TIME Foreign Policy

Treasury Department’s Anti-Terrorism Chief Says Cutting Off ISIS Funds Of High Importance

Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen speaks at the CSIS in Washington
Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen speaks at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, June 2, 2014. © Yuri Gripas / Reuters—REUTERS

Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen said Thursday ISIS is probably the “best-funded terrorist organization we have confronted."

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is the “best-funded” terrorist organization the U.S. has ever confronted, the Treasury Department’s top official for combating terrorist financing said Thursday.

Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Thursday David Cohen, the under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at Treasury, outlined a multi-pronged strategy for cutting off ISIS’s access to resources — including as much as $1 million per day in oil sales.

Touching on a topic of heated international debate, Cohen also called on foreign governments to refuse ransom payments to free their kidnapped citizens from terrorist groups.

Because ISIS “poses a different terrorist financing strategy,” than other terror groups, the strategy against it has to look different, Cohen said. Unlike other major terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, which are primarily reliant on wealthy donors, ISIS gets most of its funding not from the illegal market sale of oil, as well as from ransoms and extortion.

Although ISIS conducts most of its business on the black market, Cohen said the Treasury Department can disrupt the group’s finances by identifying and targeting people who operate within the legitimate economy but who also trade illegally with ISIS.

“The middlemen, traders, refiners, transport companies, and anyone else that handles [ISIS]’s oil should know that we are hard at work identifying them, and that we have tools at hand to stop them,” Cohen said during prepared remarks.

The U.S. government is prepared to impose financial sanctions on both ISIS’s leadership and its financial donors. Cohen said Thursday that two individuals were sanctioned in late September, including a military commander and a person who arranged a $2 million donation to the organization. But the effort will take time, Cohen noted, and will require “cooperation and collaboration with partners in the region,” including private sector banks in Iraq and Syria that might be used to store ISIS cash.

He also urged more countries to refuse ransom payments when their citizens are kidnapped. “If we are to protect our citizens and avoid bankrolling our adversary, every country must adopt and implement a no-ransoms policy,” Cohen said. The U.S. does not pay ransoms for kidnapped citizens, even in cases of threatened execution. Some European governments have reportedly paid millions to free hostages from ISIS and al Qaeda.

“[ISIS] has a fair amount of money today, but what’s important is that we do everything we can to make sure it’s not recurring revenue,” Cohen said. He added that, although ISIS generates an estimated $1 million per day from illegal oil sales, even that figure isn’t enough to meet the needs of the people living in the vast territory the group controls. In areas where ISIS now operates, he said, the Iraqi government’s budget surpassed $2 billion this year.

But he counseled patience as the financial prong of the war on ISIS unfolds in tandem with U.S.-led air strikes against the Sunni radical group.

“This is not going to be an exercise where we can at the end of every month produce a balance sheet,” Cohen said. “This is going to be a steady effort to degrade financing over time.”

TIME Foreign Policy

Kerry Pledges $212M in U.S. Aid to Gaza

A Palestinian man stands atop the rubble of his house as he looks at the ruins of his neighborhood that was badly damaged during the 50-day war between the Hamas militant movement and Israel, in the east of Gaza City on Oct. 12, 2014.
A Palestinian man stands atop the rubble of his house as he looks at the ruins of his neighborhood that was badly damaged during the 50-day war between the Hamas militant movement and Israel, in the east of Gaza City on Oct. 12, 2014. Mohammed Salem—Reuters

The funds will help the region rebuild following a destructive 50-day war this summer

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has pledged $212 million in new aid to help rebuild Gaza after the region accumulated heavy damage during this summer’s 50-day war between Israel and Hamas.

Kerry made the announcement on Sunday as diplomats from more than 40 countries gathered in Cairo to pledge humanitarian aid, the New York Times reports. The U.S. previously provided $118 million in aid to Gaza earlier in 2014.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that approximately one-third of Gaza’s population was displaced by the violence and that the parts of the region are still plagued by blackouts and lack of access to water.

Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas has said that Gaza will need $4 billion to rebuild, and Qatar has already promised $1 billion toward that goal. U.S. officials suggest concerns for the region’s stability may hinder aid commitments among donors.

“There is the third time in less than six years that we have seen war break out and Gaza left in rubble,” Kerry said. “As long as there is a possibility that Hamas can fire rockets on Israeli civilians at any time, the people of Gaza will remain at risk of future conflict.”


TIME Foreign Policy

Crisis in Syrian City Exposes Fissure in Obama’s Anti-ISIS Coalition

Some key allies want to fight Assad, not ISIS

A United Nations official warned Friday of a coming massacre in a Syrian town along the Turkish border as the slowly unfolding tragedy there exposed a crucial fissure within President Barack Obama’s international coalition to fight the militant group ISIS.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva on Friday, the U.N.’s special representative for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters that, despite days of U.S.-led air strikes in the area, fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) have virtually surrounded the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. Mistura estimated that some 700 residents remain in the town—most of them elderly and unable to flee like tens of thousands of other local residents already have.

Those people will “most likely [be] massacred” if the town falls to ISIS, he said.

Turkish troops just across the Syrian border from Kobani could likely rescue the town. But Turkey has a fraught relationship with the region’s Kurds. More ominously for the Obama Administration, Turkey appears unwilling to join the direct fight against ISIS unless the coalition’s strategy dramatically expands to include taking on the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

In an Oct. 6 interview with CNN, for instance, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu argued that a campaign which solely targets ISIS is a futile pursuit. “We believe that if Assad stays in Damascus with this brutal policy, if [ISIS] goes, another radical organization may come in,” he said.

Though it may be the most vocal, Turkey is not the only major U.S. ally convinced that Assad is a more important target than the radical militants of ISIS.

“There are two competing objectives within the coalition. Some countries are more interested in removing Assad, while other countries are more interested in addressing the extremist threat,” an Arab government official said. “The challenge the US will face is how to keep the coalition together and functioning given these divergent goals.”

While Saudi Arabia and Qatar have joined in some American air strikes against ISIS, those Gulf Arab countries have long urged Obama to take bolder action against Assad. Their Sunni monarchs detest the Syrian dictator, a key ally of Shi’ite Iran, and whose fight to retain power has transformed into a Shi’ite-Sunni religious war that has both spawned ISIS and given it safe haven.

“They’ve always been of the mind that their participation in this coalition is really a prelude to a broader campaign against Assad,” said Frederic Wehrey, senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Both countries have supplied Syrian rebel groups—including factions with extremist ties—and have pressed the U.S. to arm the rebels with advanced weapons such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. The Saudis were particularly upset when Obama decided not to follow through with planned air strikes against Assad last September in response to his regime’s use of chemical weapons.

Obama never relished the prospect of a head-on fight with Assad. Military action aimed at toppling the Syrian ruler could spoil Obama’s intense efforts to win a nuclear deal with Tehran, which would be furious over such an intervention. Toppling Assad by force would also create an unpredictable political vacuum that could be filled by extremists—Obama need look no farther than anarchic Libya for an example.

But U.S. allies determined to see Assad go argue that getting rid of him is the highest priority, and that extremists can be dealt with later.

Obama disagrees. In his Sept. 10 address announcing military action against ISIS in Syria, Obama repeated his longstanding policy of seeking a “political settlement” for the Syria’s civil war, in which ISIS is just one actor. Obama plans to provide more training and aid to moderate Syrian rebels in the hope they’ll pressure Assad to negotiate a power transition that would require him to leave the country.

Assad has so far shown no interest in cutting a deal to surrender his power, and multiple rounds of peace talks in Geneva over the past year have produced no significant results.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Assad serves as a de facto ally in the fight against ISIS, although Obama officials insist they are not coordinating military action against the radical group with Damascus.

