GWEN IFILL: It's like foreign policy Whac-A-Mole. If it's not Israel, it's Afghanistan. If it's not Ukraine, it's Russia. And now tonight, a return to military action in Iraq. Old disputes, new dilemmas for the U.S., tonight on "Washington Week."
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, there is no one coming to help. Well, today America is coming to help.
MS. IFILL: But the center just won't hold. In Iraq, a war thought over springs back to life.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) When we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye.
MS. IFILL: In Afghanistan, political solutions prove elusive. And in Israel and Gaza, another ceasefire gives way.
BAN KI-MOON (U.N. secretary general): (From videotape.) The senseless cycle of suffering in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as in Israel, must end.
MS. IFILL: America, always the man in the middle, whether Americans like it or not.
Covering the week, Michael Crowley, chief foreign affairs correspondent for Time Magazine; Doyle McManus, columnist for the Los Angeles Times; Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report; and Nancy Youssef, national security correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation's capital, this is "Washington Week with Gwen Ifill."
MS. IFILL: Good evening. If you ever doubted that the United States is central to almost everything happening everywhere, especially the tough stuff, this week should have put an end to those questions. Intervention is now the watchword in Iraq, where the American military is once again carrying out airstrikes; in Afghanistan, where the U.S. secretary of state had to step in to put the political humpty dumpty back together again, and in Israel and Gaza, which seeed like it was winding down until the rockets started falling again.
Let's start with the president's extraordinary explanation at the White House last night of why the U.S. is stepping back into Iraq now.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) I've said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there's a crisis in the world. So let me be clear about why we must act, and act now: When we face a situation like we do on that mountain, with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help; in this case, a request from the Iraqi government.
MS. IFILL: But the situation in Iraq has been deteriorating for some time now, Michael. Why intervene now?
MICHAEL CROWLEY: Well, you know, throughout this presidency, there's been an effort to define an Obama doctrine, right. And so what is the trigger - what is his worldview? What is the trigger for his actions or his inactions? And I just don't think there's a simple answer. And I think what you have here are three factors that have built up together. So one is humanitarian. And this is how the president primarily framed it. We're coming to the rescue of these people trapped on a mountain.
The second one is national security. There are American personnel in the Kurdish city of Irbil who are at risk of these ISIS forces coming in and doing horrendous things. If they get their hands on Americans, it will be Benghazi times 50.
And the third is strategic, that Iraq is a slow-moving disaster, and we haven't figured out a way to go in and do something about it to try to keep Iraq together, to try to keep the chaos in the region from spreading.
But when you have those three factors converging, I think that pushes the president into action. Why here? Why not a place like Syria? Because those factors just don't add up in the - it's a kind of alchemy. You can't, again, put a doctrine on it or a formula. But, you know, a key phrase here is Obama saying he thinks we have a unique ability to come in, use precision airstrikes and airdrops of supplies to help the Yazidi people and to beat back the ISIS fighters, to keep Irbil from falling, and maybe to blunt ISIS's momentum.
So it's a case-by-case call. He made a hard call here. I don't think you can extrapolate too much out of it.
MS. IFILL: You know, Nancy, Peter Baker, our colleague who works at The New York Times, in this morning's paper called Iraq the graveyard of American ambition. Is that true at this point?
NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, Obama's the fourth president in a row to call for some kind of intervention in Iraq, so it's certainly an argument that one could consider valid. The challenge is that in Iraq the feeling was - and Obama campaigned on - that the U.S. was leaving Iraq. And so the idea that the U.S. has to come back because the situation's even worse than when it was left just four years ago, I think, startles Americans and even the administration itself.
So it certainly has become that, the idea that the United States spent billions of dollars, lost nearly 5,000 troops and have to go back so that - because a force, an extremist force, a force that started out as an insurgency, poses such an immediate and direct threat to the very forces that we trained.
MS. IFILL: But that force has been - as we were talking, has been posing this kind of threat for a while. What is it about the Yazidi, the plight of the Yazidi there on that mountaintop in northern Iraq? What is it that changed the formula?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, I think one of the key factors this week was there was an expectation that the Pershmerga, who are the Kurdish forces in the north, could fend off the ISIS threat in a way that the Iraqi army, the Syrian army, the Hezbollah forces couldn't do.
And so when they couldn't do it, when ISIS forces were on the border of Irbil, the Kurdish capital of the semiautonomous region, and threatening to move there, there was a feeling that there were no sort of local forces that could stop it, that it demanded some kind of intervention, because the Pershmerga simply couldn't do it. The fear was that the state that they're trying to create - because, remember, ISIS has declared itself a state - that they would move toward the Kurdish capital, pose a threat to the whole region.
