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Critics Blame Obama for Iraq Crisis; Terror Group ISIS Marches Across Iraq; Bowe Bergdahl Returning to U.S.

Aired June 12, 2014 - 13:30   ET



BLITZER: Welcome back to our special report, "Crisis in Iraq." I'm Wolf Blitzer, in Washington.

Critics of President Obama's foreign policy are laying the blame of the crisis in Iraq clearly on the Obama administration's doorstep. Here's what House speaker, John Boehner, said a little while ago.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER, (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: It's not like we haven't seen this problem coming for over a year. It's not like we haven't seen, over the last five or six months, these terrorists moving in, taking control of western Iraq. Now, they've taken control of Mosul. They're 100 miles from Baghdad? What's the president doing? Taking a nap.


BLITZER: Then he quickly left that podium after saying the president was taking a nap.

Only moments later, the president talked about the crisis in the Oval Office, saying it underscores the need to partner with other countries in the Middle East.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That's part of what the counter-terrorism partnership fund that I am going to be calling for Congress to help finance is all about, giving up the capacity to extend our reach without sending U.S. troops to play Whack-a-Mole wherever there ends up being a problem in a particular country. That will be more effective. It's going to be more legitimate in the eyes of people in the region as well as the international community. But it's going to take time for us to build it. In the short term, we have to deal with what clearly is an emergency situation in Iraq.


BLITZER: The president saying the U.S. is not going to send troops simply to play Whack-a-Mole.

Let's bring in our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger; and our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, what do you hear about what the president might do? He actually said, in that meeting in the Oval Office, all options, referring to military options, I assume, are on the table. What are you hearing?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we can take one military option off the table even though the president said, while he was sitting there with the Australian prime minister, that he's not ruling any option out. I did talk to a senior administration official who said, no boots on the ground. That is not being considered. But that the president -- and I've been told by a senior administration official in the last few minutes -- is considering some sort of air support, some sort of air strikes to turn the tide against these ISIS militants in Iraq. You heard the president sort of answer that. He wasn't specific about whether he would approve air strikes or not, but I'm hearing from an administration official, if you listen to what the president said, he basically answered that question. So, yes, he is considering that.

It does add some clarity at this point, Wolf, as to what this administration is now considering when it comes to dealing with this violence that has exploded in Iraq for the last 24 hour. There have sort have been hints that U.S. officials were looking at air strikes, the Iraqis would welcome air strikes. But now the president saying in the Oval Office earlier today, yes, he is considering that. But at this point they are not going to put boots on the grounds in Iraq. That is not being considered.

And keep in mind, Wolf -- and Gloria can talk about this. This is a tremendous political dilemma for this president. This is a president whose political career is based on the fact that he opposed the war in Iraq. He defeated Hillary Clinton, as we all know, during the '08 campaign, during the primaries, because he opposed the war in Iraq and she didn't. So he has been adamant his administration is about ending wars, not starting wars. So to come to this point for this president, I think speaks a lot -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Gloria, Hillary Clinton, in her new book, she has basically said being in favor of the war back in 2002 and 2003, was a mistake and she regrets that vote. This president didn't want the U.S. to get involved in Iraq then. I assume he doesn't want the U.S. to get involved in Iraq now.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: He definitely doesn't. And she also said, don't forget, Wolf, that she was for arming the rebels --

BLITZER: In Syria.

BORGER: In Syria. There's a difference between her and the president on that. And a lot of people are saying right now, in fact, if we had done that, you would have stopped these terrorist groups from growing because now they have a haven in Syria.

To Jim's point, the vice president has been on the phone this morning with Nouri al Maliki. We don't know what their conversation was about. I'm sure it was a difficult conversation. We'll find out later today.

This is a president whose foreign policy is in transition. He's trying to have a lighter footprint in the world. His legacy issues are, out of Iraq, out of Afghanistan, killed Osama bin Laden, and I made the world a safer place.

Given what's going on in Iraq, Mosul was a real strategy blow to president's theory of foreign policy. Now, they find themselves in a difficult situation, where either they have to give air support, as Jim points out, and they have their left flank, saying, no, no, we don't want to get involved, and they also have people then questioning what they're doing in Afghanistan, whether it's the right thing to do to withdraw completely from Afghanistan, whether it's the right thing to engage with Iran, which is what we're trying to do and whether we did the right thing in Syria.

So suddenly, with this news, all of it seems to be unraveling or unspooling to a certain degree, and they have to try and get it back on the spool.

BLITZER: A tough dilemma --

BORGER: It's a tough dilemma.

BLITZER: -- for the president of the United States and politics in Washington pretty bitter right now to begin with.

Gloria, thanks very much.


BLITZER: Jim Acosta, thanks to you, at the White House.

