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Week In Politics: Ukraine And The Islamic State


Well, what to some is the White House taking its time and being properly deliberative, to others is pure paralysis. Our regular Friday political commentators are here to chew on that - E.J. Dionne with the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be here.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

BLOCK: And let's start with something that the president said in his news conference yesterday. It's something that's gotten a lot of attention. He was asked about whether the U.S. would launch military airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and in particular whether he needs congressional approval to do that. Here's part of his response.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy - yet.

BLOCK: And David Brooks, shockingly that became the headline today in papers, splashed across cable news channels and talked about here on this program right now. We don't have a strategy. Poor choice of words on the president's part or does this speak to some bigger strategic problem in the White House?

BROOKS: Well, it was deeply untrue and true at the same time. You know, I think he was just talking about a Syrian military strategy, not a confession that his - not a strategy about anything. I'm not sure he does have a strategy about anything though. But embedded in his comments there is a strategy. On the Islamic State, he keeps referring to it as a cancer and I think that metaphor is important because it does imply that unless we take forceful action, it will just keep spreading and spreading. And once you - take that diagnosis, which I think is an accurate diagnosis. You're more or less committing yourself to a series of moves which will escalate over the next couple months and years, which will probably involve at the end of the day U.S. troops on the ground - not big massive troops, but special operations forces to help guide Syrian - to guide air attacks in places like Syria, as well as coalition building, as well as a whole range of measures. The irony of the Obama administration, it's going to get a lot more militarized in the last two years.

BLOCK: E.J. we heard the White House today trying to amplify, clarify that we don't have a strategy yet phrase. Press Secretary Josh Earnest using words like rigorous and deliberate - carefully considered. What's the needle they're trying to thread here?

DIONNE: Well, they know that this did not sound good. Although I think it's the old Mike Kinsley line, the definition of a gaff is when you tell the truth. And that they...

BLOCK: In Washington. Yeah.

DIONNE: Right. And as David said he wasn't talking about his entire strategy, he was saying we don't have a strategy yet on Syria. I think one of their difficulties is that Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Defense Hagel, Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have made such strong statements implying that we're about to do something that Obama felt a need to pull that back. Now it's not actually good when a president has to do that, it shades of what happened in Syria. But I think his concern is the right one, which is if we are going to do something against the Islamic state we need very broad support in the Middle East and particularly support from Sunni countries, since the Islamic State claims to speak for Sunnis. So I think they are properly their time to get their act together. In terms of David's comments on boots on the ground, we already have some boots on the ground in Iraq. And I think Obama - President Obama is going to avoid a very large number of troops. What they want is for other forces there - we've relied on the Peshmerga in the North were hoping that the Iraqi government can get its act together. We're trying to assemble something where air power can support other actors trying to push back against the Islamic State.

BLOCK: David there was an editorial in your paper, in the Times yesterday, faulting the Obama administration for what it called, alarmingly incomplete knowledge about ISIS. It's numbers and organizations. What your take on that? Was the administered - was the intelligence community asleep on this one?

BROOKS: Well, I think the entire intelligence community was asleep. If you remember earlier in the year the president was saying - was sort of downplaying the importance and the capability of ISIS. So, they've surprised everybody, that's not totally a surprise in war. I do think what needs to be said is something that actually Hillary Clinton said in here interview with Jeff Goldberg of the Atlantic, which we talked about a couple weeks ago, which is this is one big thing. And what she meant by that is whether it's al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Hamas, jihadism is one big thing. And so when we talk about do you need military - or legal authorization to go into, say, to bomb Syria, to go further into Iraq, I think we have to understand this is going to be a long, low-level permanent thing, against one big enemy which is jihadism. And we shouldn't treat it as isolated things, Islamic State over here, al-Qaeda over there, Hamas over there. And legally as a matter of administration, as a matter strategy we should think in that long-term context.

DIONNE: And legally and politically as Benjamin Wittes said in the earlier piece, I think it is important that Congress get in on this. And what's striking is you do have some members of Congress saying we want to say. What's really striking is how many are not saying anything at all because I think a lot of them would like to duck this until after the election.

BLOCK: Sure. Let's look forward to next week. President Obama will be meeting with allies at the NATO Summit in Wales. Yesterday he said flat out we are not taking military action to solve the Ukrainian problem and yet NATO is saying Russia has well over a thousand troops in Ukraine. We saw pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels today, backed by Russian troops, moving toward taking a strategic seaport. David Brooks, where is this headed and what's U.S. policy going to be?

BROOKS: It's another place that we're going to be escalating. You know, if you look at the military strategy today as my newspaper reported today, it looks like a straight up invasion. They just seem to want an overland land route to Crimea. It's not anything fancy, it's not like Russia's been doing in the past, it's a straight up, slow-motion invasion. And that's going to require an escalation on our side as well. And that doesn't mean we're going to go to war, and have World War III. But if the Russia's are supplying sophisticated weaponry to their side, then it seems - it makes sense to me that the west and a coalition would supply sophisticated weaponry to our proxies and that seems to be just another low-level series of pressures and counter pressures that we're going to have to take against Putin.

BLOCK: And E.J. the notion that sanctions are having an effect and more and tougher sections will have more of an effect? What do you think?

DIONNE: Well, I think sanctions will have an effect over time. I think the Russian economy is hurting, I also think the rhetoric has stepped up. Samantha Power, our ambassador to the U.N. was really forceful when she said the Russians are saying everything but the truth. The Russians have manipulated, obfuscated and outright lied. So, we're hardly being soft rhetorically. I think the E.U. could send an interesting single next week. They are choosing a European Council President and one of the leading candidates is Donald Tusk, the Prime Minister of Poland. If he is chosen that sends a powerful message to the Russians. There are all kinds of politics there, which may mean he's not chosen. But I think the Europeans are really on the line here about how much tougher they're going to get in light of Russian actions. They seem to be trying to freeze the situation and make it like Moldova where they have a piece of the country and they want the other country to live with their domination of a piece of them, in the case of Ukraine.

BLOCK: All right I think we're going to have to leave it there. Thanks so much to you both. Have a good weekend.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: You too.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne with the Washington Post and Brookings Institution. David Brooks of the New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.