MS. IFILL: Doyle, the whole idea here, that the U.S. has been trying, not only here but around the world, to make this a multinational response to any big issue. But in the end, it's still the U.S. that has to step up.
DOYLE MCMANUS: Yes. And one of the striking things about this intervention is that there's one nation involved in the military part of this operation. There's not even, you know, the kind of fig leaf of British participation or French participation that you had in Libya, for example.
Now, the Brits and the Turks have said we will participate in terms of humanitarian aid. But in terms of the military part of this, which so far is just three airstrikes in the area west of Irbil, it's an American show. Now, that may be partly because, at this point, it's a pretty small show. And if this turns into a long-running air war, I think you would expect the administration to go look for allies.
And that's not impossible, incidentally. An enormous amount of the attention in this decision has been on the plight of the Yazidis on the mountain. But as Michael pointed out, the policy also includes the possibility of long-term support to the Kurds and to the Iraqi government in Baghdad, if it ever gets its act together.
MS. IFILL: Well, part of the problem, of course, is that the Obama presidency has never been perceived as more weak. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll is one of several recent surveys that say it all. Only 36 percent of those polled approve of the president's handling of foreign policy, and only 40 percent approve of the president himself - a new low.
So does that drive the decision-making that we see here, Amy?
AMY WALTER: I think it certainly is driving the way that Americans are perceiving the president. That's the sort of difficulty that the president's in right now, which is he's starting off from such a very low point, and then, when he gets the call from people out in the field saying you need to show leadership - and by the field, I mean the chattering class here, Republicans, others - saying you need to step up, you need to show some leadership, he's already stuck at a place where he's at his lowest point right now. There's not the believability.
But I think we have the president right now at a place where he wants to so desperately be talking about domestic issues, and the American public so desperately wants to be talking about domestic issues.
The other thing we saw in that poll was the real deep - I guess we can use the word malaise - (laughs) - but that is still permeating the American public. The recession may be over. Economists tell us that things are getting better. People don't believe it. There are still - 80 percent or more of the public thinks we're headed in the wrong direction domestically. They don't believe that things have gotten better for the economy, for them.
So, so much of what is holding back Americans, in many ways, as to why they don't want to see the U.S. get engaged and involved is as much about we've already been there and we lost all these lives and spent all this money, but it's also we have a domestic agenda here that has not been completed. And that's where the president would like to be as well.
MS. IFILL: Which is probably why we heard him last night, when he came into the State Dining Room at the White House, speak very directly to the American people about why they might not think this was a good idea. Let's listen to that.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these. I understand that. I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that's what we've done. As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.
MS. IFILL: So this air campaign that we're watching is designed to achieve that very goal. But can it?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, it's not going to be easy. And I would say, by the way, they're not defining it now as an air campaign. The president is saying he's authorized limited, targeted strikes. But if you think back to the Libya operation, that intervention did not begin with the goal of toppling Muammar Qadhafi and being a months-long air campaign. It was actually similar to the situation the president described last night; in other words, Benghazi.
We think of Benghazi now as synonymous with the terrible attack on the diplomatic compound. But originally, Benghazi was encircled by government forces, Qadhafi's forces. And the reason the president authorized intervention was to save innocents in Benghazi from this slaughter. And that's why we were doing it.
And then what happened? It evolved. We had a stake in the game. It turned into a long-running air campaign. There was a little bit of mission creep. So it's not an air campaign now, but we have a pretty recent precedent for a humanitarian intervention turning into a longer-running air campaign.
And can that achieve its goals? I think the short answer to that is - it's a cliche you hear a lot, but you need a political situation in Iraq. You can't bomb your way to a strong, stable Iraq. The warring parties have to make some kind of compromise.
MS. IFILL: But isn't what happened in Libya and isn't what is happening now in Iraq exactly the same reason that Barack Obama stayed out of Syria?
MS. YOUSSEF: Yes. And the challenge with having a limited air campaign, or whatever you want to call it, is the message to ISIS, which is now emboldened and feels stronger and has acquired so many weapons through all these military bases, is that the U.S. doesn't really want to be there.
MS. IFILL: How did they get the weapons?
MS. YOUSSEF: So when they would go through cities like Mosul, they would go through military bases and take weapons. So some of the weapons they have are U.S. weapons that were given to the Iraqi army. Some of them are Soviet-made that were in Iraqi bases. So they have a huge weapons arsenal, much huger than the Iraqi army, much huger than the Pershmerga. And that has allowed them to move from being an insurgency force to more like a quasi-state military. So they're much more potent.
So when the United States says it's a limited air campaign, it's hard to communicate to the world that this is going to be effective as a deterrent mechanism when the dual message is we don't actually really want to get involved. We don't want ground troops. It's going to be limited. It's hard to see how that actually deters, in a real fundamental way, such that it stops the ISIS momentum.
