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Obama Faces Criticism For Light Footprint Strategy Against Islamic State

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Obama is defending his strategy for dealing with the turbulent Middle East. Today, he spoke to one of the largest Jewish congregations in Washington. He made the case for his proposed nuclear deal with Iran despite fierce criticism from the Israeli prime minister.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This deal will have my name on it, so nobody has a bigger personal stake in making sure that it delivers on its promise.

CORNISH: The president's speech echoed comments he made this week to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic magazine. President Obama also used that interview to answer criticism of his efforts to beat back the self-described Islamic State. NPR's Scott Horsley more.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama is quoted in The Atlantic as saying I don't think we're losing to the Islamic State, but a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The Sunni extremist group, also known as ISIS, took over the capital of Iraq's Anbar province this week. The White House downplayed that as a tactical setback, but days later, ISIS captured the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria. And just today, ISIS claimed credit for its first attack inside Saudi Arabia, a suicide bombing of a Shiite mosque. With this backdrop, Republican Senator John McCain tells CNN the administration's defense of its anti-ISIS efforts is mind-boggling.

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JOHN MCCAIN: This is an ineffectual air campaign among others, and if we don't train and arm and equip and have people on the ground and military presence with these units, they will continue to disintegrate.

HORSLEY: McCain argues the U.S. needs to deploy some 10,000 troops to beef up local forces. The Islamic State's military gains have also been fodder for Republican presidential hopefuls. Lindsey Graham told an audience in Iowa last weekend Obama made a crucial mistake when he opted not to leave a residual force behind in Iraq when the last American troops pulled out in 2011.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: When it comes the blaming people about Iraq, the person I blame is Barack Obama, not George W. Bush.

HORSLEY: George Bush's brother Jeb, who struggled to answer questions on the campaign trail about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was happy to shift attention to more recent events.

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JEB BUSH: And we see what happens when a president does not believe America's power and presence in the world is a force for good.

HORSLEY: Mindful of the heavy cost when U.S. troops did invade Iraq, Obama is determined to keep a light footprint this time. But former Pentagon chief of staff Jeremy Bash says the resulting reliance on local forces to battle ISIS carries its own problems.

JEREMY BASH: The hard question we have to be asking ourselves is do the Iraqi forces have the capability and the will to take on ISIS?

HORSLEY: The U.S. has scored some victories, including a special forces raid in Syria last week that killed a mid-level ISIS leader and turned up a wealth of intelligence on the group. Bash says in order to be successful, the U.S. will need more of that.

BASH: To really break them apart piece by piece, we're going to have to have an increased effort of our own special operations forces, increased airstrikes, increased intelligence collection and more activity against that network.

HORSLEY: A White House spokesman said today Obama would consider any recommendations for a small increase in the U.S. troop presence. But Obama told The Atlantic magazine one lesson he learned from the last war is that if the Iraqi people aren't willing to fight for their own security, the U.S. can't do it for them. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.