will come of U.S. forces going back in a significant way into Iraq or Syria. We won’t know how to get out. Unless we want to occupy for 20 years, it’s not going to work. Is that a consensus for you?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: I think that’s right. I mean, I think, even though the polling is showing that the American public is getting more and more concerned about ISIL, just as they are getting more and more concerned about Vladimir Putin and the Ukraine situation, as time goes by, I still don’t think there’s support for American boots on the ground. I think it’s very unlikely the president would do that in any kind of real numbers.
I think what we are talking about, though, key to this strategy, is proxy. That is everything. And you cannot defeat ISIL if you’re just –
MR. HARWOOD: That would seem to be Russia’s strategy in Ukraine.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: (Laughs.) Yeah, I’d say you got that right.
You cannot just defeat ISIL in Iraq by using the Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, training the Iraqi military. That’s not enough, because although there’s technically a border on the map between Iraq and Syria, ISIL is not respecting that border. To them it’s just a desert across which they move their men and their troops. And, you know, they don’t obey any laws that we think of.
And so the only way to really destroy them would be to go after them in Syria too. And you can’t just go after them with air strikes. This is where it comes in. We need a local proxy. And this is where I think it gets most complicated, because the Free Syrian Army, although they’re the ones who are vetted, are not great fighters. And Jabhat al-Nusra, who are good fighters and who hate ISIL, well, they’re al-Qaida affiliates. So we can’t have strange bedfellows with, you know, Jabhat al-Nusra and with Assad himself. Anything we do to destroy ISIL is also going to be helping other groups and a regime that we don’t like. So it gets complicated.
MR. HARWOOD: The other thing that Barry McCaffrey said today was Iraq will never be put back together. It’s not going to be one country anymore. Is that, in fact, what we’re looking at, and that everyone needs to reorient their expectations to the fact that, you know, the boundaries that have existed for decades in that region are going to change, maybe substantially?
MR. DREAZEN: I agree with him completely. I mean, I worked in Iraq for close to four years, and the Kurdish regions of Iraq have been independent for some time. A lot of Kurds don’t speak Arabic, have never gone into Arab Iraq. They took Kirkuk, which they’ve wanted for decades, in a matter of hours when the Iraqi army fled. They’ll never give it back.
So the Arab Iraq may be cobbled together and be maintained in some way, shape or form. But there will be a Shiite Iraq in the south. There will be some kind of Sunni Iraq in the middle. Maybe it’s not ISIS. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s a mix of ISIS and tribes. But the Kurdish regions of Iraq, they’re gone. The Sunni region may never come back in the way that it once did. So I think he has it exactly right. Iraq as we knew it is gone.
MR. HARWOOD: John, did you want to say something?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, I wanted to say just if you look at the rhetoric, when you see Vice President Biden talking about following ISIL to the gates of hell, and they talk about destroying ISIL, this rhetoric, which is to answer the political need, that sense of vengeance that has come after these two beheadings, it’s to meet the rhetorical need of that sense of vengeance. But all the policy we’ve been talking about is much slower, much more complicated. And that’s this tension that’s here between trying to show that the administration is doing something and the actions, which will not be –
MR. HARWOOD: So the words are out on the tip of the skis, and the body’s kind of back.
MR. DICKERSON: Way back, way back. And that’s – there’s just – that’s not going to get resolved. And what happens then is you have all of these Democratic candidates trying to feed that energy in the public. So they’re saying they’re not moving fast enough; they’re not moving fast enough. And that weakens the president when his own team is saying that.
MR. HARWOOD: We’ve got to get to a second crisis for the president and European leaders. That’s the incursion into Ukraine by Russian fighters and separatists. The combatants began a cease-fire today. There’s talk that Russian President Vladimir Putin has a plan to let parts of Ukraine break away if they choose. But the NATO leaders, meeting in Wales this week, see all this as a huge threat to Western Europe.
PRIME MINISTER CAMERON: Russia is ripping up the rule book with its annexation of Crimea and its troops on sovereign soil in Ukraine.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) The unity and the firmness that we’ve seen in the transatlantic alliance in supporting Ukraine and applying sanctions has been, I think, a testimony to how seriously people take the basic principle that big countries can’t just stomp on little countries or force them to change their policies.