Up next, as a militant group marches across Iraq, this political battle in Washington is clearly escalating. We'll go live to Capitol Hill when we come back.


BLITZER: As the terror group ISIS marches across Iraq, Republican Senator John McCain says the Obama administration should have seen this crisis coming. On the Senate floor just a little while ago, he basically said, I told you so. Listen to this.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R), ARIZONA: There is a group of people, along with myself and the Senator from South Carolina, that predicted every single one of these events because of an American lack of reliability and American weakness in the president, of declaring conflicts are at an end when they are not. An exit from Iraq and exit from Afghanistan without a strategy and without victory.


BLITZER: Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, from California, is joining us now. He's a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

How do you respond to that kind of bitter criticism from Senator McCain saying the Obama administration failed in its withdrawal from Iraq and should have negotiated some sort of Status of Forces agreement to keep the U.S. troops there?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF, (D), CALIFORNIA: When you're always predicting the worse, sometimes you will be right. When things don't go that badly, no one remembers you predicted it would go that badly. I think it's an oversimplification.

The situation in Iraq is dire, no question about it. At the same time, keeping a full American combat presence in Iraq I don't think made sense. What's more, we couldn't get the Iraqis to agree to want to have us there. They wouldn't protect our troops if we kept them there, from liability. There was really no question. We had to get out of Iraq.

What's so vexing to me about this, Wolf, is this is a problem largely of Maliki's making, not our making. Maliki has so sidelined the Sunni population and driven them into the arms of ISIL (sic), and until that changes, I would be loathe to make major commitments to the Iraqi government. Certainly, we ought to help them with material support. But in terms of going beyond that, until this own Iraqi government makes changes, I don't see an end to this horrible situation.

BLITZER: You're right, the government of Nouri al Maliki didn't enter into a Status of Forces agreement with the U.S., giving U.S. troops, who might have reminded, immunity from Iraqi prosecution. But McCain and Lindsey Graham and other critics of the president say, you know what, the president didn't really want to stay there, never wanted to be in Iraq to begin with, he was looking for an excuse to get out. And as a result, really didn't negotiate seriously with the Iraqi government about an immunity agreement, to which you say?

SCHIFF: I say, certainly, the president didn't really want us there to begin with. And I think the president has been vindicated in those terms. And in that respect, Senator McCain and others have been proved wrong over time in terms of our intervention in Iraq.

But in terms of the administration trying to get a Status of Forces agreement, we did try hard. And the Iraqis, though privately said they wanted us to stay -- many did -- publicly, they weren't willing to sell to it the population. Ultimately, they weren't willing to deliver the agreement. Now, of course, they have that kind of buyer's remorse.

But, again, quite apart from whether we kept troops there, if Maliki was going to continue to sideline a huge segment of his population, they were going to have this problem. And I do think we ought to help them with material support but it ought to be conditioned, even that ought to be conditioned on Maliki changing the nature of his government to be more inclusive of the Sunni population. Otherwise, it doesn't matter how much military force is applied, they will have this problem in Iraq. BLITZER: Congressman, we're getting breaking news into CNN from our

Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She has now confirmed that Bowe Bergdahl, the Army sergeant who was a prisoner by the Taliban for five years in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he is now about to fly back to the United States from the Landstuhl Military Hospital in Germany to San Antonio, to a military hospital there.

I don't know if you have heard about this already, but you are familiar with that very bitter exchange that the Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had yesterday with the Congressman Jeff Miller, of Florida, about why he was staying, Bowe Bergdahl was staying so long.

What's your reaction now that he is finally now about to get on a plane, if he hasn't yet boarded that plane, to fly back to the United States?

SCHIFF: I think that's very positive. It means his condition, both physically and mentally, has stabilized sufficiently for him to come home. I know his family, I'm sure, desperately wants to see him. It's positive.

Wolf, I think you're right. I watched that exchange. I found it, with Jeff Miller, my colleague, utterly perplexing. I'm not sure what the implication or intimation was that somehow the administration was trying to hide him for some reason. I think Secretary Hagel is exactly right. We will let the doctors decide when he's ready to move and only the doctors.

BLITZER: One final question, Congressman, before I let you go. On Iraq, do you support U.S. air strikes against targets in Iraq, insurgent targets in Iraq? Would you support that?

SCHIFF: I'm not prepared to support it at this time. I am prepared to support greater material support to them, which may include air resources. But I'm not prepared to risk the lives of American pilots or to risk further being drawn back into the conflict there, particularly, when we have a government in Maliki that proves to resistant to what we've been recommending in terms of reconciliation with the Sunni population and bringing them into his government. So, at this point, no, I'm not prepared to support that.

BLITZER: Congressman Adam Schiff, of California, thank you so much for joining us.

