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Obama On Iraq: Defense Strategy Or Political Compromise?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Michel Martin is away. We'll begin today by taking a look at the big political stories out of Washington and around the country. President Obama said yesterday, at the White House Briefing, that he is prepared to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to support Iraqi Security Forces in their fight against ISIS. Here's the president.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq. But we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists, who threaten the Iraqi people, the region and American interests, as well.

CORNISH: Joining us to tell us more about this and other political developments is Corey Ealons. He's a former White House communications staffer with the Obama Administration and, currently, with VOX Global, a Washington D.C. based public affairs firm. He's with us here in our Washington D.C. studios. Hey there, Corey.


CORNISH: And also joining us is Amy Holmes. She is anchor of the hot list at and she's with us from our New York City Bureau. Amy how are you?

AMY HOLMES: Very well, thanks for having me.

CORNISH: I'm going to start with you and the president's remarks on Iraq. Many are calling his actions a kind of a middle ground, right, against a more in between aggressive military action, which I guess at this point people are talking about airstrikes and no action at all.

HOLMES: Yeah I called it that the Goldilocks solution which is - the American public is certainly war weary. We don't want to send combat troops - boots on the ground - into this Middle East conflict. But our national security is at stake here. We are seeing terrorists on the march, you know, moving toward Baghdad, potentially creating a terror state from which to launch attacks. And I think the president, after a bit of hemming and hawing seems to come around to that same conclusion.

CORNISH: Corey Ealons, Sunni militant extremist deftly being really taking back some ground were even Al Qaeda couldn't seem to make it in Northern Iraq. Can you talk a little bit about you feel the president has done here?

EALONS: Well I tell you, let's put aside for the moment the fact that Vice President Cheney seems to be misremembering the facts on how we got into this war in the first place. You really do have to appreciate the President's incremental approach to making sure that we're moving in the right direction in Iraq. And there's one person who is responsible for what is happening there right now and that is Nouri al-Maliki. On two quick points - First, Nouri al-Maliki has not governed from a position that really enveloped the entire country bringing in Sunnis, Shia and Kurds.

CORNISH: We should say he's the Prime minister of Iraq and Shia leaning.

EALONS: Exactly right, he's a Shia Muslim. And so from that perspective even people within who are Shias do not support him right now and his support is eroding. That's in part - that's a part of the reason why things are not doing well there. The other piece is the reason we don't have forces on the ground right now in Iraq is in part because we don't have a status of forces agreement. And that's because we couldn't get Maliki to agree to the terms of a status of forces agreement when we were attempting to negotiate this before 2011.

HOLMES: If I could interject. Dexter Filkins has covered this pretty extensively and you know reported that in fact our negotiators on the ground with the Iraqi government, with Mr. Maliki didn't know where our White House stood and in fact President Obama said basically felt that bringing our troops completely out of Iraq was one of his greatest foreign-policy successes. What we are seeing right now is the consequence of that which is without U.S. forces some residual force there to keep the peace, we're seeing terrorists on the march and I would like to add that the leader ISIS- that's the terrorist group that is taking over those regions of Iraq, he actually - when he was released from custody in 2009 said quote I will see you in New York. This was a direct threat to American national security, to American lives and I do appreciate that the president after listening to his advisers understands that there does need to be an American presence however residual there to keep the peace.

CORNISH: Amy I want to jump in here because I think you're both getting at an issue which is people are rehashing the decision-making that led us here. We've certainly -

HOLMES: But I think that is a mistake.

CORNISH: No, no, no.

HOLMES: I don't think we need to rehash how we got here. I think we need to address where we are.

CORNISH: But my point is that people are talking about it, right? You have Dick Cheney with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. You have people like Paul Wolfowitz former deputy defense secretary talking out there. Paul Bremer even who actually lead the provisional authority governing Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Now interesting in the press conference yesterday President Obama actually alluded to the past. Here's a clip.


OBAMA: What's clear from the last decade is the need for the United States to ask hard questions before we take action abroad, particularly military action.

CORNISH: Corey Ealons I want to give you a chance to reply to some of Amy points but also to this idea of, you know, we're really hearing politicians hash out this thinking all over again which decision led us to this point?

EALONS: Well, I tell you, the main thing that we should be focused on again - I agree - is the right now, and you have two former Bush officials who are basically in that same space, David Petraeus who we know led forces in that arena during the escalation in the Gulf War has basically said - or in the Iraq war has that as of yesterday we need to be thoughtful and conscious as we enter this engagement.

Michael Gerson a columnist for the Washington Post has said just today that President Obama is taking the right approach in this incremental assessment prior to committing any forces in Iraq. And lets be clear the president has said just yesterday that we want to make sure that if it's determined based on our assessment that an immediate American threat is there that we will be in a position to take action. And so all of the options are on the table except putting boots on the ground and that's what is important here.

CORNISH: If you're just joining us we're talking about some of the big political stores out of Washington. And joining us is former White House staffer Cory Ealons and Amy Holmes of The Blaze. And Amy I just want to give the last word on this topic to you.