MR. MCMANUS: And that message also clashes with the other interest the United States has in Iraq, which is not allowing ISIS to win, because if the Islamic State gets rooted, with all these weapons, with oil, with money, there is every reason to expect they will become a base for terrorism against others, if not the United States. Some of their rhetoric has occasionally talked about the United States. It's not central to what they're doing.
So there are a whole lot of ways this could turn into a longer engagement. Now, the president and everybody else in the administration has been absolutely firm on one point - no boots on the ground, no boots on the ground. And there the question is, in terms of whether this can work, can the Kurdish forces hold together?
One of the reasons - one of the other reasons for action this week was that there was a terrible crisis of morale in Kurdistan and they were pulling back. And again, can the Iraqi forces and the Iraqi government in Baghdad get their act together? And that hasn't happened yet.
MS. IFILL: I wonder if - (inaudible) - faces on the story, Amy, whether that doesn't change public opinion, or whether that is just - it is just one of those issues that people - foreign policy never works for you.
MS. WALTER: That's right. And it goes back to Michael's point at the beginning, which is there is really no cohesive strategy here. I mean, it's one thing to say, look, this is the United States. This is our role in the world, and this is what we're going to do. I'm the president. I've laid this out, and here's my strategy going forward. That's never been put to the American public. So it does look as scattershot as it feels.
The reason that the president's approval rating is at 36 percent in foreign affairs is that it does look like, to the average person who doesn't know all the things that people around this table know about the region, that everything's falling apart. And whether or not we have a role in it, the president should be at least telling us what we are going to do, why we need to be there.
The faces do - I think they become compelling, but they just, I think, all blend together. And as I said, when you have a public that right now - they agree with the president. We don't want to get involved here. But what they're also saying is we have so many troubles at home. Can't we focus on that first? This is what got us off track in the very first place.
MS. IFILL: Well, here's another thing which I think makes it complicated, which is there's not a clear bad guy in all of this. I mean, we're now involved in these conflicts involving these non-state actors, like Hamas in the Middle East, or like ISIS in Iraq. And I wonder if that also doesn't make this a more untidy - not just Iraq, but also Afghanistan, also these places we hope that the political system would step in and save us from further intervention.
MR. CROWLEY: Right. Well, so, for instance, when we went to Iraq, there was Saddam, and we vilified him pretty properly and justifiably. In the post-9/11 fight against al-Qaida, there was Obama bin Laden, who was the bogeyman.
I think ISIS is sort of a new group. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of Americans who don't spend a lot of time reading the foreign policy journals and websites aren't totally clear on what ISIS is and don't understand - is it al-Qaida? Is it different? And I do think -
MS. IFILL: I've heard it described as worse.
MR. CROWLEY: Oh, yeah. I mean, there was a schism between ISIS and al-Qaida because al-Qaida leaders felt like, whoa, you guys are a little out of control. You guys calm down. It's very disturbing that ISIS's leader believed in kind of killing much more, if you can believe it, wantonly and rampantly than some of the al-Qaida leaders thought was appropriate.
So - but I would say, on the flip side, that the Yazidi story was a way for the president to almost - I don't want to be glib about it, but to sell this intervention to the American public, that rather than having it be an abstract concept, the Kurds - and you, the average American, may not be totally clear on who the Kurds are and where they are - are really important to us. That's a hard thing to explain. But there are children dying on a mountain because they are besieged by these fanatics who are going to kill them if they come down. That opens the door for people to say, OK, I get how bad this is.
MS. IFILL: Arguably, you could say that the president or the administration could have had a good day today when it came to Afghanistan, because John Kerry actually got the two warring presidential candidates to shake hands and say we're going to figure this out. That's good news, right? At the same time, everybody's walking away from the table in Cairo, where they were trying to work out a sustained ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, or the Palestinians representing Hamas, or Hamas representing the Palestinians.
On balance, is it critical or likely that either of these things work themselves out? It doesn't matter at all?
MR. MCMANUS: Wow. (Laughs.)
MS. IFILL: For the U.S.
MR. MCMANUS: For the United States? Well, certainly whether that election can be worked out in Afghanistan is critical to whether Afghanistan, a year from now, looks like Iraq looks now after the United States pulls out its last troops.
So, yeah, that's critical. And you end up with a counterterrorism problem there. And really the problem, in a sense, in both of these cases is that these were both issues that were supposed to be settled, in the case of Gaza a week ago or more; in the case of Afghanistan, a month ago. And John Kerry is, you know, commuting all over these trouble spots all over the world, putting his finger into one dike after another, and they're just - there are more crises than we have secretaries of state.