But Obama may find it increasingly difficult to battle ISIS without coming into conflict with Assad’s forces. “Sooner or later the linkage is going to be forced,” said Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute. Salem wonders how Obama would react if American-trained rebels come under aerial bombardment by Assad’s air force: Would U.S. forces pounding ISIS targets elsewhere in the country refuse to intervene? (That would hardly inspire goodwill among the rebels.)

How should the U.S. respond Assad’s forces move to claim territory cleared by ISIS after coalition attacks? And will Obama tolerate Assad’s infamously brutal attacks on civilian populations now that U.S. fighter-bombers are mere minutes away from the scene of such crimes?

“The U.S. will soon be in a very public situation where Syrian helicopters are throwing barrel bombs at civilian populations, like in Aleppo, and the U.S. is gallivanting around and leaving them be,” Salem predicted.

Under those scenarios, Obama would face extreme pressure from coalition members like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to take on Assad’s forces directly — perhaps enough to threaten the coalition he and Secretary of State John Kerry so proudly assembled this fall.

For now, Obama officials won’t entertain talk of shifting their sights to Assad. During a Friday briefing, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was asked whether “is it still the U.S. position that you are not going after [Assad].”

“Correct,” she replied.

President Obama clearly hopes to maintain that position while also holding together his anti-ISIS coalition. Whether that is possible remains to be seen.

TIME White House

Jimmy Carter: Obama Dropped the Ball on ISIS Threat

Former President Jimmy Carter enters Jackson Performance Hall at Georgia Southwestern University for his 90th birthday celebration, Oct. 4, 2014, in Americus, Ga.
Former President Jimmy Carter enters Jackson Performance Hall at Georgia Southwestern University for his 90th birthday celebration, Oct. 4, 2014, in Americus, Ga. Branden Camp—AP

Democratic ex-president becomes latest Obama ally to turn critic

Former President Jimmy Carter has criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis in the Middle East and the growing threat of the Islamic State, joining a growing list of the president’s allies who are scrutinizing his strategy in Syria and Iraq.

In an interview with the Fort Worth, Tex. Star-Telegram published Tuesday, Carter said the U.S. had waited too long to respond to the growing power of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) extremist group, which also goes by the name Islamic State.

“We let the Islamic state build up its money, capability and strength and weapons while it was still in Syria,” Carter said. “Then when [ISIS] moved into Iraq, the Sunni Muslims didn’t object to their being there and about a third of the territory in Iraq was abandoned.”

Carter added that the use of ground troops in addition to the current air campaign could ensure the U.S. succeeds in Iraq. “If we keep on working in Iraq and have some ground troops to follow up when we do our bombing, there is a possibility of success,” he said.

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has criticized President Obama in recent days for not pushing harder to keep American troops in Iraq and overrule then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

And Hillary Clinton told The Atlantic in August that the Obama administration’s decision not to arm Syrian rebels for fear of weapons falling in the hands of extremists created a “big vacuum” for jihadists to fill.

President Obama acknowledged last month that U.S. intelligence didn’t anticipate the threat that ISIS posed in Iraq but has maintained that arming Syrian rebels would have been untenable, and might have led to militants obtaining arms.


TIME 2016 Election

Bobby Jindal Urges Higher Spending on Defense

Bobby Jindal
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks at the 2014 Values Voter Summit in Washington on Sept. 26, 2014. Manuel Balce Ceneta—AP

"Without a strong defense, our allies will not trust our promises, and our adversaries will not believe our threats"

Seeking to burnish his foreign policy credentials before a likely presidential run, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal lambasted President Barack Obama’s leadership Monday in a speech in Washington as he emphasized higher spending on defense and outlined his competing vision for the nation’s place in the world.

“Today, we see a world in which the Obama Administration has neglected or abandoned America’s longstanding allies,” Jindal said in remarks at the American Enterprise Institute. “Our ‘special relationship’ with Britain is gone, NATO is drifting, Eastern Europe is disaffected, and Israel has been purposefully alienated from the United States.”

“[Foreign policy challenges] are growing because the Obama Administration has repudiated all the operating principles of an effective global strategy, by ‘leading from behind,’ by abandoning our long-time allies, by failing to effectively use the tools of ‘soft power,’ and by cutting the size and capabilities of our armed forces,” Jindal added.

