GWEN IFILL: Déjà vu in Iraq and on Benghazi as old debates become new again, plus Republicans and Democrats struggle to plot a political way forward, tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From clip.) American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq.
MS. IFILL: As conditions continue to deteriorate in Iraq, that may be the only thing completely clear: Will there be airstrikes?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From clip.) Going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action.
MS. IFILL: Will there be American assets on the ground?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From clip.) American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.
MS. IFILL: And will Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki survive?
Plus a breakthrough on Benghazi. Will it end the political debate?
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From clip.) There has been a tendency in this administration, as you know, to treat this like a law enforcement matter, read them their rights and get them a lawyer. I hope they’re not doing that.
MS. IFILL: On Capitol Hill, new Republican leaders step up to replace the old one forced to step down, but it’s not exactly a new guard.
And at the White House, Democrats struggle for a second-term breakthrough.
Covering the week, Peter Baker of The New York Times, Michael Crowley of Time Magazine, Janet Hook of The Wall Street Journal and Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.” Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. You may be forgiven this week for feeling we have been here before. Potential airstrikes in Iraq, check. John Kerry dispatched to the Middle East, check. The Benghazi attacks on page one, check. What these issues have in common is that they provide yet another set of tough foreign policy decisions for the White House on issues that just will not fade away. And when it comes to Iraq, it boils down to how little, not how much, the U.S. will intervene.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From clip.) We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq. Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.
MS. IFILL: But can they do that? Or as Time Magazine says on its cover this week, is this the end of Iraq? Michael, that’s your story. What’s the answer?
MICHAEL CROWLEY: It may be. It’s not yet. And the White House hopes that Iraq can be salvaged. I have to say it’s not looking good.
The hope now – the president does not want to conduct airstrikes, not only because he doesn’t want to get involved in another military entanglement, but there is also other complications that would come with it, including seeming to side with Shiites against Sunnis in what is essentially a sectarian war, but also the idea that it’s a Band-Aid: A military action might beat back these Sunni radicals and insurgents who are working together but not solve the core problem that is causing Iraq to fall apart, which is that its political system hasn’t been working. You have a prime minister in Nouri al-Maliki who many Sunni see as a Shiite Saddam, an oppressor, a brutal guy who has cracked down on peaceful protests violently. And if you can’t solve that problem, the county is not going to hold together. The Kurds are already moving toward independence, and you have the beginning of what could be a cycle of sectarian violence that’s just very difficult to reverse.
So the hope is we won’t do airstrikes. We’ll find – we’ll encourage the parties in Iraq to come up with an inclusive a political solution. They’ll form a new government after parliamentary elections that happened in April, and some time – it takes some time to form this new government. But I have to say, in this atmosphere, there is just not a lot of reason to be optimistic about it.
MS. IFILL: OK, so hands tied at the White House. We know what’s off the table, so they say. What is on the table?
PETER BAKER: What’s on the table is a menu of liver and broccoli, and the question is, you know, which are you going to pick?
MS. IFILL: I like liver and broccoli – (inaudible) – metaphor.
MR. BAKER: OK, well – (laughs) – all right, well, what don’t you like? (Laughs.)
MS. IFILL: It’s not good stuff.
MR. BAKER: That’s what’s on the menu. And they – there aren’t a lot of options that look palatable. As Michael said, obviously, they’re not eager to get back into this. It’s a war that President Obama wanted this – put in his rearview mirror. His legacy was all about ending the two wars. He had just announced his withdrawal plan for Afghanistan by the time he leaves office.
And so you got increased intelligence, you got increased equipment. We’re sending these 300 special operations forces. You have the potential of drone strikes, none of which, as Michael says, might actually change the calculation on the ground. And yet what if you don’t do it? What happens then? You don’t want to be Maliki’s air force, but you also don’t want to leave a vacuum for, who else, the Iranians to come in and save the day. So it’s – you know, the president has spent a lot of time this week trying to chew through a lot of options, none of which taste very good.
JANET HOOK: So what are those 300-some personnel going to be doing? Is that, like, a slippery slope this? Is it – how are these people going to stabilize the situation?
MR. BAKER: Right. Well, they’re not going to do any fighting. That’s the first thing we have to understand. They’re not going to be out there in forward locations. The idea is they’re going to set up these – what they call fusion intelligence centers to help the Iraqis get better intelligence about where their enemies are, how to hit them and so on and so forth. If, in fact, President Obama were later to order drone strikes or airstrikes, these guys would help set up targets. So they’re not meant to be forward fighters.
