Week In Politics: U.S. Airstrikes In Iraq
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And let's pick up on that question of mission creep with our Friday political commentators, columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back to you both.
E.J. DIONNE: Thank you.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.
BLOCK: Let's listen to just a bit of what President Obama said last night when he announced his authorization of the humanitarian mission and airstrikes.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When many thousands of innocent civilians are faced with danger of being wiped out, and we have the capacity to do something about it, we will take action. That is our responsibility as Americans.
BLOCK: E.J., let's start with you. Is the president stuck here? As Tom just said, he came into office promising to end the war in Iraq. Now, of course, we've seen this first round of U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State targets. Where does this go?
DIONNE: We don't know where this goes. I think the administration had to act when it started yesterday. We're using the word genocide. And I think that was a clear signal that we could not allow 40,000 people to starve to death or get killed on that mountain. But more generally, the Kurds have been very loyal American allies over a long period of time. And the president's walking this very fine line, as Tom said, because he doesn't want us on the ground. He doesn't want lots of troops on the ground in Iraq. He wants to keep pressure on the Iraqis to form a broader government that can bring back Sunni support. But at the same time, he doesn't want the Islamic State to keep gaining ground. And so right now he's got, if you will, a perfect rationale to say he wants to protect Americans who are in Erbil, which puts a very plain American interest out there. But I think in the long run, he's going to have to face very difficult choices about how far American engagement has to go.
BLOCK: And David, these airstrikes also do seem to be aimed at protecting the civilians who are on that mountain top, not just the U.S. civilians and soldiers in Erbil. So what is the endpoint? Is it defeating the Islamic state? Is it getting these folks off the mountain?
BROOKS: President Obama has never made a distinction he didn't try to transcend. And here he's caught between two goals - one, we shouldn't get involved in the Middle East - two, we should defeat ISIS. You can't do both. You know, if the Iraqis could defeat ISIS on their own, they probably would've done so. If they could form a unified state with ISIS in control of the Sunni regions, they probably would've done so. But neither of those things are possible. So it seems to me that the strategy should be simply, defeat ISIS. And if you can't round up a coalition to defeat these guys, who can you round up a coalition to defeat? Even, you know, the Jordanians, the Syrians, the Egyptians, even the Saudi's - even the Turks who've been a little supportive are beginning to get alarmed by this. And the Europeans and the Americans should be alarmed because of the number Western people who are in there and who could come back and commit terror attacks. Seems to me our strategy should be not to split the divide between getting out and defeating ISIS. It just - ISIS gives us no choice but to make that the primary and central goal of U.S. strategy.
BLOCK: Given the amount of territory that the Islamic State has managed to seize, that comes a pretty broad-based campaign. Do you think there's the public appetite for that?
BROOKS: Well, not for American troops on the ground, obviously.
BLOCK: Well, even for airstrikes.
BROOKS: Even for airstrikes - well, the point is you don't have to defeat them tomorrow, but it seems to me you do have the potential for a pretty broad coalition, including people in Iraq, including people in the region, including people in Europe - for a slow, steady campaign - not going back in, but a slow, steady campaign to defeat ISIS. The nature of ISIS is such that they're simply a radioactive force who will forever, as long as they exist in this power, will destabilize the Middle East and threaten American interests.
BLOCK: E.J., you wanted to jump in there.
DIONNE: Yeah, I think the difficulty with what David is saying is that it implies that you can defeat ISIS with political instability continuing in Baghdad, with the lack of support from the Sunnis for the central government in Baghdad. And I think yes, Obama has a tendency to be agonized over a lot of choices. But guess what? There are a lot of agonizing choices. And I think yes, we do want to defeat ISIS. We don't want them to gain more ground, and we sure don't want them to overrun the Kurds. So I think the logic of this campaign is we will probably get more involved than the administration is now. But I think Obama's right that absent some political change in Baghdad, we just can't do this - or even we and allies can't do this without political change.
BLOCK: You know, a lot of people are asking if you can do this in Iraq, why not do it in Syria? What's the difference in terms of a humanitarian crisis and thousands of people being jeopardized? Is there one?
BROOKS: 170,000 people have died in Syria, and much worse atrocities. I think the lesson of Syria - and maybe the lesson here is the same - which is it's a lot easier to do the small things at the beginning than to do big things at the end. And we - now we're beginning to arm the moderate rebels in Syria, but we probably should have been there more assertively in the beginning when they actually had a chance. And we should've probably defeated ISIS or tried to fight against them in the beginning now - not now that they control so much territory. But the larger point is that if you're constantly assertive with coalitions, it's a lot easier than if your tendency is one to retrench and withdrawal.
DIONNE: I think the answer to your question is that A, we have more responsibility in Iraq simply because we were there before and are partly responsible for political circumstances there. Second, we are dealing with clear allies there in the Iraqi government, but even more in the Kurds. And I think the very fact that the opposition in Syria gave rise to ISIS suggests how complicated it was. A lot of people - David is one of them - says if we'd only come in earlier and armed moderates, then maybe none of this would have happened. They wouldn't have risen. The other possibility is those weapons could eventually have gotten into ISIS hands. So I think Syria was not as clear as this is, at least to me.
BLOCK: And we did hear President Obama last night specifically mention having a mandate to help - in this case, a request from the Iraqi government.
BLOCK: The White House idea - and E.J., you alluded to this earlier - was that the Iraqis would have to come together on a new government and political reforms for there to be any real further U.S. military involvement. Is there any promise of that? Is that completely by the wayside this point, David?
BROOKS: I don't think so. I actually think the Obama administration has done a pretty good job of trying to rally some sort of unified - trying to get Maliki out of there - trying to rally some sort of unified government. That's just a question of twisting arms and trying to get help from outside to rally a coalition of people to create a new set of political leadership. That - you know, it looks more promising, frankly, than it did a month or two ago - that that would happen - that we'd have a different government in there - one a broader swath would support that would be less sectarian. The problem is this will - you know, even if they form a government, it's just going to take a long time to get the government organized, let alone to get the military - the Iraqi military organized, and ISIS can do a lot of damage in that time.
DIONNE: There's nothing like an existential threat to concentrate people's minds. And I think there is a lot of awareness among political leaders in Iraq that they - if they do not act reasonably quickly, this situation is going to get worse. So yes, it's very hard. Yes, there are no really inspiring leaders on the list to replace Maliki. Nonetheless, they're looking at either the collapse of the regime or a loss of half their country, and that should put some pressure on the Iraqi politicians to get moving on forming a new government.
BLOCK: OK, thanks so much to both have a great weekend.
DIONNE: Thank you.
BROOKS: Thank you.
BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times.
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