Full Episode: Obama's Strategy to Combat ISIS and Immigration Reform Delayed

Sep. 15, 2014 AT 12:17 p.m. EDT

Analysis of President Obama's anti-terror strategy, Congress' outlook, and the U.S. public opinion toward the threat from ISIS. Also, why has Obama put immigration reform on the backburner? Joining Gwen Ifill: James Kitfield; National Journal; Ed O'Keefe, The Washington Post; Molly Ball, The Atlantic; and Carrie Budoff Brown, POLITICO.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: The politics and policy of American intervention abroad, and domestic reverberations at home, tonight on “Washington Week.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) Our objective is clear: We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.

MS. IFILL: The words may be tough, but the task will be tougher – wiping out a dangerous and diffuse enemy.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: (From videotape.) The United States and the world will simply not stand by and watch as ISIL’s evil spreads.

MS. IFILL: Winning public support back home.

HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From videotape.) The president’s made clear that he doesn’t want U.S. boots on the ground. Well, somebody’s boots have to be on the ground.

MS. IFILL: Amid domestic political upheaval.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER HARRY REID (D-NV): It’s disturbing that at a time like this there are some in Congress taking cheap political shots at the president.

MS. IFILL: Stepping up to a foreign intervention the White House tried to avoid, while at the same time away from a national issue, immigration reform, that the president had championed.

WOMAN: (From videotape.) I think it’s terrible. They always use our community. And believe me, I’m a Democrat, but I’m tired of waiting.

MS. IFILL: In a midterm election year, no easy battles.

Covering the week, Molly Ball, national political correspondent for The Atlantic; Carrie Budoff Brown, senior White House reporter for Politico; James Kitfield, contributing editor for National Journal; and Ed O’Keefe, congressional correspondent for 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.”

MS. IFILL: Good evening.

Four presidents – Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama; four announcements, the same goal – getting Americans to support U.S. military strikes in Iraq, and this time in Syria as well. In each case, the commander in chief presented intervention as essential to protect the homeland and to break the back of enemies abroad. But for Barack Obama, it was a clear public reversal for a man elected, as he has said, to end wars.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From videotape.) I’ve made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency. If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

MS. IFILL: The president’s announcement was met with rare bipartisan support, but it is clear this will be no simple conflict. Secretary of State John Kerry went out of his way not to label it a war.

SEC. KERRY: (From videotape.) What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counterterrorism operation, and it’s going to go on for some period of time.

MS. IFILL: Some period of time, which raises the question, do we know if lawmakers, if indeed Americans, have the stomach for the commitment of blood and treasure, an expanded intervention will it require? Molly?

MOLLY BALL: Well, that’s really the question. I mean, on the part of lawmakers, it’s something I think we’re going to see in the next week as this matter comes before Congress. When it comes to the American public, for a while now there’s been this conventional wisdom that Americans are war-weary, that they don’t want – that there’s even a new sort of isolationist spirit that’s taken over the country. And that has reversed very quickly since these beheadings.

We have seen a massive shift in public opinion; a poll out this week showing over 60 percent of Americans want to take action against ISIS. Now, most people do not want a, quote-unquote, “war.” They don’t want boots on the ground. They don’t want combat troops. But the American people seem to be very strongly moved to do something. And the president is responding to that.

MS. IFILL: Ed, is that why there was not – whatever battle seemed to be brewing on Capitol Hill seemed to melt away once the president made his announcement?

ED O’KEEFE: Yeah, I think that’s partly because the parties still understand that when the commander in chief is trying to put together something like this, they have to show resolve. It’s less a domestic political issue at that point and more of a foreign policy issue. But, yes, the polling definitely, I think, snapped some lawmakers into position and made them realize that they have to do this.

But there is plenty of skepticism. As Bob Corker told me yesterday, you know, things need to fall into place and countries need to sign up for this in ways that they never have before. And what bothers a lot of people up there is not only do they want a debate, but they want the White House to directly say to Congress we want you to do this.

You saw the president in his speech say, you know, if Congress would like to weigh in on this, I’m more than happy to have that, instead of sending a formal authorization request or possibly writing a new authorization for use of military force. That’s partly because I think this White House understands that it’s been so darn difficult to work with the Congress, but also because, you know, it’s not entirely clear how willing the country is to have this debate and how willing lawmakers are.

MS. IFILL: Well, Carrie, I’m curious about the White House view of this, because the president went through the ritual of having leaders in the day before to tell them, after having signaled in advance I’m going to do what I want to do anyhow. And I wonder if, at this stage, he even cares whether he has congressional support.

CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN: Well, he certainly learned a really hard lesson a year ago, at this very time a year ago, when he switched course and said he was going to ask Congress for approval to strike Syria; slightly different – under different circumstances. But he really bungled that.

And even though this is different, I don’t think anybody’s eager to repeat that, going to Congress and not being able to get it through. And particularly now Democrats, Democratic leaders, they don’t want the president to come and ask for their members, who are in very, very tight races, to vote on this.

And so I think they’re walking that line. And I think it’s only going to get tougher. They’ve been questioned quite a bit this week about the authority that they have; lots of legal experts saying he’s walking a very – he’s not on firm footing.

MS. IFILL: That the authorization for use of military force doesn’t necessarily cover ISIS, ISIL, whatever we want to call it, because it was meant to apply to al-Qaida and its denizens.

MS. BROWN: Yeah. And I would predict that we’re going to hear a little more of that next week from Congress, members who will actually be calling for potentially revisiting that. I mean, there already have been calls for that. But I could see that becoming more of a difficult issue for them to get around, the White House, in the coming days.

MS. IFILL: James, let’s talk about the threat and the scope of the action which the president prescribed the other night.


MS. IFILL: For a lot of Americans, this is brand new - ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State, whatever you want to call it – but this is a new enemy for a lot of people. But they’re not brand new.

MR. KITFIELD: No, no. We know these guys very well. This is the former al-Qaida in Iraq. We fought them for 10 years. They have the blood of hundreds of American soldiers on their hands, formerly led by sort of a psychopath called Zarqawi. We killed him in 2006, but, you know, he had this vision of slaughtering Shia Muslims so he could start a civil war in Iraq, and (thus ?) the Sunnis would come on top of that and establish this caliphate, which has always been their vision.

What makes them different from al-Qaida is they have this willingness to kill other Muslims. And that sort of has always been a tension with them. We thought we had them pretty well defeated in 2011 when we pulled the last of our troops out of Iraq, but the Arab spring happened and then Syria happened, and these guys – you know, these conflict zones are breeding grounds for these guys, so they sort of resuscitated.

They became the baddest guy in the opposition of the Syrian civil war. And this guy who’s the new leader, Baghdadi, he was in jail, got close to a lot of former Baathist army guys while he was in jail, was released, launched these very successful prison breaks in the last year, where thousands and thousands of former Baathists and former terrorists were sort of sprung by him. So that’s now his army, and he just keeps growing it.

MS. IFILL: And he actually holds territory, as opposed to al-Qaida. So the idea of a targeted airstrike, which Americans like that antiseptic notion often, that’s not going to work here.

MR. KITFIELD: Well, it’s not going to work. And it’s one thing that – you know, the president wants to put this template as a counterterrorism template. He mentioned like we’re doing in Yemen and like we’re doing in Somalia. But ISIS is much more powerful, has more ground, has more weaponry, has more money, and has more followers than either one of those al-Qaida affiliates ever had.

So it’s not going to be something that’s going to happen quick. We’re going to need ground forces on the ground, our air power supporting. We’re going to try to find proxies, whether it’s the Free Syrian Army in Syria or there’s the Iraqi security forces.

So not boots on the ground means not big large combat formations. But there’ll be special operations forces assisting, training those guys, marrying our air power to them. We had a little taste of that a few weeks ago with the Peshmerga, and they were able to sort of retake territory, retake the Mosul dam. So that’s the template.

MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about the whole idea of boots on the ground, because even though the president has said we’re going in, but we’re not going in that way, there’s not universal agreement that that’s correct. Let’s listen to something Senator Lindsey Graham had to say this week.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From videotape.) I’m tired of half-measures. I’m tired of misleading the American people about what we face. There is no way in hell we’re going to beat these guys without an American ground component in Iraq and Syria. And the one thing I can promise the American people, if we take ISIL on and lose, we will unlock the gates of hell, and hell will come our way.

MS. IFILL: Strong language. But do Americans – are they persuaded by that, that there is a need for American troops to go back and refight this war in the same area of the world where we just got out?

MR. O’KEEFE: Not yet. And lawmakers like Lindsey Graham are still in a vocal minority. There are certainly Republicans calling for this - McCain and Graham, the two amigos; Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois, and a few others. But there is not widespread agreement yet, at least, that ground troops are needed.

You talk to Democrats, you talk to Republicans, they say I’m willing to engage, I’m willing to give the president authority to use airstrikes and to use drones and to team up with these different groups in Syria and Iraq, but I’m not OK with ground troops yet.