SCHIFF: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: The failed policies in Iraq, but who is really to blame for the new violence? Up next, I'll speak to Fareed Zakaria and get his take on what is going on.


BLITZER: Just quickly recapping the breaking news from our Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. She has now confirmed that Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl will be coming back to the United States over night tonight from the Landstuhl Military Hospital in Germany. He will be going to a military hospital in San Antonio, Texas. A positive sign that he is making progress. We'll see how much progress in the hours and days to come. But once again, Bowe Bergdahl coming back to the United States shortly.

It is already being called the third Iraqi War. This time, it is a brutal group that is waging war on Iraq government and quickly moving toward Baghdad, the Iraqi capitol.

Let's get perspective from our Fareed Zakaria. He is the host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria, GPS."

So what is going on in Iraq, Fareed, right now, because it seems like, almost overnight, this terrorist group, ISIS, this Islamist state in Iraq and Syria, has moved from Syria into Iraq and is making dramatic progress from their perspective.

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, FAREED ZAKARIA, GPS: You know, part of it is not as unexpected as it seems, Wolf. This group has been making some progress. Associated groups have been making progress over the last few months. Careful Military analysts have been warning of these kinds of things.

But the basic condition is this. The Iraqi government under Maliki has excluded and persecuted the Sunnis. As you know, any insurgency grows on the discontent of the population. And what has happened is that the population in Iraq has gotten more and more discontent. They're joining up with radical groups in Syria. And they are now moving to Baghdad. The second-largest city in Iraq has already fallen. One shouldn't exaggerate it in the sense these are a few thousand people. But what is stunning is that a few thousand people, well organized, well armed, and now with $500 million in cash that they looted in Mosul, is able to make so much trouble for a government, Nouri Maliki's government, that has somewhere between half a million and one million people in its army.

BLITZER: It is amazing when you think about it, how these U.S.- trained, U.S.-armed Iraqi military personnel, at least in Mosul and other parts, in Fallujah, we've seen they take off their uniforms, they put down their weapons, and they simply run away. It's hard to believe what's going on when you think about the situation. Why are they doing this, Fareed?

ZAKARIA: Because they are corrupt, inefficient, and they do not have the same determination that the opposition does. You know, we saw this in Vietnam with the South Vietnamese government. When a government lacks legitimacy, when a government is not inclusive, the opposition is much more determined, much more ruthless than the government. And what Nouri Maliki has done -- he un-did almost all the good that General Petraeus did in Iraq with the surge in 2008. The surge was mostly a political operation where you were bringing the Sunnis back into the fold by bribing them, by promising them jobs, by doing all kinds of things to include them. Nouri Maliki reversed almost all of those measures and then went after the Sunni elites, went after the vice president, the finance minister. So what has happened is all the gains of the surge, the political surge were lost. The Sunnis feel excluded. And they are now mounting this ferocious opposition.

And the key thing to remember, Wolf, that you understand well, the Shia are the majority in Iraq, so they thought they could oppress this Sunni minority easily. But in the broader Middle East, it is the Sunnis that are the overwhelming majority. And all the support that ISIS is getting that these groups that are now marching is getting from Saudi Arabia, from Turkey, from all the countries, because in the Middle East, in general, the Sunnis make up almost 80 or 90 percent, and it is the Shia who are a small minority.

BLITZER: And very quickly, Fareed, the president of the United States must make a major decision now, does the U.S. get involved militarily? What do you think?

ZAKARIA: I think with the current government in Iraq, it would be a mistake to offer major support like air strikes and things like that. Because ultimately, I don't think Maliki can put this back together again. I think what we should demand is a national unity government. Maliki step down as prime minister. A more conciliatory figure take his place. Bring in Sunnis as well. Under those circumstances, I think that the United States should support, but not this government.

All right, Fareed, thank you very much.

Fareed Zakaria, joining us.

Up next, what does Iraq's foreign minister have to say about these developments? Hoshyar Zebari speaks to CNN.


BLITZER: Iraq's foreign minister is calling the takeover of the city of Mosul a major security setback and says it raises concerns about the Iraqi army after so many of its fighters turned and ran.

My colleague, Becky Anderson, spoke with Hoshyar Zebari.


HOSHYAR ZEBARI, IRAQ FOREIGN MINISTER: Definitely, this is a serious situation. And this is what we in Iraq have all along warned everybody. The war, our neighborhood, the Arab countries, that this conflict in Syria, you cannot contain it. We will suffer in Iraq as the first country from the spillover. And we are seeing over the last couple of days what we meant in stating those statements.


BLITZER: Iraq's foreign minister also mentioned how oil played a major role in the takeover by the ISIS militants. The area contains the country's largest oil refinery. They also looted the banks, as Fareed said, stealing perhaps a half a billion dollars in cash.

That is it for me. I'll be back 5:00 p.m. Eastern in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

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