Outlining a defense plan produced by his political group America Next and developed with former Sen. Jim Talent, Jindal accused Obama of abandoning the principle of American exceptionalism. “I wish President Obama had watched The Incredibles, because then he’d know that when everybody’s special, actually nobody is,” he said, referencing the 2004 Disney animated film.

“Military strength should not be the primary means by which the United States executes its foreign policy,” Jindal said, calling for a renewed emphasis on defense spending in the federal budget. “But it is the indispensable element that underpins the other tools. Of all the mistakes President Obama has made, this strikes me as the most dangerous.”

He specifically criticized the Obama administration’s approach to tackling the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria with air strikes, and explicitly ruling out troops on the ground. “I thought it was very foolish to announce unilaterally to ISIS that we would not deploy ground troops,” he said.

Jindal’s plan calls for targeting federal budget outlays on defense at about 4% of gross domestic product, higher than both the current baseline of 2.9% and the 3.5% requested by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2011. His proposal also calls on the Pentagon to open its books for an audit, as well as other steps to control wasteful spending and programs that fall behind schedule.

“Without a strong defense, our allies will not trust our promises, and our adversaries will not believe our threats,” he said.

The two-term incumbent is laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign, traveling the country in support of Republican candidates and attempting to carve out a spot as the GOP’s ideas candidate, with policy proposals on healthcare, energy, and now defense. But Jindal, with his low name recognition, has yet to find a following among the Republican electorate, consistently polling near the bottom of potential 2016 candidates.

TIME White House

Biden Takes Veiled Shot at Clinton, Panetta Over ‘Inappropriate’ Books

Vice President Joe Biden speaks to students faculty and staff at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. on Oct. 2, 2014.
Vice President Joe Biden speaks to students faculty and staff at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. on Oct. 2, 2014. Winslow Townson—AP

High-level White House debates over Iraq and Syria are coming to light as top officials air their differences.

Vice President Joe Biden blasted former members of President Barack Obama’s administration who have gone on to write “inappropriate” books about the White House.

Speaking to Harvard students in a question-and-answer session Thursday, Biden was asked whether he believes the U.S. should have acted earlier in Syria, a critique leveled by former Secretary of State and likely Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, as well as former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in recent memoirs.

“The answer is no for two reasons,” Biden said. “One, the idea of identifying a moderate middle has been a chase America has been engaged in for a long time. We Americans think in every country in transition there’s a Thomas Jefferson hiding behind some rock, or a James Madison beyond one sand dune. The fact of the matter is, the ability to identify a moderate middle in Syria was—there was no moderate middle, because the moderate middle are made up of shopkeepers, not soldiers; they’re made up of people who, in fact, have—ordinary elements of the middle class of that country.”

The vice president continued that it was “inappropriate” for former administration officials to write books while Obama is still in office.

“And what happened was—and their history will record this, because I’m finding that former administration officials, as soon as they leave write books, which I think is inappropriate. But any rate,” Biden said as the audience chuckled. “No, I’m serious. I do think it’s inappropriate. At least give the guy a chance to get out of office.”

Clinton’s book Hard Choices includes details of internal deliberations where she unsuccessfully pressed President Barack Obama to arm Syrian rebels in 2012, one of the only clear denunciations she makes of the president in the book. “The risks of both action and inaction were high,” Clinton wrote. “Both choices would bring unintended consequences. The President’s inclination was to stay the present course and not take the significant further step of arming rebels.”

In Panetta’s forthcoming memoir, Worthy Fights, excerpted in this week’s TIME, the former Pentagon chief takes issue with Obama’s handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the subsequent rise of ISIS in Syria. “To this day, I believe that a small U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al-Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country,” Panetta writes.

Left unsaid by the vice president, is that he often argued for caution against intervention in the debates highlighted by Panetta and Clinton, according to current and former officials’ accounts.