But you’re right, it does echo strongly an America that remembers Vietnam, where advisers quickly became fighters, and nobody wants to do that right now I think on either side of the political aisle.
MR. CROWLEY: You had advisers, and then you had a bombing campaign, and you had troops to defend the air fields from which the bombing campaign was launched, and then they had to go out into the perimeter to make sure you had wider air fields. And, you know, it’s an eerie echo. There – CNN is running a documentary right now on the ’60s and the episode on Vietnam, was just the other night. It explained all this. And the echoes are really troubling. And yet I think the president and his team are extremely conscious that that not happen. And it’s a bit of an apple-and-orange situation, hopefully.
ED O’KEEFE: There was a pretty remarkable exchange he had with reporters as he tried to explain himself this week. I think a lot of people sitting at home might have been wondering, if he trying to recast his history with Iraq? Because he basically suggested after being prompted by a question that it wasn’t his decision to leave Iraq, it was Maliki’s decision to leave Iraq, which is totally counter to everything he said during the ’08 and the ’12 campaign.
MR. BAKER: Right. Well, it’s complicated. I mean, he wanted the – he did want to get out of Iraq. He did set a plan that he first adopted, at least in a general sense, from President Bush that would withdraw troops by the end of 2011.
There was a discussion in 2011 about whether to leave a residual force. He would’ve said he got out of Iraq even if he had left a small residual force when it came to that campaign. But the question is, could they leave, say, 5,000 troops behind? Maliki didn’t necessarily want them. There – he wasn’t excited about them. And more importantly, they couldn’t get through parliament a measure that would be required to give immunity to these troops, and the American side said, we’re not going to go there if we don’t have immunity for our troops; we’re not going to have our guys brought up on charges in some kangaroo court. So it became a situation where Maliki wasn’t really thrilled about having them there, Obama really wasn’t all that eager to have them stay, and this legal immunity issue became the way that both sides ended up getting out of it, in effect.
MR. CROWLEY: But, you know, I think that it’s an interesting question. It’s also interesting to note that Hillary Clinton was interested in having a larger force. She was among those people who was pushing for it and warning that we should do this.
But really, we’re talking about tectonic forces, you know, a religious – a holy war, a government that’s just fundamentally not working, a region that’s on fire because of the civil war in Syria. So there – I think there is a real limit to how much a small American force that probably would have dwindled over the ensuing years could played have a role.
MS. IFILL: You know, on Capitol Hill, as you pointed out, there are some members of the – of the Senate especially who think that there is something – they should just do something. But there’s caution, too.
SENATOR BOB CORKER (R-TN): (From clip.) Until the Iraqi government itself is willing to make some concrete steps to change the way they’re doing business with the Sunni people, I don’t think we ought to overcommit because without that, you’re not going to get a lot of change.
MS. IFILL: So the question is about Nouri al-Maliki. It’s come all the way around. So one thing everybody agrees on, at least in the United States government, not crazy about him. Is he the problem?
MR. BAKER: Not crazy about him. Well, President Bush had his issues with him too, and I think that President Obama never got a good relationship with him. They didn’t find him trustworthy. Hillary Clinton was particularly skeptical of him. And one the American troop presence was gone, he did feel free to create a much more sectarian governance style in which Sunnis felt left out. And right now they’d like to – they’d like him to go, but they won’t say that out loud because they know they really can’t influence that.
MS. IFILL: Is it possible for the country to regain any sense of stability as long as he is there, or is he just a distraction?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, it – I suppose it’s possible if the – if he – if Shiite militias mobilize, if the military gets its act together, if there is an effective counteroffensive against the Sunnis with the help of the Americans that includes possibly a repeat of the Sunni Awakening that occurred during the surge, when we were cooperating with and in some cases essentially buying off Sunni tribesmen, then they are promised an inclusive in the government. And all these things that would have to fall into place, yes, you could maybe imagine a situation where he stabilizes it. It’s really difficult to – think of – what is the precedent for a guy who’s basically ruling like a dictator to step back and say, OK, we’re going to have a more inclusive government and people calm down? It’s just not – (inaudible).
MS. IFILL: Doesn’t happen.
Let me ask about Benghazi because they arrested a suspect this week. And as you know, this has been a huge political football that’s just never faded. Does this end that?
MR. BAKER: No, of course not. In fact, it only simply creates a whole new set of downs, really, because in fact, now we’ve moved from the question what did Hillary do or know and what were the talking points about it and so forth to what are we doing with this guy on the – on the Navy ship. So the – Abu Khattala, who they swooped in and found near – right there in Benghazi, they brought to a U.S. naval warship, and they began interrogating him without reading him Miranda rights. And the question is, you know, what do we do with him now? The Obama administration plans to bring him back here. He’s been charged in a civilian court. They plan to try him in a civilian court. Republican critics, not all but a number, say that’s not good enough, he’s an enemy combatant, send him to Guantanamo.