Guys like Graham turn around and say, well, that’s impractical, because at some point what if you get to a situation where we’re doing well, we’re 90 percent of the way there, but the use of maybe a thousand, 5,000 ground troops would finish out the deal? Are we going to suddenly say, ah, well, we got as far as we could, but we can’t commit boots on the ground?

And that is why I think you’re going to see calls, and possibly plans put in place, to have a broader discussion about this after the election. Steny Hoyer, the minority whip, the Democrat, suggested this week that might happen. And based on what might play out next week, there may be agreement to bring this up again and talk about it more seriously.

Whether it’s resolved before Christmas, that’s unclear. But there are growing calls to have a more substantive debate, and understanding that, you know, if this is going to happen, Congress actually needs to do its job and debate it. There have been very principled arguments on this this week. And I think a lot of people agree, well, you know, we have such poor approval ratings at this point; if we can’t even debate something like this, then what are we here for?

MS. IFILL: Well –

MR. KITFIELD: Can I make –

MS. IFILL: Go ahead.

MR. KITFIELD: - a distinction here?

MS. IFILL: Sure.

MR. KITFIELD: I mean, I think it’s important for your viewers to understand that when they say no boots on the ground, what they mean, it’s a mission. It’s not really – we have 1,500 boots on the ground. They’re all wearing boots.

MS. IFILL: Right.

MR. KITFIELD: But their mission is in the background, assisting, gathering intelligence, giving intelligence, and basically assisting the ground forces, the Iraqi ground forces, or, as I said, in the Free Syrian Army in Syria. You know, and the question is, do you want your combat guys to be the ones who, you know, ground maneuver, like they did in Iraq and like they did in Afghanistan, to be the tip of the spear?

MS. IFILL: Right.

MR. KITFIELD: He’s saying – that’s the difference.

MS. IFILL: That’s why they’re talking about coalitions.

MR. KITFIELD: There will have to be, clearly, a lot more than 1,500 before this is over. And one thing Graham said – and he’s been consistent on that, so, I mean, we all know him and Senator McCain are very consistent. You know, Obama has taken ownership of this fight, this war, call it what you will, and he can’t afford to lose it. So Senator Graham is right about that. We can’t afford to lose a fight with –

MS. IFILL: Except this fight is going to continue long after he’s left office.

MR. KITFIELD: Yeah, but we’d better have made some success by the time he’s left office or his legacy will look a lot worse than it does right now.

MS. IFILL: How is the public mood, Molly, different now than it was last time we were having this debate, probably around this table, about what American forces can do to change an outcome?

MS. BALL: I think people are very skeptical. And I think you hear in the president’s rhetoric the shadow of the Iraq war hanging over all of his decisions. It seemed to me like on Wednesday night he talked more about what he wasn’t doing than what he was doing, because he is so concerned with, as he puts it, being sucked into another ground war in Iraq. And I think there are a lot of flashbacks for a lot of people when you hear these calls for escalation before we’ve even really begun; a lot of very wary people in both parties.

You know, the president does have support in both parties. He also has skepticism in both parties, because you have more and less hawkish Democrats, a lot of that left over from the last war, and you have more and less hawkish Republicans as this more non-interventionist strain has risen in the Republican Party. And so you do have a lot of people saying, as they did in 2003, wait a minute; let’s put the brakes on this for a second; let’s not just let sort of the snowball roll until we get sucked into something that we can’t finish.

MS. IFILL: If you didn’t know, Carrie, this president from having covered him for the last several years, you would have thought, just watching that speech, that it was very hawkish.

MS. BROWN: Right. Yeah – and him speaking to American exceptionalism. He’s sort of really pushing back on the critics who have really said he doesn’t believe that anymore. And there was some very strong language there.

MS. IFILL: That’s what the last paragraphs of the speech were all about.

MS. BROWN: Yeah. Yeah, it really was. It was remarkable – sort of remarkable stuff. If you closed your eyes, you would think maybe George Bush was saying it. You know, it’s not the Barack Obama that he’s always been pushing out there. And I think the White House, they got a lot of criticism for not being quicker to come up with a strategy, but I can tell you that within the White House, they were fine with that. You know, they took hits, but they – a lot of people have called him the reluctant warrior this week; a lot of headlines.

But they, in the West Wing, like to – someone told me today, you know, he’s a deliberate warrior. He – and they think that deliberation paid off to a certain extent this week where he took his time, came up with a strategy, and, you know, has received support from both Republicans and Democrats. So I think, in contrast to a year ago, when they struggled so much with how to deal with Syria, they feel really good about how things sort of played out this week, even though there are tons of obstacles that lay ahead of them.