MS. IFILL: Well, at least Americans seem to get the Israel - I mean, the polls do show that people are very supportive of Israel and of our siding with Israel in this still, even as the U.S. has gotten harsher in its criticism.
MS. WALTER: It has, although in seeing some polls, too, there is something of a generational split, though, too, with younger Americans not being quite as supportive of the Israelis. And to your point about putting faces on it, all right, that's what we're seeing a lot of when it's death and destruction. There are a lot of kids in Gaza who we are seeing on television.
What it looks like, I think, to most Americans is there are a whole bunch of people in trouble. And, by the way, we haven't even touched on the fact that there's another international crisis on our border, which is kids coming up to Mexico, and now what do we do with those, with the violence there? And you're seeing the public pretty split on what we should do with these - again, even though they're children, should we really be bringing them into the United States, whether they're escaping violence or not?
MS. IFILL: Is there ever - has there ever been a case where foreign policy helps a president, whether it's going to war or staying out of war or trying to negotiate solutions in countries other than our own, where there's not a direct whatever, however you define that, direct U.S. interest? Can anybody think of a case of that?
MS. YOUSSEF: George H.W. Bush at the end of the Gulf War.
MS. WALTER: For a year.
MR. MCMANUS: He didn't win reelection.
MS. WALTER: He didn't win reelection.
MR. CROWLEY: I think that was - the economy undercut his success in that war.
MS. WALTER: But I think there is another piece on this, too, though, which is the second term is traditionally one where the president says, OK, I got my domestic stuff done, and they're already, you know, measuring the drapes for the next president. I'm going to focus on foreign policy. This is something I can do without Congress. And now -
MR. CROWLEY: Bill Clinton, I think -
MS. WALTER: Right. Bill Clinton was the perfect one.
MR. CROWLEY: - pulled himself out of the pit of impeachment -
MS. WALTER: That's right.
MR. CROWLEY: - and scandal through his interventions in the Balkans -
MS. WALTER: That's right.
MR. CROWLEY: - which were hailed as big successes.
MS. IFILL: And in Israel.
MR. CROWLEY: And in Israel, very close to a breakthrough peace deal; and Ronald Reagan with his nuclear arms talks with Gorbachev and the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, I think.
MS. WALTER: But those were all - those were positive, and they were all second-term. This is one where - and it felt like they were dictating the terms. Here's what I want to get done before the end of my term. This is now there's a fire hose of issues coming at me. I just want to get through them and get back to the thing that I came to do in the first place.
MS. YOUSSEF: The challenge that President Obama faces is one of the things he's been arguing is that the United States must accept a world where outcomes aren't perfect, where the United States doesn't intervene every time.
And so when he says that we must live in uncertainty, and that uncertainty leads to instability in place after place after place, and countries where the United States, in some cases, has invested billions, in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, it undercuts the argument, that is, the United States, amongst Americans that you talk to, wants to still be the indispensable nation and maybe not give the resources that these kinds of problems demand. And so the Obama argument is quite different than what we've heard from presidents in the past.
MS. IFILL: It's not much of a doctrine to say get used to it being unstable; get used to the untidiness of it.
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, when it's led to more instability.
MS. IFILL: Exactly.
MS. WALTER: Right.
MR. CROWLEY: Bleep happens.
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MS. WALTER: I was speaking with someone from an embassy today who said we're just not used to an America that's not confident. And that was an interesting message. That's the feeling that they're getting overseas is we just are not - we're anxious internally, right. We have all these domestic problems with Congress and things not getting done. But also we're projecting a lack of confidence.
MR. MCMANUS: And if you wanted to try and put a theme around what the Obama strategy is - and a lot of people feel, well, it's just incoherent - well, no, it's not entirely incoherent, but it's doing less. It's limits - limits on American power, limits on American engagement. And the world and the American voters aren't really used to that.
MS. IFILL: Limiting is not one of the things we want to hear. But we're going to continue with this because there's so much more to say. But we have to leave tonight a few minutes early to give you the chance to support your local PBS station.
But before we go, we'd like to take a moment to send "Washington Week" condolences to Sarah Brady, the widow of James Brady, the former White House press secretary. Brady was gravely wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan and went on to become a tough campaigner for gun control. Today, 33 years after that shooting, his death was ruled a homicide as a result of the attack of that day. Jim Brady was 73 years old. The White House press briefing room is named after him.
We're done here for now, but there's more to cover, so we're just going to keep on talking online in the "Washington Week" webcast extra, streaming live at 8:30 p.m. eastern time. That's PBS.org/Washington Week. Among the topics: This week's big Africa summit in Washington.
Keep up with next week's news every night with me and Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour. And we'll wrap it up for you again on Friday next week on "Washington Week." Good night.