MS. IFILL: Was he hiding in plain sight all this time?
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah. I mean, he was meeting with journalists. He famously had a strawberry frappe I think with a New York Times reporter shortly after the attacks and was somewhat boastful about it. We snatched another militant in Libya some months ago and actually had a raid in the works to grab at the same time. And the first snatch was – went public on Twitter, which alerted him – which caused us to call off the raid, number one, and which alerted him general that there was – that there was higher danger.
By the way, you mentioned that we’re interrogating him prior to his Miranda rights. Just for viewers who might not be clear, this is sort of a new practice where, to kind of split the baby, so to speak, a team comes in and will interrogate a terror suspect before they’ve been read their rights to get essentially actionable intelligence: Do you know about any plots that are in the works right now, anything we need to act on immediately? They do stretch the definition of imminence a little bit. But then a fresh team comes in, reads him his rights and starts to question him, and that’s what you can introduce into court. So the initial interrogation is sort of for counterterror intelligence purposes, not for legal purposes, and, you know, maybe a happy compromise.
MR. O'KEEFE: Do they rough him up during that first round?
MR. CROWLEY: There is not – there is no roughing up now. The – you know, the president said we don’t torture anymore, and those practices are over. And, you know, there are a lot of ways in which this president has continued the kind of counterterror policies of the Bush-Cheney presidency in ways that have disappointed liberals. To take one notable example, Guantanamo is still open, even though he wants to close it. But torture, no, it’s over.
MS. IFILL: Can I – I just – one more question, then we have to move on, but what – was he – was Congress notified this time? There was a lot of drama after the Bergdahl turnover.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. Yeah, they did get – they did notify certain leaders of Congress in advance, and they didn’t leak out beforehand, which of course then our – fuels the argument from Congress saying, hey, we can keep secrets, therefore you shouldn’t be holding back on other things from us.
MS. IFILL: OK.
We have to move on to the big drama on Capitol Hill this week – closed doors, smoked-filled room, secret dealmaking, jockeying for leadership. And this how it looked when the dust settled – to the average citizen, pretty much as it looked before: Kevin McCarthy is the new House majority leader. This is how he described himself.
REPRESENTATIVE KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From clip.) They elected a guy who is the grandson of a cattle rancher, the son of a firefighter. Only in America do you get that opportunity. They elected a guy that's only grown up through the grassroots. They elected a guy that spent his time going around recruiting many of these individuals to get the majority.
MS. IFILL: He’s been in leadership for a while. What’s new, Ed?
MR. O'KEEFE: A little more youth and inexperience, to put it bluntly. McCarthy is a 49-year-old. He’s been in Congress since 2007. Having won this week, he’s the fastest-rising majority leader in American history. So he is now in charge of running the schedule, deciding what bills get to the floor, determining whether they have to be pulled – a lot of mechanics. But he’s prepared himself well, having spent the last few years, as he said, recruiting most of these guys to show up here in Washington. And he cashed in his favors, basically, over the last 10 days and was able to successfully succeed Cantor.
Him moving into the majority leader position created an opening in the third-ranking spot, the whip – that weird name, but they’re in charge of counting the votes. And Steve Scalise, a New Orleans area Republican congressman who is 48 years old and has only been in Congress since 2008 is now in charge of doing that. Why was he able to do it? Very simply, he runs the Republican Study Committee, which is the largest caucus on Capitol Hill. It’s of all of the conservative Republicans. He knows where they are, he knows their politics and he basically also cashed in some favors and got himself a job.
MS. HOOK: Do you think that this is going to be enough of a shakeup of the leadership, enough change? As you say, it’s – you know, it’s just McCarthy moving up. There’s one new leader, Scalise. I mean, the tea party groups and the conservatives really thought that the lesson of Eric Cantor being defeated, and that was the primary election that set off all of these changes, the lesson was the establishment had to change its ways and move really far to the right. It doesn’t seem like there is that much change there.
MR. O'KEEFE: Yeah, we’ll see. A lot of this will rest with Scalise because he meets the requirements of about a third of the caucus. He’s from the south. He’s much more conservative. He’s been willing to, you know, stand up to leadership and say, I don’t like what you’re doing and to sometimes vote against them.
