On Super Bowl Sunday, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie got the exclusive interview with Barack Obama, forcing Fox and Bill O’Reilly to the sidelines, and the network aired a rather anodyne portion of it right before game time. NBC’s Today has the full interview this morning, which includes a couple of contentious arguments, especially over national security policy and ISIS/ISIL. Guthrie brings up Obama’s State of the Union claim that his policies are rolling back the terrorist army, even though by most accounts the only thing we’ve accomplished is just slowing the rate of their growth. When Obama tries to set up the question as either his policy or a full invasion force as the alternatives, Guthrie accuses him of employing “kind of a straw man.”
Anodyne mode off:
SG: You said in your State of the Union that American leadership is helping to stop the advance of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but your critics say that is delusional. That in fact they gained more territory since the air strikes have begun.
BO: That’s just not accurate. And we just saw what happened in Kobani over the last several days, the consequences of the support that we’ve provided Kurds, these air strikes that have been taken. In Iraq what we’ve seen is both Iraqi security forces and Kurdish forces beginning to push back against ISIL.
But I’ve said, though, it’s going to take some time. And it’s going to take some time because part of our goal has to build up the capacity inside of Iraq so that American troops on the ground, those same critics that you suggest I answered would have us redeploy tens of thousands of U.S. troops.
SG: But isn’t that kind of a straw man? You often say that.
BO: It’s not a straw man. That’s what I’m saying. It is entirely possible for us to deploy 200,000 or 300,000 U.S. troops and we would much more rapidly drive back ISL. But what would then happen is eventually we would leave. And what we’ve seen historically is that if we don’t have, inside of Iraq or inside Syria or inside of Afghanistan, both the capacity and the will of people to fight for themselves, then any gains that are made eventually dissipate. So this takes longer but it’s the right way to do it.
SG: But aren’t there things you could be doing right now, short of a huge presence of ground troops inside Syria and Iraq that would help this goal, what you say is to defeat ISIS, happen more quickly? Couldn’t we be doing more?
BO: Anything that we’re doing anything that we could be doing, Savannah, we are doing.
Guthrie also noted that the victories claimed in the past by Obama in the war on terror have turned into embarrassments, but Obama pleaded for patience:
SG: So you’ve talked a lot about it, often cited victories against core al–Qaeda. And you have, frankly, killed a lot of terrorists. But if you look at it overall haven’t the forces of militant extremism, Jihadism, grown stronger on your watch? If you look at Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, the place whereal–Qaeda is, that branch is so active and vicious and now it’s government, our ally, just collapsed.
BO: Well, keep in mind that in each of these situations you have seen a bunch of different radical groups popping up. Some with more capabilities, some with less. What we have been able to do, and what we’ve been doing, is to put pressure on these organizations so that they can’t attack the United States.
So you just mentioned Yemen. Yemen’s a tough situation. This is a country that’s always been fragile. You know, the governments have never been strong. There are a bunch of different ethnic groups and tribal groups that argue and fight. On the other hand, we’ve been continually able to maintain pressure on al–Qaeda in that region.
And yet, the White House cited Yemen repeatedly as an example of success in American foreign policy. What Obama’s answer neglects to mention is that the Yemen government is weak in part because the US and Saudi Arabia pressured the previous Ali Abdullah Saleh government into leaving, even though Saleh was cooperating with our anti-terrorist efforts in Yemen. That was part of the Obama administration’s Arab Spring policy of undermining allies in the hope of seeing liberal democracies spring out of nowhere in the Middle East. Instead, we ended up with a defenseless government and Saleh as an enemy.
In fact, that’s a consistent pattern in the region. Obama pulled the troops out of Iraq that kept Nouri al-Maliki in line and watched from the sidelines as Maliki dismantled everything we’d built for stability in Iraq. Obama and Hillary Clinton conducted a war against Moammar Qaddafi, supposedly to free Libyan democracy, only to end up producing a failed state there too. We encouraged the revolt against Bashar al-Assad — and not for no good reasons — but then failed to support it when it could have ended Iranian influence in the region. Now we’re fighting against the Assad enemies that emerged the strongest, bolstering Iran’s influence, all while having turned Syria into yet another failed state.
Obama insists that he’s “doing everything we can be doing.” When it comes to foreign policy in this administration, that’s the problem.