President Obama says that while the loss of Ramadi to the self-declared Islamic State is a “setback,” he doesn’t think the U.S. is losing to the militant group.
“No, I don’t think we’re losing, and I just talked to our CENTCOM commanders and the folks on the ground,” Obama tells The Atlantic in a wide-ranging interview. “There’s no doubt there was a tactical setback, although Ramadi had been vulnerable for a very long time, primarily because these are not Iraqi security forces that we have trained or reinforced.”
The U.S. acknowledged this week that the Islamic State, which is also referred to as ISIS or ISIL, seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi after Iraqi government forces left their positions. Critics say the loss of the city highlights a “fundamental failure” of U.S. strategy in Iraq. Obama acknowledged in the interview that the U.S. is going to “have to ramp up not just training” of Iraqi forces in the country’s Sunni areas, “but also commitment.”
The president also ruled out sending ground troops once again into Iraq — a call made by some Republicans.
“It is important to have a clear idea of the past because we don’t want to repeat mistakes. … And one lesson that I think is important to draw from what happened is that if the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them,” he told The Atlantic. “We can be effective allies.”
He added: “Today the question is: How do we find effective partners to govern in those parts of Iraq that right now are ungovernable and effectively defeat ISIL, not just in Iraq but in Syria?”
The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg also asked Obama about the deal the U.S. and world powers are trying to reach with Iran over its nuclear program. Those talks have been criticized not only in Congress, but also by U.S. allies in the Middle East, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. At least one influential Saudi has said his country would match whatever nuclear capability Iran is allowed to maintain under a deal.
The president said he had assured Arab leaders about the talks with Iran, but added their “covert — presumably — pursuit of a nuclear program would greatly strain the relationship they’ve got with the United States.” And he maintained that Iran, despite its anti-Israeli statements, is also keen to strike a deal.
“I think it is not at all contradictory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semitism in the core regime, but that they also are interested in maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their own country, which requires that they get themselves out of what is a deep economic rut that we’ve put them in, and on that basis they are then willing and prepared potentially to strike an agreement on their nuclear program,” he told The Atlantic.
And, he added: “Look. 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this, I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national security interest in locking this down.”
The magazine also asked Obama about his often-strained relationship with Israel’s political leadership. Here’s part of his reply:
“[Y]ou should be able to say to Israel, we disagree with you on this particular policy. We disagree with you on settlements. We think that checkpoints are a genuine problem. We disagree with you on a Jewish-nationalist law that would potentially undermine the rights of Arab citizens. And to me, that is entirely consistent with being supportive of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Now for someone in Israel, including the prime minister, to disagree with those policy positions — that’s OK too. And we can have a debate, and we can have an argument. But you can’t equate people of good will who are concerned about those issues with somebody who is hostile towards Israel.”
You can read the full interview here.