If he is able to now work with Boehner and McCarthy and sort of explain or modify legislation in a way that is amenable to these guys, potentially, yes, things will go better. But they’ve got so many complex different issues to deal with before November that I don’t think it’s going to get much easier because he’s going to have to rally Republican support, or Speaker Boehner is going to have to go to Democrats to try to get something done, and we know, having dealt with it for the last few years, that that’s totally unacceptable to Republicans.
MR. BAKER: The big issue – you mention all these issues; the big issue on the president’s play that he’d like them to focus on, among other things, is immigration. After Cantor’s defeat, everybody says, well, that’s done – not that Cantor was exactly a supporter of the president’s plan on immigration, but somehow people felt like he would be more amenable. He took a lot of hits on it. And therefore, all Republicans would no longer even be completely – at all open to it. What do you think now? Is that the case?
MR. O'KEEFE: You know, a lot of people ran out on the morning after Cantor’s loss and said immigration is dead, that’s the reason he lost. It’s not entirely the reason he lost . But there really is no reason to believe that there is going to be meaningful immigration reform done by Congress in the next few months. You’ll see the president starts to take unilateral action. Members of the Republican Party will react (finally ?) to that.
MS. IFILL: And that’s more to do with the fact that it’s a midterm election near where big things don’t happen anyway.
MR. O'KEEFE: Yeah. And, you know, if Democrats had been smart and had mounted a challenge to McCarthy in his district, it might have actually become a big problem for McCarthy. There are some neighboring districts in the farming areas of California where Republicans are running, you know, scared because Democratic candidates are running against them and saying immigration is the reason we need to get this guy out. McCarthy comes from that agricultural part of the state and understands that this needs to be done, but it’s unlikely he’ll be able to convince his caucus to do it.
MR. CROWLEY: Any other possible areas of cooperation with the president? I mean, seems to me that the change in terms of an average American’s experience and what Washington is doing for the rest of the country is very marginal, that we’re still just in the case of gridlock and stalemate and probably are until we have a new president.
MR. O'KEEFE: Until – yes, that’s certainly one way to put it. I think, you know, they have to deal with, for example, a new highway bill to fund all the construction across the country. They’ve got to put spending bills in place so we have another shutdown starting October 1st. They have to reauthorize things like the Export-Import Bank, which is a very big deal for companies like Boeing. A lot of Republicans don’t like the concept of that bank, and yet it has to be done by the end of the September as well. All of these things are the kinds of things that cause gridlock because you’ll have the House pass some Republican-friendly version of it, and the Senate will look at it and say, absolutely not. And we’ll hit that gridlock again over and over again on these issues if they can’t sort it out. There are only about 40 legislative days left until Election Day. That’s not nearly enough time to do this kind of work.
MS. IFILL: And when you say legislative day, you mean “legislative day”? (Laughter.)
MR. O'KEEFE: Meaning they’ll be here and they’ll be holding votes.
MS. IFILL: John Boehner, after all the dust settled this week, is he fine?
MR. O'KEEFE: He’s still there. And, you know, conventional wisdom at this point suggests that he will stay on to provide stability. I would argue that he and McCarthy face re-election in mid-November when Republicans return from the elections, have to set in place their caucus for the next two-year cycle. And if for some McCarthy has stumbled or Boehner has stumbled, they may face yet another challenge.
MS. IFILL: And this drama gets revisited again.
MR. O'KEEFE: Yet again.
MS. IFILL: Thank you.
The Republicans may have been trying to find their footing this week, but that doesn’t mean the Democrats got to sit back and smirk. In fact, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC news pool show that, especially when it comes to foreign policy, the president’s support is sinking like a stone. It you follow the bouncing ball from Edward Snowden to Syria to Ukraine to Bowe Bergdahl to Iraq, the president’s disapproval numbers have been on the rise. So does the polling tell us why that is, Janet?
MS. HOOK: Well, it’s really interesting because I think that his approval ratings are going down not so much because people disagree with him on a lot of issues, but it’s more a general indictment of his leadership, that people are losing confidence in him for reasons that are separate from his positions that he’s taking.
Now, on foreign policy – and that’s really where the action is these days; I mean, he’s been – his approval rating has dropped even more precipitously. Overall, his approval rating was 41 percent, and on foreign policy, it was a record low of 37. And, you know, really, he’s been facing a lot of situations over which he doesn’t have a lot of control. You know, Iraq is falling apart and Syria and, you know, Russia and Ukraine, all of these things that – he doesn’t set the agenda in international affairs, but the way he’s been handling it just hasn’t inspired much confidence in people.
And probably the more damning finding or the more interesting finding that I saw I our poll was we asked a question about more general competence. Do you think the administration is competent? And it was like 50-50. Some people thought, well, yeah, he’s kind of competent, and another 50 percent thought that he was not.