SECRETARY GENERAL RASMUSSEN: (From videotape.) We are bound by an ironclad commitment to defend one another against attack. All for one, one for all.
MR. HARWOOD: So does that mean, Indira, that the allies believe they can actually push Russia out of Ukraine?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Look, I mean, this is all happening on the heels today of this supposed cease-fire agreement. And we’ll have to see how that plays. I think that the allies are trying to be careful, because they want to make very clear to Putin that NATO is unshakable.
Anyone who’s already in NATO - unfortunately for Ukraine, they’re not in NATO – but if you are in NATO, don’t even think about a Putin coming to Estonia. Don’t even think about coming to Lithuania, to Poland. Don’t come to any of those countries, because Article V gets enacted, one for all.
I think the problem is they can’t really defend Ukraine in the way that Ukraine would like and in the way that a lot of politicians in the U.S., like John McCain, might say that they should do, because they’re not a member of NATO. I think what’s interesting is we know today that the U.S. and the EU have basically agreed on the next round of sanctions. They’re going to deepen financial, energy, defense-related sanctions.
But that announcement, that could have come out today, didn’t come out. Why? In part because the Europeans are mulling over this cease-fire and trying to figure out, is that going to work, or is Putin going to just be pushing through to Mariupol with, you know, forming a bridge straight into, you know, Transnistria, which a lot of people think is his goal? (Laughs.)
MR. HARWOOD: Peter, does that mean that the Russia-Ukraine border is like the Iraq-Syria border and it’s never going to be the same again? And if you take what Indira just said, you could almost think of it as a strategy of saying, yeah, you can keep beating up that guy, but if you try to beat up these guys, we’re really going to go after you. Sounds more of a defensive and a bit of a (pose ?).
MR. BAKER: Yeah. And I think, look, you have to look at the pattern here. Putin has done this before. Every time Europe is about to announce something serious, every time Europe is really getting itself agitated about something that Russia has done, Putin kind of comes in and says, hey, let’s settle things down. Let’s have talks. Let’s now have a cease-fire. And then, as soon as the meeting is over, as soon as everybody goes back to their corners, suddenly there are more forces going over. There’s more fighting. There’s more violence.
And so I think there’s a lot of skepticism, therefore, that this is anything serious, anything more than a stalling tactic on his part to divide and conquer, in effect, as Indira was saying, to put off any serious measures against him.
And the long-term forecast is for, you know - Transnistria is this place in Moldova, like Abkhazia, like South Ossetia, these tiny little places around the edges of the old Soviet Union, that are frozen conflicts; have been for years and years and years. And if I’m President Obama, I’m looking at this as the next two years of my life, because it’s not going to be solved by the time he leaves office.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, John, does this mean that the NATO response was not quite as robust as we thought? People came out of the session today saying, oh, new special forces that are going to be ready to defend the Baltic states. Was this getting tough, or is this sort of, you know, realizing it’s not as powerful as it used to be and trying to act that way?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, I think the remark you just made is kind of – it sounds sort of like, OK, Ukraine, but no further is – we’re drawing a line, but that line sort of cedes what’s already happened. And so if you do something again, fine, but they’re sort of allowing what’s happened so far in Ukraine.
MR. HARWOOD: Hasn’t this happened progressively? They first ceded Crimea, and now they’re –
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Well, they’d never admit that.
MR. DICKERSON: They won’t -
MS. LAKSHMANAN: They’d never admit that they’re going to allow -
MR. HARWOOD: Well, right, but functionally they have.
MR. BAKER (?): Effectively, they have.
MR. HARWOOD: So – and what can be done about that? Nobody is intending to put boots on the ground in Ukraine. So does this mean that Putin is the guy who’s willing to do it and we’re not; he’s going to win?
MR. DREAZEN: (Inaudible.)
MR. HARWOOD: Get what he wants, if not win.
MR. DREAZEN: You know, there’s this deliberative process. He sort of pokes and prods and sees what the response is, and then waits and pokes and prods again. When he conquered Georgia, that was a red line, the pieces of Georgia he took. There’s now a wall being built about it. That’s not going back. When he conquered Crimea, that was the red line, no further. Now he’s moved into the east.
