NEW YORK - Emphasising United States’ “strategic interest in pushing back” militants, President Barack Obama said he was willing to support a sustained effort to drive them out of Iraq, but Iraqi political leaders must first move to form a national unity government to stabilise the situation in the strife-torn country.
“We’re not going to let them (ISIS militants) create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq,” the president said in an hour-long interview with The New York Times, as US planes and drones began dropping bombs in Iraq. “But we can only do that if we know that we have got partners on the ground who are capable of filling the void.” Obama on Thursday authorised the US military to conduct targeted strikes on Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq, a limited operation designed to prevent what he called a potential “genocide” of a religious sect and also protect American officials working in the country.
American lawmakers offered tempered support for the president’s actions in Iraq, but he also drew criticism from Republicans and Democrats for a mission that some called too limited and others worried would draw the United States more deeply back into Iraq.
In the wide-ranging interview conducted on Friday, Obama also expressed regrets over not doing more to help Libya, pessimism about prospects for Middle East peace, concerns that Russia could invade Ukraine, and frustration that fellow economic superpower China has not stepped up to help.
He praised officials from Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region for being “functional” and “tolerant of other sects and religions” and said the United States wanted to help. “But, more broadly, what I’ve indicated is that I don’t want to be in the business of being the Iraqi air force,” he said.
In the case of the current fighting in Iraq, he suggested that the outcome would be different than chaos in Libya because efforts to form a government that could help rebuild Iraqi society are moving forward, albeit haltingly.
“They’ve now elected a president, they’ve elected a speaker of the house,” Mr Obama said. “The final step is to elect a prime minister and to allow that prime minister to form a government.” He added that Iraqis are “recognising that they have to make accommodations in order to hold the country together.”
In the Middle East, where fighting began Friday morning as a 72-hour ceasefire between Israel and Hamas expired, Obama said that neither Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is known as Bibi, nor the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, have the political will to come to terms on a lasting peace agreement.
“In some ways Bibi’s too strong, in some ways Abbas is too weak to bring them together and make the kind of bold decisions that a Sadat or a Begin or a Rabin were willing to make,” Obama said, referring to Anwar el-Sadat, the former president of Egypt, and Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, two previous Israeli prime ministers. The president said his own ability to broker a peace deal was limited by the lack of desire on the part of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. “You can lead folks to water, they’ve got to drink,” Obama said. “And so far at least, they haven’t been willing.” The president rejected criticism that the military advances by ISIS in Iraq could have been prevented if he had been willing months ago to provide heavy armaments to the Syrian rebels who were fighting against ISIS and the forces of President Bashar al-Assad in that country.
“It’s always been a fantasy,” he said, “this idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth.”
Obama, hinting at some strain from the summer’s international crises, said the prospects for a diplomatic agreement that would prevent President Vladimir Putin of Russia from invading Ukraine were real, but dimming.
“A deal should be possible,” Obama said. However, he added, “we are at a dangerous time, in part because the position of the separatists has weakened. I think Putin does not want to lose face, and so the window for arriving at that compromise continues to narrow.”
“He could invade,” Mr Obama said.
Obama has faced growing criticism for being too reluctant to intervene in thorny foreign policy issues which have piled up under his watch.
He quipped that he sometimes wished the United States was more like China: a superpower that no one expects to intervene.
“They are free riders, and they’ve been free riders for the last 30 years, and it’s worked really well for them,” Obama said.