MS. IFILL: So it sounds like the main argument being made by the president’s biggest detractors, that he is weak or incompetent or isn’t a leader, that that’s what’s sticking.
MS. HOOK: Yes. And there is this sense of – well, one of the questions had to do with how much do you think he can do in the rest of his presidency? And people were very pessimistic about that. Fifty-four percent said that he just wouldn’t be able to get the job done. And some of that is just a sense of the gridlock, and some of it is a sense that he is a weak leader.
MR. BAKER: What’s fascinating about – your competence question I think was really interesting because it was roughly where Bush was at the same point of his presidency after Katrina and Iraq, and that was I think really devastating for him, and he never was able to get back momentum after that period of his presidency. And that’s where Obama is challenged. How do you get back that momentum? And your poll shows that they actually support it on a number of the specific issues, right? Climate change, right, and education –
MS. HOOK: Not just a number; all of the major issues, a majority or plurality of people are supporting the president on climate change – I love this finding; when we do our feeling thermometer, do you feel good or bad about different people and policies, they love the EPA. You know, more people liked the EPA than liked Hillary Clinton or the Democratic Party. (Laughter.) So they like – they support climate change regulation, they support the Common Core. Even conservative Republicans, we found, were split on the education standards we call Common Core. Immigration reform, more people thought that it helps the country than hurt it.
MS. IFILL: Yet somehow none of that translates.
MS. HOOK: None of that translates.
MR. O'KEEFE: What about Republicans?
MS. HOOK: Well, so here’s the thing. One of our pollsters said when we were doing the briefing, well, it’s all kind of bad for Obama, but nothing in here is good for anybody else either. The standing of the Republican Party remains overall lower than Democrats. The sort of generic ballot question that we ask about would you rather have congress be Democrat or Republican, they – there’s a slight edge for Democrats. So, you know, it’s not clear that the mistrust of Obama is translating into trust for Republicans. So, I mean, there’s generally a sense that this is going to be a good political year for the Republicans, but, you know, it’s not going to be any kind of landslide.
MR. CROWLEY: Is there any consolation that foreign policy isn’t typically a prime issue for voters? In other words, if you have to be hurting on domestic or foreign, you’re better off hurting on foreign policy. Does that make it any less painful for the president when the midterms come?
MS. HOOK: No, I think that’s a really good point because I think that it’s one thing to feel mistrustful of the president because you don’t like the way he’s dealing with Russia, but you somehow don’t carry that into your decision about whether you vote for, say, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana or not. I think when those issues dominate, it’s a little bit easier for Democrats running back home to kind of carve out their own profile and maybe not be sort of saddled with Obama’s problems.
MS. IFILL: I don’t know if the poll shows this or not, but I’ve noticed this week that the president’s been doing the pen-and-phone thing in which he’s been coming out with executive orders on LGBT rights, on – executive orders on I think creating a national monument in the middle of Pacific Ocean. And there is – along the way he keeps making these declarations which sound very executive. And I wonder if that speaks to the notion that – of his perceived weakness.
MS. HOOK: Right. You know, he has some powers, and he’s tried to use them. I mean, in fact, his whole climate change initiative was really – was mostly executive action because Congress isn’t – has refused to enact any laws to –
MS. IFILL: Well, plus exploiting the fact that people like Congress less than they like him.
MS. HOOK: Right. Right. There is always that advantage. You know, you can’t seek so low in the public esteem that you’re lower than Congress at this stage.
MR. O'KEEFE: Real quick, there was some sense, though, that the erosion is coming from places where he’s enjoyed stronger support before, right?
MS. HOOK: Yes. We actually found that some of his strongest kind of demographic groups, that support was eroding there as well. So it’s not just that Republicans hate him more than ever. It’s just that kind of across the board, there’s this – there is a slipping sense that he’s in charge.
MS. IFILL: I wonder if it’s – we don’t have time to answer it now, but I wonder if it’s also that it’s his – end of his second term. He’s in the last quarter of his presidency, and maybe that just happens.
MS. HOOK: Oh, of course. Of course. That’s – it’s a total common thing among second-term presidents.
MS. IFILL: OK. Thank you.
As always, there is a lot we didn’t get to that we all cover on the “Washington Week” webcast extra, including a preview of Peter Baker’s book review of Hillary Clinton’s “Hard Choices.” That streams live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern and all week long at pbs.org/washingtonweek. Join us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and keep up with Judy Woodruff and me every day at the PBS NewsHour, and we’ll see you right here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.