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Week In Politics: James Foley And Ferguson


Now to E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and sitting in this week for David Brooks, Reihan Salam, columnist for The National Review and Reuters our Friday political commentators. Hello, guys.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.


CORNISH: So I want to follow on a story that Scott Horsley mentioned - the execution of American journalist James Foley at the hands of Islamist extremists. The video released this week by militants made clear this was retaliation against U.S. airstrikes in Iraq - airstrikes that have aided local Kurdish forces beat back so called Islamic State or ISIL. Now yesterday, Ben Rhodes, who's the president's deputy national security adviser, told NPR that the White House would not rule out additional action against the group if it becomes warranted. But...

BEN RHODES: We believe the long-term strategy for defeating ISIL and shrinking steadily the space where they operate is to strengthen the Iraqi security forces on the Iraq side of the border so that they are able to dislodge ISIL from their communities and to strengthen Syrian opposition forces so that they too are able to fight against ISIL.

CORNISH: E.J., I'll start with you. This long-term strategy is essentially containment. You know, how did things this week change in your mind and in terms of sort of thinking about what the U.S. should be doing here.

DIONNE: Well, I think we are as close to a consensus on Iraq policy as we have ever been, which is really quite remarkable - not a total consensus. But I think that the beheading of James Foley was not only a horror and absolutely evil, it was a colossal political error by the Islamic State because I think it concentrated the minds of Americans, as did the potential genocide of the Yazidis, on how terrible and dangerous the etiology of this group really is. And so I think where you have consensus is on escalating the fight against them. And in the polling, it was striking that Republicans were more sympathetic to what President Obama was doing than Democrats were. But Democrats and Independents were supportive too. Now there is the strategic question - how much can we accomplish without sending troops? And here I think we probably will have an argument. But most Americans - I think the vast majority of Americans do not want to send troops back to Iraq. And I think the new government in Iraq gives some hope that with some help from the Americans, the Islamic State - we can begin a slow rollback of the Islamic State with the cooperation of an awful lot of allies that we might not have had six months ago.

CORNISH: Reihan, I want you to expand on that. I mean, we heard from say - Senator Marco Rubio saying that the president should be doing more - saying he appears unwilling to do what is necessary to confront ISIL. Where do you see consensus?

SALAM: Well, one of the issues is that when we talk about the moderate Syrian opposition, for example, the trouble is that there isn't very much of a moderate Syrian opposition in the sense of formal organization. Ken Pollack, in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, has written an article about why he believes that the United States and its allies ought to start working on organizing a separate Syrian military force that could step into the chaos and that could challenge the Assad regime and also Islamist forces. Now that takes a lot of time. That takes resources. And I think the thing that we all have to confront - the White House but also members of Congress - is that this is going to involve a sustained commitment. And I think that - you know, not to go back into the past - but I think that one of the critiques that Mitt Romney made during the 2012 presidential campaign is that, you know, the lack of willingness to make that kind of sustained commitment earlier on is part of why we're facing very difficult circumstances now. And I think it's a very good and healthy development that the Obama administration is now saying, you know, look we must do something now. And I heartily support them in that. I also believe that it's not ideal to do with U.S. troops on the ground. But even if we don't have U.S. troops on the ground, this is going to involve a long-term commitment of resources, including diplomatic resources, but also military resources.

CORNISH: And to add to something you just said, I want to play a clip of tape from General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he was asked about whether ISIS can be contained. He said yes, but not in perpetuity.


MARTIN DEMPSEY: Can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no.

CORNISH: E.J., you know, a lot of lawmakers were still uncomfortable with the idea of getting drawn deeper into Iraq or Syria. And, I mean, do you essentially see like - I'm sorry. Is there a situation where people are backed into suggestion that we ally with the Syrian government, right? I mean, we sort of...

DIONNE: In a very peculiar way, by fighting ISIL or ISIS, we are in effect de facto allied with Assad, who also wants to defeat them. And I think this notion of building up a separate Syrian force - that would be a wonderful thing. It would be great if they were a moderate or democracy-loving opposition in Syria. But Reihan is right. We would take a very long time to do that. I think you're seeing a new configuration of forces, where all kinds of people who had been on various sides in the Middle East - I'm talking about Middle East actors - realize that this threat is really big. This is not just a threat. This is not just an awful regime, which the Assad regime is. This is a threat to all kinds of values in the Middle East that people who don't always agree with us hold. So I think it is complicated. And it's always been complicated to say let's go into Syria and arm the good guys. Because there's always been a fear that some of those weapons could get into the hands of a group like ISIL.

CORNISH: And Reihan, right now we're in August. Lawmakers will have to be back, right? They will have to address this. What are you going to be looking for?

SALAM: That's a very tough question to answer. I do think that actually thinking hard about what you would want a sustained campaign to look like is going to matter. And I think that also, you know, this is bleeding into presidential politics in the near future. On the Democratic side you have Hillary Clinton, who's been making hawkish noises. And then on the Republican side you have a deep divide regarding what should be the Republican worldview when it comes to the Middle East and the wider world. And I think that, you know, the problem is that when you look at the political elite, when you look at the White House, when you look at a lot of people who are foreign-policy thinkers in the think tanks and what have you, there is this consensus that look, even if you didn't have this last decade and a half of history in Iraq, this is a terrorist group that is exploiting failed states in order to build a terrorist stronghold. That is something that we'd want to intervene in regardless of what relationship we've had to Iraq in the past.

CORNISH: Reihan Salam, columnist for The National Review and Reuters, and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post - thanks so much for talking with us.

DIONNE: Good to be with you. Thank you.

SALAM: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.