WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said in an interview airing Sunday that he agrees with intelligence leaders who believe the United States not only underestimated the threat of militants seeking to form the Islamic State group but also overestimated the ability and will of the Iraqi army to fight.
Obama spoke with CBS’ “60 Minutes.” The network released excerpts ahead of time. In the interview, Obama was asked how Islamic State group fighters were able to control so much land in Syria and Iraq. He said that during the war in Iraq, U.S. military forces with the help of Iraq’s Sunni tribes were able to quash al-Qaida fighters, who went “back underground.”
“During the chaos of the Syrian civil war, where essentially you have huge swaths of the country that are completely ungoverned, they were able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of that chaos,” Obama said.
In the “60 Minutes” interview, Obama called Syria ground zero for jihadis around the world. He said military force is necessary to shrink their capacity, cut off financing and eliminate the flow of foreign fighters. He has appeared less adamant about the threat in the past. In an interview published early this year by The New Yorker, the president appeared to minimize the Islamic State group militants by comparing it to a junior varsity basketball team. The White House at the time said he was speaking about a different threat posed by a range of extremists across the world.
The White House emphasized on several talk shows Sunday that the war against Islamic State group militants would not involve returning U.S. combat troops to the Middle East.
But House Speaker John Boehner said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” that some ground troops will be needed.
He said the U.S. and allies may be able to train those Iraqi and moderate Syrian opposition forces and get them on the battlefield. However, if others don’t step up with ground troops, then the U.S. will have “no choice” about putting boots on the ground.
“They intend to kill us. And if we don’t destroy them first, we’re gonna pay the price,” Boehner said.
Boehner’s comments were quickly dismissed on CBS’s “Face the Nation” by the president’s deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken.
“We’re not gonna repeat what we did before. Hundreds of thousands of Americans on the ground in the Middle East getting bogged down, that’s exactly what al-Qaida wants,” Blinken said. “That’s not what we’re gonna do.”
The White House has said Obama had the power to authorize airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, and Boehner agreed. However, he also believes a resolution authorizing use of force should be taken up by Congress. He promised to bring lawmakers back to Washington if Obama were to seek such a resolution.
“We have the existing authorization from 2001. That’s the basis for proceeding,” Blinken said. “But we’d certainly welcome Congress showing its support.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said on CNN that a resolution from Congress is an important check to prevent a war without end.
“I’m certainly willing to support an authorization,” Murphy said. “But I think we need to hear more from the president as to what that endgame strategy is.”
Obama also stressed that defeating the militants will require a two-part plan. He said political solutions are also needed in the Middle East that accommodate both Sunnis and Shiites. He said conflicts between Islam’s two largest sects are the biggest cause of conflict throughout the world.
KEVIN FREKING, Associated Press