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What No Strategy On The Islamic State Means For The Region


On Thursday, President Obama said he was not ready to authorize airstrikes against Islamic extremists in Syria. But the U.S. military's already spending close to $7.5 million a day on it's operations against the Islamic State in Iraq. The president faced a barrage of questions about his strategy - or the lack of one. Jane Harman joins us now. She's director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was a longtime Democratic representative from California who served on both the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees. Representative Harman, thanks very much for being with us.

JANE HARMAN: Thank you, Scott. And let me just say that your programming on a Saturday morning is so exceptional. I'm honored to be part of it.

SIMON: Well, thank you very much. So let me toss you a corker right off the bat, OK? When the president says we don't have a strategy yet, what message does that send to the Islamic State or U.S. allies?

HARMAN: Well, I think it was an unfortunate choice of words. I think what he meant was he hasn't selected among a list of pretty tough options yet. I'm certain that the White House, the National Security Council, the Defense Department and all of our government agencies are working on a way, hopefully not just to contain ISIS, which I think may be not containable, but to confront ISIS and reduce the threat that it poses. Let's just make one point here, though - what do you call it - ISIS, the Islamic State, ISIL - L stands for Levant - it is a threat to more than just Iraq and Syria. There already have been border attacks in Jordan, destabilizing efforts in Turkey. And I think Saudi Arabia has its head in the sand if it doesn't think that some ultimate capital of an Islamic State, that seems to me kind of a gruesome idea, would be Mecca. So it makes no sense for the whole neighborhood not to be involved in thinking about the best strategies.

SIMON: Does the United States look like we have our head in the sand on this if there's not a forceful, articulate strategy?

HARMAN: I wouldn't say head in the sand. And certainly, the United States is engaged, but I think, actually, that an op-ed in The New York Times today by John McCain and Lindsey Graham has it right, which in part by saying that we need a comprehensive strategy. We need presidential leadership, we need the president actually explaining to the American people why it matters to confront ISIS, and we need an enhanced sense of urgency. I should just add one more thing to their laundry list, and actually they mentioned it, we need an engaged Congress.

The authorization to use military force, which passed Congress in - two of them in 2001 and 2002, both of which I voted for, really don't apply directly to any longer-term strategy against ISIS. And it's very important for Congress, I think, to have a serious debate about what to do next. Many members of Congress are now embracing this idea. Whether or not the AUMF gets amended, it still is very important for Congress, because it speaks for the American people, to convene and conduct a sensible bipartisan debate on what the U.S. interests are.

SIMON: You know, before we go, I'd like to take advantage of your experience to ask about Ukraine today also because President Obama seemed intent on calling it an incursion. But has Vladimir Putin begun what amounts to a slow-motion invasion in Ukraine?

HARMAN: Well, I'm not sure the word matters so much. What does matter is the presence of Russians. No one can argue that anymore. In intelligence speak, we call it a slam dunk that there are Russian weapons and people who happen to be Russian...

SIMON: Now that - you'll...

HARMAN: ...Inside the territory of Ukraine.

SIMON: Slam dunk is a phrase that doesn't have a good history, right?

HARMAN: (Laughter) It doesn't. But there is Russian presence in eastern Ukraine beyond Crimea, which most people think was illegally seized from Ukraine. And there is speculation that Russia's now trying to set up a land corridor between Russia and Crimea, which doesn't exist at the moment. But regardless of that, I think it is imperative that law-abiding countries, not just in the West, put our strengths against Russia's weakness, and that means enhanced sanctions. That's the way to push Russia back and those sanctions are biting. And I think that explains in part why Russia's acting like this.

SIMON: Jane Harman, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center, thanks so much.

HARMAN: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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