HOLMES: Well, I don't think that it's sort of useful or productive to be rehashing the past. I agree with Corey, as we said that we need to consider where we are now as Americans and our national security interests when it comes to the Middle East and this conflagration in Iraq. I do appreciate that the president is sending 300 troops there as advisors to hopefully push back this terrorist threat, you know, we will see what unfolds.

CORNISH: Now also from the White House they are announcing that they are going to extend federal benefits granted under Social Security, veterans' programs, the Family Medical Leave Act and more to same-sex couples. And of course this the result of the Supreme Court's appeal of the Defense of Marriage Act last June. And what people are noting here is that this is extending federal benefits, obviously, to same-sex couples no matter where they live. Amy just to come to you again one more time, there are so many states right now where they had a ban, essentially on same-sex marriage and that ban is under challenge. Does this effect that atmosphere at all?

HOLMES: I think it does and I think that this decision actually makes a lot of sense, that if you're legally married in one state buy you move to another I think you should still be regarded as a married couple at least under federal law. But I also understand the Federalist argument that marriage is something that should be decided by the states. But I think when it comes to same-sex marriage that, you know, there has been a tectonic shift in public opinion and more and more acceptance which I applaud.

CORNISH: And. Corey. what do you make of this decision coming at this point in time?

EALONS: I agree, I think it is a decision that is well-timed and it's been interesting to watch the president's evolution on this issue of gay rights and gay marriage in particular. If you think back to previous presidents Truman and Eisenhower and their evolution on issues associated with civil rights in the African-American community they did what they could with what they had at the moment - taking incremental steps to get us to the right place and they took their actions primarily with the military. So I think this is a good move for the president and I think that it's bodes well for more to come.

CORNISH: Of course we're also in the midst of election season. When are we not.


HOLMES: It's always election season.

EALONS: Ever present.

CORNISH: So two topics for you guys. One - we're going to talk poll numbers, President Obama and two congressional races, things we should look forward to. So let's start with those poll numbers. A recent NPR poll shows that President Obama's approval numbers in key Senate battleground states, is lower than his national approval numbers. The poll show that in the 12 states with competitive races just 38% of voters approve of how the President is doing his job. Corey come on, they've got to be worried.

EALONS: They are but I'll tell you nine of those twelve states - those battleground states are states that he lost in the last election anyway to Mitt Romney. So it's no surprise that his numbers are going to be lower their than they would be in nationally, that's appreciated. I think what is more interesting about these recent polls is the dramatic lows that Congress has reached. Right now the Pew Poll recently - out just this week has Congress at seven percent approval rating.

CORNISH: Yeah but it's Congress. It's always low.

EALONS: But what that speaks to though, is that the American people as a whole are dissatisfied with leadership here in Washington, whether it's the President in the White House or whether it's members of Congress.


HOLMES: The president is looking at a very bad landscape here and there was also the NBC Wall Street Journal poll out this week that found that fifty-four percent of the public doesn't believe that this president has what it takes to lead for the next two and a half years. So to the extent that midterm elections are a referendum on the White House this is very bad news for the White House and for Democrats and as Corey said those battleground states are states that president Obama lost to Mitt Romney by double digits. So what we're talking about is actually control of the Senate. And if Republicans take over the Senate and keep control of the house, the president and the Democratic agenda is basically dead in the water.

CORNISH: All right, two minutes left so I'm making this a lightning round for both of you.

HOLMES: All right I'm ready.

CORNISH: Looking ahead to congressional races - were going to make this sound as exciting as we can - Amy for you, the race you think is the one to watch.

HOLMES: The one that is really interesting to me is Monica Wehby. She's in Oregon, she's a republican who's running for the Unites States Senate. She's a pediatric neurosurgeon and she is running against a Democratic incumbent Jeff Merkley. Now Rasmussen has her down by ten points, but also a very large number of Oregon voters undecided. What I think is interesting about this race is that she's pro-gay marriage, she is pro-choice, she is conservative on the fiscal issues, also being a doctor she is a very sharp critic of Obamacare which we know is very unpopular with the public.

CORNISH: Also she's a she.

HOLMES: And a female, I think she should be more of a household name. I think the national media should be far more interested in her than they are but because she's a Republican you can't expect that.

CORNISH: Well work on it Amy.

HOLMES: I think it's interesting and it'll be interesting to see if Republicans can field a candidate who can win in a blue state.

CORNISH: All right, Corey last word to you.

EALONS: Keeping on the theme of female candidates I am looking at two races on the Senate side based on what Amy was just saying about. That's really where the big races are this cycle because of what is at stake. Two races in particular - one in North Carolina with Kay Hagan running against Thom Tillis. Right now that race is within the margin of error, Hagan is up 4238, but we have big money that's about to be poured in there from EMILY's list and Planned Parenthood. so it'll will be interesting to see how that impacts the race, not just the money but the messaging that goes along with that. And then always paying attention to our friend Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, who is now running more on her father's record than on the President's record which is very interesting. And you have the possibility of because of the way the Louisiana primary works, that's going to be decided after the general election and could possibly break the tie if there is a 50/50 split, so it'll be very interested to watch.

CORNISH: Corey Ealons a former White House communication staffer with the Obama administration, currently with VOX Global. Thanks much for coming in.

EALONS: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: And Amy Holmes, anchor of the Hot List at the Amy, thank you so much.

HOLMES: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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