He waited till – and remember, it wasn’t that long ago that we were talking about the plane full of 300 innocent people shot down with Russian weaponry over eastern Ukraine. That was going to be the red line. That came and went. Now he’s moved deeper and deeper into Ukraine, talking about conquering Kiev in a matter of weeks. That’s come and gone without much response.
A key detail to me about this rapid-reaction force President Obama was asked about and kind of dodged the question - our American troops, would they be part of it? And so far he has not said they will be. So NATO, which never moves quickly, never musters really powerful armies – the most powerful army that exists is the United States. As of now, there’s no U.S. agreement to have troops in that rapid-reaction force. So even the things that NATO is pointing to as a new sign of chest-pounding - this is all they’re going to do - is less than meets the eye.
MR. HARWOOD: Peter, you’ve worked in Moscow as a correspondent. There was a line of analysis that came out of the original Russian action that said, oh, wow, Putin has swallowed a huge basketball, and he doesn’t want that. He’s going to have to spit it up at some point. It’s going to be too expensive and costly, and he doesn’t want to deal with that.
Is that just not going to happen, that he, in fact, does want this, and he’s willing to pay the price of whatever sanctions that Europe and the United States are willing to put on him?
MR. BAKER: Yeah. I think the trick is we keep trying to analyze Putin through our own lens. If we were in his position, this would be the thing that would be important to us. This would be the factor that would drive our decision. And it’s just not our way of thinking. He thinks in a different way. He does think in zero-sum ways. He does have a different set of calculations. His numbers at home are 80 percent. This is a good thing for him. He controls the media in Russia.
And so he does not – and the Russians are prepared to pay a price, and certainly he is. And they’ve taken the measure of the West and they think that, you know, there’s places they can push, right? They’re nudging, nudging, nudging, and they’re looking where those boundaries are. He’s not going to go too far that would cause something where he would take genuine pain. But he thinks he can get away with a lot more, and he’s (shown it ?).
MR. HARWOOD: John, as you think about this politically, you know, Americans grew up – all of us did – with a cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Is that so far in memory now that the focus of the American public is likely to be much more on what’s happening in the Middle East, as opposed to this crisis in Ukraine? Is that, like, yesterday’s issue, and people aren’t paying so much attention?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, it’s hard to tell, because you think of – if you look at the conservative critique of the president, they often go back to Mitt Romney’s comment about Russia being the great strategic threat, as a way of arguing that this president is in over his head and that Mitt Romney was right. So they use - as a rhetorical political point-scoring method, they use Russia.
And we are back to – if you think of presidential campaigns as trying to correct the inadequacies of the incumbent or the existing president, well, here we have Barack Obama was elected because he was going to be smart; he was going to build coalitions. He was going to come to somebody with Putin and reason with him; maybe be a little tough, but he wasn’t going to be the blustery George Bush.
Now Barack Obama and the Democrats who are now criticizing him are creating an appetite for some kind of president who can bare their chest, replace NATO, which cannot bare its chest, as we talked about – or, excuse me, beat its chest; it’s Putin who does the chest-baring – (laughter) – and a president who has that kind of more strongman behavior that we used to associate with the kind of Republicans.
MR. HARWOOD: Indira, as you think about this, and quickly, do you think of what’s going on right now as a function of the effectiveness, or lack of it, of Obama’s foreign policy? Or is it about the way the world is, post-Cold War?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Well, I think it’s partly the way the world is, postwar, and the way that Putin is incredibly canny, and he knows exactly how to walk up to the line, push through it, and then step back with one little pinky toe.
But I do want to say that in the long run, I think sanctions are going to be hurting Putin, whether he likes it or not, particularly in the energy sector.
MR. HARWOOD: Thanks to everybody; great discussion.
That’ll wrap it up for tonight. The conversation continues online where we drill down on the biggest story we didn’t even have time for in the last 30 minutes, felony convictions that completed a stunning fall for former Virginia Governor Bob McConnell. That’s in our Webcast Extra, which streams live beginning at 8:30 p.m. eastern, all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m John Harwood. Gwen will be back around the table next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.