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Fall Of Ramadi Highlights 'Fundamental Failure' Of U.S. Strategy In Iraq


Last Friday, as car bombings began the successful ISIS assault on the Iraqi city of Ramadi, the U.S. Central Command was giving journalists a briefing on this situation that Washington Post columnist David Ignatius calls grossly over-optimistic. Ignatius writes today of the danger that Iraq might descend into civil war and splinter if the government in Baghdad doesn't do more to empower Sunnis, and he joins us in the studio. Welcome to the program once again.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: First, Ramadi fell over the weekend to ISIS. What was CentCom saying about it in that Friday briefing?

IGNATIUS: CentCom on Friday was essentially saying, we can handle this. This is not an extreme crisis. Generally, the U.S. strategy across Iraq is holding up. They enumerated the airstrikes that we've been conducting to try to bolster the Iraqi government. In other words, if there is a three-alarm fire when a provincial capital is about to fall, this was not a three-alarm fire. This was a - things are going OK.

SIEGEL: The administration and the military here have been saying there are setbacks in a war - ups and downs. Are they missing, or are they downplaying the gravity of the situation in Iraq's Anbar Province?

IGNATIUS: I think the administration has been reluctant to see the fundamental failure of its core idea of bringing Iraqi Sunnis into the fight to defend and liberate Sunni areas that were captured by ISIS, a Sunni Muslim terrorist group. They have, for a year now, been saying that the Iraqi government must empower Sunnis, must pass legislation that allows formation of a Sunni national guard, must provide weapons to Sunni tribal fighters. Essentially none of that has happened in the year since Mosul was overrun, and this is a problem that in some ways the U.S. has been helping its allies fight back. It is said that ISIS has about 20 percent less territory in Iraq than it had when Mosul was overrun. So it's not as if there are no good things. The problem is the big, populated Sunni areas are going to take Sunni fighters to liberate, and they're nowhere in sight.

SIEGEL: If, in fact, there are real problems with the U.S. approach to Iraq, who's in charge of the U.S. approach in Iraq?

IGNATIUS: Well, I think that's a core issue that the president needs to focus on. The simple answer is that nobody's in charge except the president himself. He has to find somebody, ideally, based in the White House, who will say to him every morning, Mr. President, here's what we're doing. Here's how this is going. Instead, General John Allen, a retired Marine who knows Iraq well, is based at the State Department, is coordinating the coalition, is sort of in charge of strategy. But then CentCom is running the military side of it. And General Austin who's the CentCom commander and his designated general, General Terry, are running the war. That is leading to the kind of confusion and, I think, lack of clear strategic thinking that's part of the problem.

SIEGEL: Not working, you would say.

IGNATIUS: It needs one person in charge, and that's not happening now.

SIEGEL: There is an analysis here that it's a game of Whac-A-Mole with ISIS. That is, yeah, they take a town here, but they lose ground there. They take this city over here, but we push them out there - that their gains are illusory. I gather you would say no, there gains are more substantial than that.

IGNATIUS: They've made substantial gains. The thing that I've grown to believe about the Middle East is it's not Whac-A-Mole so much as a question of tipping points. Success begets success in the Middle East. ISIS is strong because it's been seen to win a big fight, to take a provincial capital in Ramadi. And people are cheering because they're cheering for the winner. If it begins to lose, as it seemed to be losing a few months ago, you get people drifting away. And I think it's not Whac-A-Mole - one by one by one. If you have success, it's reinforced. People say, oh, you know, they may have something - I think I want to be working with them. And that's the process the U.S. has to get rolling.

SIEGEL: David Ignatius, columnist for The Washington Post, thanks a lot.

IGNATIUS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.