60 Minutes: President Barack Obama Opens Up On Iraq & Syrian Campaign

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60 Minutes: President Barack Obama International Coalition

Last week was a turbulent one in Barack Obama’s presidency. On Monday, September 22, 2014, he began a bombing campaign with members of an international coalition against ISIS and other terrorist targets in Syria, while continuing airstrikes in northern Iraq. On Wednesday, he laid out his case before the United Nations. By Thursday, he had more than 60 members in his international coalition, with varying degrees of participation. Some—like the Saudis, the Europeans, and the Jordanians—flew missions, while others like the Swedes wrote checks and still others like Egypt simply wished us well.

On Friday, he talked to 60 Minutes about a wide range of topics, but a great deal of the interview focused on foreign policy. Specifically, the conversation focused on the campaign in Syria and Iraq.

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60 Minutes: Is This The Biggest Challenge in Barack Obama’s Presidency?

60 Minutes: President Barack Obama Opens Up On Iraq & Syrian Campaign

President Barack Obama talked to Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes about the situation in Iraq and Syria and the threat of ISIS. (Frederic Legrand / Shutterstock.com)

With a large number of things going on in the world, such as the situations in Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria and the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, Steve Kroft asked President Barack Obama if this period was the biggest challenge of his presidency.

President Obama said that when he came into office, he had a lot to deal with as well, from the state of the economy and two active wars. “We’ve had challenges before and we’ve overcome them. That’s not to downplay the serious challenges that we do face right now, mostly internationally,” he said.

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60 Minutes: President Obama On Combat

Steve Kroft pointed out that President Obama has spent most of his time in office trying to get us out of military entanglements. Last year, he said in his State of the Union that “America must move off of permanent war footing”. But isn’t getting entangled in Iraq and now Syria moving us back toward that footing?

President Obama said there’s a distinction between counter-terrorism and occupying armies that characterized the Iraq and Afghanistan War. This situation, he said, is different than having 60,000 troops in Afghanistan and 150,000 troops in Iraq. Instead, now we’re assisting Iraq in a battle that’s taking place on their soil, with their troops. We’re providing air support because ISIS represents a hybrid of a terrorist network and the strategy and tactics of an army. In this case, he said we were assisting a country we have a security partnership with.

60 Minutes: What Have We Done To Combat Terrorism?

Steve Kroft said that two years ago, in an interview with him, President Obama talked about al Qaeda being decimated. Today, al Qaeda offshoots and affiliates control huge chunks of both Syria and Iraq and militant Islamic radical militias control Libya.

President Obama said that what has been decimated is the international network of al Qaeda between Aghanistan and Pakistan headed by Osama bin Laden. That network has been destroyed. However, there are always going to be regional groups with regional ambitions. There’s also a huge problem with violent, ideologically-driven extremism that has taken root in too much of the Muslim world.

60 Minutes: Defining Islamic Extremism

Obama made clear this is not a war against Islam. The majority of Muslims are peaceful and Islam preaches peace. But there are extremists who believe it is acceptable to kill people just because they worship a different God. Unfortunately, this kind of extremism seems to pop up in areas without a strong state security apparatus.

Obama said that we need the international community to recognize this is a problem and get Muslim and Arab leaders to declare those extremists do not represent them or Islam.

60 Minutes: How Did ISIS Get So Powerful?

Steve Kroft asked how ISIS got to where they are. Some military estimations put ISIS’s forces at 40,000 people. How did they end up in control of so much territory?

James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, recently admitted that we underestimated what had been taking place in Syria. But he didn’t stop there. He said we overestimated the will and ability of our Iraqi allies to fight.

“That’s true. That’s absolutely true,” President Obama said.

Obama said when we left, we left Iraq with a well-equipped army, a democracy, and the ability to chart their own course. Obama said it was the prime minister’s fault that these abilities were squandered, because he wanted to consolidate his Shi’ite base, rather than work with the Kurds and Sunnis, which make up the other two thirds of the country.

Obama said that Iraq needs a government that can build a sense of national unity and an army that feels an obligation to the nation, not just a particular sect. The good news is, Obama said, that the new prime minister appears to be sending “all the right signals”.

“We can’t do this for them because it’s not just a military problem, it’s a political problem,” Obama said.

60 Minutes: Is Iraq Making Progress?

President Obama said the new Iraqi government is making some progress “but I wouldn’t say great yet”. He said it’s going to take time. Mistrust has been built up over time, but the new prime minister has good instincts and Obama said we need to support him in his process.

Obama said that it’s also beneficial that we have an international coalition that includes Arab states who are serious about their commitments, as well as a number of other countries from Europe and elsewhere.

60 Minutes: America Always Leads

“It looks like, once again, we are leading the operation, we are carrying most of the weight…” Steve Kroft started to say.

“Steve, that’s always the case. That’s always the case. America leads. We are the indispensable nation. We have capacity no one else has. Our military is the best in the history of the world. And when trouble comes up anywhere in the world, they don’t call Beijing. They don’t call Moscow. They call us. That’s the deal,” he said.

He added that when there’s a typhoon in the Philippines or an earthquake in Haiti, we’re the ones who help them. Over time, if we do our job right in Iraq and the Iraqis fight, our role can lessen and their role can increase.

60 Minutes: Who Are We Helping In Syria?

The Syrian question is more complicated. In Syria, there are terrorist groups on one side, including ISIS, and Syrian President Bashir al-Assad on the other. Assad has committed a number of horrific crimes against his own people and President Obama wants him deposed for those crimes. In short, we want ISIS out, but we want al-Assad out, too.

So is there a moderate Syrian opposition we can back?

“There is, but right now it doesn’t control much territory,” Obama said.

He said that ISIS is our main concern, because they’re a threat to the U.S. and American citizens. But Assad is also a concern to the long-term stability of Syria.

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