TIME Foreign Policy

Records: Kissinger Made Plans to Attack Cuba

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger talks about his views and his new book "World Order" with Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation" in Washington, Sept. 3, 2014.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger talks about his views and his new book "World Order" with Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation" in Washington, Sept. 3, 2014. Chris Usher—Reuters

In several White House meetings, Kissinger advocated for strong action to stop Fidel Castro, fearful that his incursion in Africa was making the U.S. look weak

(NEW YORK) — U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ordered contingency plans drawn up nearly 40 years ago to attack Cuba, incensed over the small island’s deployment of troops to Angola, according to declassified government documents posted online Wednesday.

In several White House meetings, Kissinger advocated for strong action to stop Castro, fearful that his incursion in Africa was making the U.S. look weak. He argued that Cuba’s actions were driving fears around the world of a wider race war that could spill over into Latin America and even destabilize the Middle East. In a series of contingency plans that followed, options ranged from a military blockade to airstrikes and mining of Cuban ports. But the documents also warned of heavy risks, including a wider conflict with the Soviet Union and a ground war to defend the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

“I think we are going to have to smash Castro. I don’t think we can do it before the election,” Kissinger told President Gerald R. Ford, according to a transcript of a Feb. 25, 1976 meeting in the Oval Office. Ford replied, “I agree.”

Jimmy Carter ultimately won the 1976 presidential election.

Kissinger, who had returned from a trip to Latin America, and told Ford that leaders in the region “are scared to death about Cuba. They are afraid of a race war.”

The documents were declassified by the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library at the request of the National Security Archive, which published them online Wednesday. An account of the episode is being published in a new book, “Back Channel to Cuba,” written by William M. LeoGrande, a professor at American University, and Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuban Documentation Project at the National Security Archive.

At another Oval Office meeting on March 15, 1976, Kissinger said “even the Iranians are worried about the Cubans getting into the Middle East countries. I think we have to humiliate them. If they move into Namibia or Rhodesia, I would be in favor of clobbering them.”

Nine days later, Kissinger chaired a high-level “Special Actions Group Meeting” at the White House Situation Room to discuss options.

“If there is a perception overseas that we are so weakened by our internal debate so that it looks like we can’t do anything about a country of 8 million people, then in three or four years we are going to have a real crisis,”Kissinger said.

The contingency plans outlined military options from blocking outgoing Cuban ships carrying troops and war material to airstrikes against Cuban bases and airfields. The documents discussed risks, including the possibility that the Soviet Union would thwart a blockade by seizing or sinking ships. “Escalation to general war could result,” one document said.

The contingency plans sounded a cautious note about what sort of Cuban provocation would trigger a U.S. military response. They stated that while the “threshold” should be low if Cuba moves against U.S. territories, it should be “highest” for Africa.

TIME Foreign Policy

Washington Issues Statement Backing Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Protesters

Student protesters gesture outside the Golden Bauhinia Square, venue of the official flag-raising ceremony for celebrations of China's National Day in Hong Kong
Student protesters gesture outside the Golden Bauhinia Square, venue of the official flag-raising ceremony for celebrations of China's National Day, in Hong Kong Oct. 1, 2014 Tyrone Siu—Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to discuss the ongoing protests with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday

The White House issued a statement of support for “the aspirations of the Hong Kong people” on Tuesday, in response to a petition urging the U.S. government to put pressure on the Chinese government.

The Obama Administration’s comments reflect a gradual toughening of its response to Beijing, as the Chinese Communist Party refuses to heed Hong Kong protesters’ loudening call for free and fair elections amid swelling demonstrations in the financial powerhouse.

“The United States supports universal suffrage in Hong Kong in accordance with the Basic Law,” the statement said. It continued that Hong Kong residents should have “a genuine choice of candidates representative of the voters’ will.”

U.S. officials also said Tuesday that Secretary of State John Kerry will discuss the protests racking Hong Kong with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a meeting in Washington on Wednesday, Reuters reports.

