President Obama conceded in an interview that the United States underestimated Islamic State militants who have taken over swaths of Syria and Iraq, calling the fight against violent extremism in the Middle East “a generational challenge” that the region’s nations have to resolve through political and economic means.
The president cast the American-led bombing campaign against Islamic State and its infrastructure as an effort to buy time for Middle Eastern countries, especially Iraq, to cool sectarian tensions and build more inclusive governments that are strong enough to take on militant groups themselves.
“Rather than play whack-a-mole and send U.S. troops wherever this occurs, we have to build strong partnerships," Obama said in an interview airing Sunday evening on “60 Minutes.” "We've got to get Arab and Muslim leaders to say very clearly, ‘These folks do not represent us. They do not represent Islam.’”
But Obama avoided spelling out an endgame for American involvement, raising the prospect that the U.S. will be drawn into another long fight in the Middle East. “I'm not going to speculate on failure at the moment,” Obama told interviewer Steve Kroft. “We're just getting started. Let's see how they do.”
Obama acknowledged that his administration was caught off guard by how effective the Islamic State has proved to be. He portrayed the group's rise as a result of the lawlessness of Syria, large parts of which have fallen out of the government's hands during the 3-year-old civil war there, and how ineffective the Iraqi military was in holding off the extremists. Making Iraq capable of defending itself “is going to be a great challenge,” Obama said, according to a transcript distributed by CBS ahead of the broadcast.
The president touted the international coalition that came together to attack Islamic State, but during the interview, he did not shy away from asserting that the U.S. leads the effort, in what seemed a tacit response to the public's growing discontent with his handling of foreign affairs.
“America leads. We are the indispensable nation,” he said. “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.”
At the same time, Obama defended his decision not to take action two years ago in Syria, when the civil war was raging and many pleaded for greater U.S. involvement.
Obama said there was a “mythology that's evolved that somehow if we had given those folks some guns two and a half years ago, that Syria would be fine. ... For us to just go blind on that would have been counterproductive and would not have helped the situation.”
The president also touched on tensions with Russia that have flared over Moscow’s backing of separatists in Ukraine, saying that sanctions have damaged the Russian economy and pushed the Russian-supported militants to rein in their aggression. He said he did not think a military confrontation between NATO allies and Russia would happen.
Obama also predicted that the Democrats would hold the majority in the Senate in the upcoming midterm election, despite polls showing a narrowing path for that outcome. The president acknowledged that despite improvements to the economy since he took office six years ago, wage stagnation has meant that Americans have not felt changes for the better.
Banerjee reported from Washington and Raab from Los Angeles.