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Obama Defends Approach to ISIS Fight but Says More Is Needed

By PETER BAKER
May 21, 2015

WASHINGTON — President Obama denied that the United States and its allies were losing the fight against Islamic State forces in the Middle East, but he acknowledged in an interview posted online on Thursday that more should be done to help Iraqis recapture lost territory.

While repeating his refusal to commit large-scale American forces to the region, the president said Sunni fighters in Iraq needed more commitment and training to take on fellow Sunnis aligned with the Islamic State. But he offered no regrets about his handling of the war and said in the end it would be up to the Iraqis to increase their efforts.

“I don’t think we’re losing,” Mr. Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg, a journalist for The Atlantic in an interview conducted on Tuesday just days after the Iraqi city of Ramadi fell to Islamic State fighters. “There’s no doubt there was a tactical setback, although Ramadi had been vulnerable for a very long time, primarily because these are not Iraqi security forces that we have trained or reinforced.”

The president’s comments came a day before the Islamic State seized a second city, Palmyra, in central Syria, reinforcing concerns in that region and in Washington that Mr. Obama’s strategy has faltered. The president and his team argued for months that they had reversed the momentum of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, but critics and independent experts said it was now time to rethink the approach.

The United States is sending 1,000 antitank rockets to Iraq to help its forces counter vehicle bombs, which were used by the Islamic State to capture Ramadi, but the White House has made clear that it does not intend to engage in a broader overhaul of the American war effort in the region. Mr. Obama has authorized airstrikes and occasional special forces missions, but otherwise he said he was counting on the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq and moderate Syrian rebels to conduct the fight on the ground.

Some Republicans say this is inadequate. “Where is our morality?” Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on the Senate floor. “Where is our decency? Where is our concern about the thousands of people being slaughtered and displaced and their lives destroyed? And we shouldn’t set our hair on fire? Outrageous.”

In the interview, Mr. Obama attributed the fall of Ramadi to a failure by the Iraqi government to build up its forces, fortifications and command-and-control systems in Anbar Province, a largely Sunni region that has long been a hotbed of resistance to Shiite-led governments in Baghdad. Sunni forces in Anbar, he said, “have been there essentially for a year without significant reinforcements.”

“There’s no doubt that in the Sunni areas, we’re going to have to ramp up not just training but also commitment, and we better get Sunni tribes more activated than they currently have been,” Mr. Obama said. “So it is a source of concern.”

But he counseled patience. “We’re eight months into what we’ve always anticipated to be a multiyear campaign, and I think Prime Minister Abadi recognizes many of these problems, but they’re going to have to be addressed,” Mr. Obama said.

While Republican presidential candidates argue whether the original American invasion of 2003 was the right decision or not, Mr. Obama said the lesson he learned from that episode was that simply sending in American forces was not always the answer to every security threat. Mr. Obama withdrew remaining American troops from Iraq in 2011 after negotiations to leave behind a residual force collapsed.

“I know that there are some in Republican quarters who have suggested that I’ve overlearned the mistake of Iraq and that, in fact, just because the 2003 invasion did not go well doesn’t argue that we shouldn’t go back in,” he said. But the lesson of the last dozen years is that Iraqis have to be willing and capable to govern their own country, he said. “If they are not willing to fight for the security of their country,” he said, “we cannot do that for them.”

Addressing other issues in the Middle East, Mr. Obama warned Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states not to pursue their own nuclear programs as a counterweight to Iran. A week after meeting with Gulf leaders at Camp David, Mr. Obama said he had heard “legitimate skepticism and concern” from them about his tentative agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear program but stressed that they should feel assured of American support for their security.

“There has been no indication from the Saudis or any other” Gulf state “that they have an intention to pursue their own nuclear program,” Mr. Obama said. Regional leaders should understand that “the protection that we provide as their partner is a far greater deterrent than they could ever hope to achieve by developing their own nuclear stockpile or trying to achieve breakout capacity when it comes to nuclear weapons.”

Moreover, he added, “their covert – presumably – pursuit of a nuclear program would greatly strain the relationship they’ve got with the United States.”

As for his recent disagreements with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Mr. Obama said again that he was a strong supporter of the Jewish state and that allies ought to be able to disagree without being accused of being anti-Israel.

He said Mr. Netanyahu’s pre-election statement suggesting that Arab-Israeli citizens were somehow “an invading force that might vote” was “contrary to the very language of the Israeli Declaration of Independence” and could not be ignored.

“When something like that happens, that has foreign policy consequences,” Mr. Obama said, “and precisely because we’re so close to Israel, for us to simply stand there and say nothing would have meant that this office, the Oval Office, lost credibility when it came to speaking out on those issues.”

He said many Jewish Americans support him regardless of the quarrel.

“I consistently received overwhelming majority support from the Jewish community and even after all the publicity around the recent differences that I’ve had with Prime Minister Netanyahu, the majority of the Jewish American community still supports me, and supports me strongly,” Mr. Obama said.

He said that his public criticism of Mr. Netanyahu was “fairly spare and mild” but blown up by some who have made “a very concerted effort on the part of some political forces to equate being pro-Israel, and hence being supportive of the Jewish people, with a rubber stamp on a particular set of policies coming out of the Israeli government.”

Mr. Obama said he rejected that view. “You should be able to say to Israel, ‘We disagree with you on this particular policy,’ ” he said, citing settlements, checkpoints and the rights of Arab citizens. “And to me, that is entirely consistent with being supportive of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”

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(via NY Times)