Meanwhile, the U.K. also solidified its position on the side of the protesters; Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg summoned the Chinese ambassador in order to convey the British government’s alarm at Beijing’s hardened dismissal of universal suffrage in Hong Kong. The territory was a British colony until 1997.

“It is essential that the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice of chief executive in 2017, through universal suffrage,” Clegg said, according to Sky News. Clegg also said he would “reiterate our position and seek reassurances from the Chinese government.”

Tens of thousands of people have flooded several of Hong Kong’s busiest districts, pledging to continue bringing traffic and commerce to a standstill until the Hong Kong and central governments meet two demands: Hong Kong’s top leader resigns, and Beijing grants the Special Administrative Region the right to freely elect a new one in 2017, as opposed to choosing from a list of candidates handpicked by a pro-Beijing committee.

The Chinese government has repeatedly accused the U.S. and British governments of meddling in its affairs and stirring up the protests; both countries’ officials have denied any involvement.

The original petition had asked the White House “to support Hong Kong democracy and prevent a second Tiananmen Square [massacre] in Hong Kong.” If a petition on the White House website collects more than 100,000 signatures within 30 days, it necessitates a response from the U.S. government. The petition boasted 196,942 signatures before it closed.

“We believe that an open society, with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by the rule of law, is essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity,” read the response.

The statement also reiterated White House comments made on Monday, urging “Hong Kong authorities to exercise restraint, and for protesters to express their views peacefully.”

Since police lobbed 87 tear-gas canisters at protesters bearing nothing but umbrellas on Sunday evening, the number of officers on the streets has been drastically scaled back, while the number of protesters, galvanized by the disproportionate response, has burgeoned.

At demonstrations outside a flag-raising ceremony on Wednesday to celebrate China’s National Day, protesters said they were intent on remaining peaceful, while also staying put until their demands are met.

“We will not stop them from celebrating,” said T. Wong, 35, a protester standing under a swarm of umbrellas near the ceremony. “But as they celebrate, we want them to listen to our voices.”

— Video by Helen Regan / Hong Kong

TIME Syria

‘Contradictory’ Syria Policy Helps Assad

Mideast Syria
Syrians walk amid the rubble of damaged houses following a Syrian government air strike in Aleppo, Syria, on Sept. 27 2014 Syrian Observatory for Human Rights—AP

Obama said his first priority is degrading the extremists who are threatening Iraq and the West. To defeat them, he acknowledged, would require a competent local ground force

(WASHINGTON) — President Barack Obama on Sunday gave voice to the conundrum at the heart of his Syria policy, acknowledging that the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria is helping Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, a man the United Nations has accused of war crimes.

“I recognize the contradiction in a contradictory land and a contradictory circumstance,” Obama said in an interview aired Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” ”We are not going to stabilize Syria under the rule of Assad,” whose government has committed “terrible atrocities,” Obama said.

“On the other hand, in terms of immediate threats to the United States, ISIL, Khorasan Group — those folks could kill Americans.”

ISIL is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group, which has broken with al-Qaeda as it has taken control of large sections of Iraq and Syria. The Khorasan Group is a cell of militants that the U.S. says is plotting attacks against the West in cooperation with the Nusra front, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. Both groups have been targeted by U.S. airstrikes in recent days; together they constitute the most significant military opposition to Assad, whose government the U.S. would like to see gone.

Obama said his first priority is degrading the extremists who are threatening Iraq and the West. To defeat them, he acknowledged, would require a competent local ground force, something no analyst predicts will surface any time soon in Syria, despite U.S. plans to arm and train “moderate” rebels. The U.S. has said it would not cooperate with the Assad government.

“Right now, we’ve got a campaign plan that has a strong chance for success in Iraq,” the president said. “Syria is a more challenging situation.”

Earlier Sunday, House Speaker John Boehner questioned Obama’s strategy to destroy the Islamic State group. Boehner said on ABC’s “This Week” that the U.S. may have “no choice” but to send in American troops if the mix of U.S.-led airstrikes and a ground campaign reliant on Iraqi forces, Kurdish fighters and moderate Syrian rebels fails to achieve that goal.