MS. IFILL: Well, OK, I want to talk about a couple, because two big question marks come to mind. One is the Free Syrian Army, which we’re now in league with, that we kind of were leaning back from before, and the other is Bashar al-Assad, who benefits if this works. And we, I think, last check, still want him to leave office, right -


MS. IFILL: - or just, you know, be overrun. So these are two big obstacles.

MR. KITFIELD: Well, you raise two really big, you know, really tough problems to solve on this. The Free Syrian Army, we don’t know if they are capable, even married to U.S. air power. But we’re going to give that a try. We’re not going to, you know, coordinate with Assad, because we don’t – as the president said in his speech, they’ve lost all legitimacy and they’re not going to get it back. So the Syrian part of the equation is going to be the tougher of the two.

But, you know, the fact of the matter is, I think the president was faced with a situation where this group was getting so powerful, it was easy – and his intelligence guys, I can assure you, were telling him this. You know, the chances of a strike on the homeland are growing every day because these foreign fighters with western passports are flocking over there, and –

MS. IFILL: OK, let’s stop right there, because what I heard him say in the speech was we don’t have any evidence to support the notion that there’s an imminent hit on the homeland, and the foreign fighters that are flocking over there aren’t mostly American foreign fighters. So I’m not – I haven’t yet seen any evidence provided about what this homeland domestic threat is on our shores.

MR. KITFIELD: Well, there’s roughly 2,000 European/American foreign fighters amongst about 12,000. They don’t have exact numbers. So those – and a lot of those come from – you know, we’ve heard 60 come from Australia, the Five Eyes countries, the countries that don’t need visas, who don’t get looked at, who could very easily get on a plane with a passport and drop in the United States if they’re not on our terror list. And these guys disappear in Europe and they show up in Syria. They get radicalized, trained.

And we’re very worried. I mean, I’ve talked to intelligence guys this week. They are very worried that there’s just so much they don’t know about this flow of foreign fighters back and forth. They don’t have a specific plot, you know. But the head of ISIS has said very clearly that he has threatened America very clearly. When we let him out of jail, he told the American soldiers, I’ll see you in New York. These guys are virulently anti-western. And, you know, our experience in Afghanistan in the `90s dictates that you have to take it very seriously when they start threatening you.

MS. IFILL: I also wonder if that’s what drives – we heard John Boehner say this week, yeah, I’m going to support the president. He’s our commander in chief. But, you know, I wonder if he really understands, if he fully grasps this. Or even the people who supported him said finally the president is coming around. We’ll see if he’s going to follow through. He gives a good speech a lot of the time. There’s still a layer of skepticism even just underneath the support.

MR. O’KEEFE: Yeah, but there’s skepticism on both sides of the street -

MS. IFILL: Right.

MR. O’KEEFE: - both ends of the street. I think the White House is still pretty wary of them.

There was – part of the reason why there’s so much skepticism - there was an incredible moment this week where Hal Rogers, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he got a call – I believe it was Tuesday night – from President Obama directly. And the president asked him, could you please insert this legal authority into your short-term spending bill that you’re planning on passing? – what originally was supposed to be passed last night. And Chairman Rogers told us he was thunderstruck by this, because he had never received a phone call before from the president, period.

MS. IFILL: Is that true? Is that really true?

MR. O’KEEFE: Hard to know. But Rogers – we asked him directly, had you ever received a call from the president asking that you do something with your spending bill? And he says no.

MS. BROWN: That’s not hard to believe.

MR. O’KEEFE: It’s not hard to believe, because this is a Congress that has been, you know, pretty much, you know, ignored by the White House on several turns. So how – so the idea that they’re skeptical makes total sense. I mean, the idea that he would call the night before to have something inserted into one of the most complex pieces of legislation that’s considered every year, you can’t fault them for being a little skeptical.

MS. IFILL: You know, this – we’re going to move on to one other thing, but there was an interesting thing that James read about this week, which is that this is a president who splits the difference. This is someone who – you’re nodding and smiling – that when a tough decision is made, he’s, like, where is the middle that I can find? And this may be the case where it’s not possible to split it.

MR. KITFIELD: I think that’s right. I mean, his split is no ground forces. But he took ownership this week of this problem. And if it’s not done without a lot more advisors on the ground, which I think will be necessary, quite honestly, for the Iraqi security forces to retake a lot of their country, he’s going to have to ante up, because he owns this now.

MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about threats of the political domestic kind. When the White House announced last weekend that it would not, as promised, use executive action to move on immigration reform prior to this fall’s election, there was disappointment on the left and suspicion on the right.

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL): (From videotape.) The president now is brazenly reaffirming in even clearer language that he will carry out his amnesty plan, but only after the election in November. This is an attempt to protect his Democratic Senate candidates.

REPRESENTATIVE LORETTA SANCHEZ (D-CA): (From videotape.) We’ve all been frustrated. All immigrant communities have been very, very frustrated about this. So when President Obama said to us, in particular the Hispanic Caucus, I’m going to get something done, and you’ll know by August, it is a disappointment. It is a frustration.

MS. IFILL: So what is the president plotting here, Ed?

MR. O’KEEFE: Apparently he’s planning to go, quote, as far as he can by the holidays with executive authority to revamp –

MS. IFILL: Which holiday are we talking about?

MR. O’KEEFE: Good question. We asked that question.

MS. IFILL: Armistice Day?

MR. O’KEEFE: Well, in the words of – one lawmaker said I think the holidays are Thanksgiving. Others said, no, Christmas. And others said, well, remember, there’s a runoff election in Georgia on January 6th, so maybe he’s talking, you know, little Christmas.

Bottom line, there was a meeting just yesterday between members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. This was designed to sort of (quell ?) the ranks and get them to sort of calm down, because they’ve been very upset this week by the president’s decision to not do anything right now.

Look, they make a very interesting and somewhat valid argument that, you know, when you consider that this was the group of voters that probably put him over the top, not only nationally but in several key swing states, they’d argue that they haven’t necessarily been returned the favor.

MS. IFILL: So, Molly, is this something which the White House and Congress are agreed upon, that something’s going to happen? Or is it just the opposite?

MS. BALL: Well, it’s an interesting irony, as you saw in those two clips, where the Republicans believe the president will do what he promised, and they’re mad about that, and the Democrats are worried that he won’t do what he promised, and they’re mad about that. So you have – so, you know, what the White House is saying they’re going to do is what the president’s been saying he was going to do since June.

He actually surprised some people in the immigration activist community by making this very public pledge that he would do something by the end of the summer. And to then reverse it, they feel like he didn’t have to make that promise. By making that promise, they assumed he had thought it through. And to then go back on it, they really don’t understand it. And they do feel like they’ve been strung along.

MS. IFILL: That promise, thinking it through - what actually is he promising to do? What’s the best-case scenario of what the president can do by executive order?

MS. BROWN: Well, he – the thing that – the one – the big shiny object is expanding a program that was deferred deportations for potentially millions of undocumented immigrants. That is the big flashpoint. That is what the immigrant activist community wants. That’s what Democrats want. And that would be –

MS. IFILL: That’s the amnesty that –

MS. BROWN: That is the –

MS. IFILL: - (inaudible).

MS. BROWN: Yes, though it’s only temporary and they would have to, you know – there would be restrictions on it. But that is what they want. And that’s – the president, by all accounts, is going to go there. It’s a question of how large he goes, whether it’s 5 million, whether it’s a much smaller program.

The thing for the president is that, because he’s delayed it again, the bar has been raised. The expectations are that much higher. People think that they – that the Hispanic voters, Asian voters, are owed even more than they would have been, had he acted now.

MS. IFILL: Final thought.

MR. O’KEEFE: I mean, legally he can do it. The question is, what do the election results show him? And does that compel him to do more? Does it compel him to do less? Because it could upend his relations with the Republican Congress for the last two years of his presidency.

MS. IFILL: OK, let’s put money on which holiday it will be, and we’ll all – maybe Yom Kippur. That’s soonest. (Laughter.)

Thank you, everybody. New Year’s – I don’t know where that came from.

We have to go now, but the conversation continues online on the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra, where we’ll dig a little more into the issues, the personalities and the conflicts that are bedeviling Washington. That streams live at 8:30 p.m. eastern and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.

Before we go, a bit of exciting scheduling news. Next Friday the great Ken Burns steps into our time slot for the sixth part of his weeklong documentaries series, “The Roosevelts.” And then the following Friday, join me for a PBS town hall meeting, “America After Ferguson,” where the nation’s best and smartest thinkers take on a conversation about race, crime and justice that neither began nor ended with Ferguson.

While we’re off, keep up with daily developments on the PBS NewsHour. And before you miss us, we’ll be right back here on “Washington Week.” Good night.


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