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'Washington Post' Columnist Ignatius On Obama's Choices To Thwart ISIS

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We've reached the end of a week where the political conversation has been all ISIS all the time. At Tuesday's Republican presidential debate, the candidates were unanimous that President Obama has failed in addressing the threat to United States. The president, for his part, made visits to both the Pentagon and National Counterterrorism Center to deliver this message to any terrorist who might be listening.

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BARACK OBAMA: They need to know that we're strong and that we're resilient, that we will not be terrorized. We've prevailed over much greater threats than this.

GREENE: We're going to look a little deeper now at the thinking behind Obama's approach to the Islamic State, and we're doing it with David Ignatius, a longtime columnist with the Washington Post who's in the studio with me. David, good morning.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So I know you've been talking to people in the administration. You've been writing about this. Just - I mean, how do you define the president's approach to ISIS right now?

IGNATIUS: I think the president is careful as we see in every aspect of his demeanor about not taking the U.S. into another ground war in the Middle East. He really fears that going all in would lock the country into a fight that could lead to 100 dead a month, 500 wounded, $10 billion. Those are the kinds of numbers his advisers are generating for him. And he thinks that that would be a terrible mistake. By the same token, he's come to realize in the last week or so that the approach that he was taking, steady, measured comments, a very incremental approach to the problems in Iraq and Syria, was leaving the public feeling very exposed and vulnerable...

GREENE: And we saw that in the polls.

IGNATIUS: ...Which is sad, just feeling frightened...

GREENE: Yeah.

IGNATIUS: ...As you have this San Bernardino and Paris attacks. So what we're seeing this week is the White House trying to be more visible. The president meets with advisers at the Pentagon. He could bring them over to the White House to the Situation Room. He goes out to the National Counterterrorism Center to get briefings on all the things that are done to try to keep tabs of extremists who might be coming to the country, the nature of the threat. And I think the point here is to be visible, to be seen as commander in chief to try to reassure the country. We'll see at a time when Republicans are saying, there's an infernir (ph) out there, you know. What are you doing about it? It's not enough whether the approach that Obama is taking is going to be sufficient to reassure people.

GREENE: So the messaging has changed, it sounds like. But you wrote in your column that at its core, I mean, the president's strategy, you called him a tortoise. You said he's taking it slow. You say he doesn't think this is an existential battle that's worth the cost to the United States of an all-out war. I mean, does he evaluate this threat differently than Republicans do?

IGNATIUS: I think fundamentally that he does. I think he thinks this is a terrible menace. The values of ISIS are a complete contrary to those that we uphold. But by the same token, I think he fears the lasting consequences for the United States of another war in the Middle East. I think, in his mind, the choices between an all-out military commitment, which would mean boots on the ground, which would mean some thousands, tens of thousands of U.S. troops going into Syria and Iraq and another approach that's going to be less successful, I think he recognizes that there are limits. We just don't have the partners in the region who can do the fight for us. So in the initial years, that's going to look often like failure. It's going to be bumpy. But again, I think he's concluded that that would be preferable to a much larger commitment that the United States, given how weary we are, weary and wary of war in that part of the world, might be unsustainable.

GREENE: You pose a question in your column that I wanted to actually put back to you. What would cause Obama to change his mind and treat this war against ISIS as something deserving of a major U.S. military intervention?

IGNATIUS: Well, as I look at the administration, its views and just the situation of the country, the United States is pretty ragged right now. You can see when a whole school of districts have to cancel their classes because of threats.

GREENE: You're talking about what happened in Los Angeles this week.

IGNATIUS: Yeah, Los Angeles, when we have this terrible, still not really understood, shooting in San Bernardino and a social media foaming with plots and rumors, the level of public anxiety is such that if there was a big orchestrated attack, it couldn't make it difficult for us to run our democracy to have people so angry, so concerned. And I think the feeling at the White House is in that situation, you'd really have to put in more people to show the country, as after 9/11, we're taking action.

GREENE: All right, we've been speaking with David Ignatius, a longtime columnist specializing in foreign affairs for the Washington Post. David, thanks so much for coming in this morning.

IGNATIUS: Thanks. Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.