“We have no choice,” Boehner said. “These are barbarians. They intend to kill us. And if we don’t destroy them first, we’re going to pay the price.”

Obama, though, made clear he has no interest in a major U.S. ground presence beyond the 1,600 American advisers and special operations troops he already has ordered to Iraq.

“We are assisting Iraq in a very real battle that’s taking place on their soil, with their troops,” the president said. “This is not America against ISIL. This is America leading the international community to assist a country with whom we have a security partnership.”

Only the U.S. could lead such a campaign, Obama said.

“When there’s a typhoon in the Philippines, take a look at who’s helping the Philippines deal with that situation,” he said. “When there’s an earthquake in Haiti, take a look at who’s leading the charge and making sure Haiti can rebuild. That’s how how we roll. And that’s what makes this America.”

“60 Minutes” interviewer Steve Kroft asked Obama how the threat emanating from Syria and Iraq squares with the president’s longstanding position that al-Qaeda’s leadership has been “decimated.”

“You had an international network in al-Qaeda between Afghanistan and Pakistan, headed by bin Laden. And that structure we have rendered ineffective,” Obama said. “But what I also said .. .is that you have regional groups with regional ambitions and territorial ambitions. And what also has not changed is the kind of violent, ideologically driven extremism that has taken root in too much of the Muslim world.”

While an “overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful,” Obama said, “in the Muslim world right now, there is a cancer that has grown for too long that suggests that it is acceptable to kill innocent people who worship a different God. And that kind of extremism, unfortunately, means that we’re going to see for some time the possibility that in a whole bunch of different countries, radical groups may spring up, particularly in countries that are still relatively fragile, where you had sectarian tensions, where you don’t have a strong state security apparatus.”

But “rather than play whack-a-mole and send U.S. troops wherever this occurs, we have to build strong partnerships,” Obama said. “We have to get the international community to recognize this is a problem. We’ve got to get Arab and Muslim leaders to say very clearly: ‘These folks do not represent us. They do not represent Islam.'”

Asked how Islamic State fighters had come to control so much territory in Syria and Iraq, Obama acknowledged that U.S. intelligence agencies underestimated the threat and overestimated the ability and will of Iraq’s army to fight.

Obama said he agreed with his director of national intelligence, James Clapper, who acknowledged that the U.S. “underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.” Obama also said it was “absolutely true” that the U.S. overestimated the ability and will of the Iraqi army.

TIME Foreign Policy

Boehner: U.S. May Have ‘No Choice’ But to Send Troops to Fight ISIS

House Speaker Boehner Holds Weekly News Conference
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) speaks to the media during his weekly briefing at the US Capitol on Sept. 11, 2014 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

"At some point, somebody's boots have to be on the ground."

House Speaker John Boehner said in an interview aired Sunday that the U.S. may need to commit ground troops to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), despite widespread opposition at home to putting American boots back on the ground in Iraq.

“At the end of the day, I think it’s gonna take more than air strikes to drive [ISIS] outta there,” Boehner told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. “At some point, somebody’s boots have to be on the ground.”

Boehner went on to say that if the United States can’t train sufficient forces to secure the region or find allies willing to commit enough ground troops, he would recommend sending American troops. “We have no choice. These are barbarians. They intend to kill us. And if we don’t destroy them first, we’re gonna pay the price,” the Speaker said.

More than 70% of U.S. soldiers oppose committing to combat operations in Iraq, according to a recent poll, and a CNN poll released earlier this month showed that 61% of Americans oppose placing U.S. troops in Iraq. President Obama has repeatedly pledged there will be no ground troops used in Iraq.

U.S. Navy Vice Admiral John Miller told ABC that “progress [is] being made” with the current strategy of using airstrikes combined with Kurdish and Iraqi troops, mentioning the recapture of the Mosul dam, reinforcing the Haditha dam and securing Baghdad, as well as Sinjar mountain, among others.


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