• With: James Freeman, Allysia Finley, Dan Henninger, Jack Keane, Bret Stephens, Mary Anastasia O'Grady, Dan Henninger, Whit Ayres

    This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," August 30, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

    PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," President Obama backs off reports of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, saying we don't have a strategy yet. We'll ask General Jack Keane what a successful strategy would look like.

    Plus, two Americans are killed fighting alongside the Islamic extremists. So how many more are out there? And could they bring the terror threat home?

    And Labor Day weekend is here, marking the unofficial start of the fall campaign season. So will it be a wave election for Republicans or a washout? We'll have our panel's picks for the races to watch.


    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Rooting out a cancer like ISIL will not be quick or easy, but I'm confident that we can and we will, working closely with ally and our partners.


    GIGOT: Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

    That was President Obama Thursday saying his foreign policy team was assembling, quote, "a range of options" for dealing with the growing ISIS threat but backing off reports that the administration was close to a decision authorizing airstrikes against the Islamic extremists in Syria.

    My guest this week says a plan to take on ISIS is needed now more than ever and believes an American-led coalition can still successfully defeat the terror group.

    General Jack Keane is the former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army and Fox News military analyst.

    General, welcome to the program.


    GIGOT: So how formidable a military force is ISIS compared to the guerillas that we defeated during the surge in Iraq in 2007?

    KEANE: Well, they're quite formidable in the sense that they operate very differently. They began activities in Iraq in 2009 and 2010, much as we had seen before, as a terrorist activity.

    GIGOT: Right.

    KEANE: But when they moved to Syria, they grew in size and scale, and they began to operate as quite a military organization. But, by that, I mean they would come into a town and city and dominate it much as a military organization would do. And they got additional fighters in Syria over the three years from 2011 to 2014, and that is when they made their move on Iraq. When they came into Iraq, they were clearly operating no longer as a terrorist organization just conducting terrorist activities. They were actually operating as a terrorist army. And they are quite formidable.

    But also, Paul, they're very vulnerable because they control territory, and they are exposed to us, and they actually are easier for us to deal with than a terrorist organization operating in and among the people.

    GIGOT: So what are we talking, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 soldiers in that organization?

    KEANE: Right now, most analysts believe it's around 10,000.

    GIGOT: That's it?

    KEANE: But I don't think anybody truly knows for sure.

    GIGOT: OK. And they're trying to grab recruits and encourage recruits all the time. So what would be -- what role does the United States have to play in any kind of coalition, which the president says he's trying to assemble, and you agree we should assemble. What role should the U.S. play in that coalition?

    KEANE: Yeah. Well, they should lead a coalition of participating in two major activities. One is an air campaign and the other is a ground campaign. The air campaign, actually, we would have the leading role with our coalition partners.

    GIGOT: OK.

    KEANE: That would mean we would conduct airstrikes in Syria and also in Iraq. The airstrikes in Syria, predominantly where this organization has its support infrastructure, would be attacking staging bases for troops and equipment, supply bases, training areas where the new recruits are coming in, also command-and-control and front-line position in Syria as well as in Iraq.


    GIGOT: But you mentioned that ground campaign. That's where I think a lot of Americans begin to get cautious, maybe even including the president of the United States, who says we're not going to have any ground combat troops in Iraq. But what kind of American presence are you talking about?

    KEANE: The ground campaign, as opposed to the air campaign, where we would have the leading role, we would just have a supporting role, though it would be significant. By that, I mean we're going to provide arms and training to the Free Syrian Army in Syria, which is an absolute must. We would do the same for those in Iraq that need it, Peshmerga, for sure, some of the Sunni tribe and some of the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army, Paul, would have the leading role in the ground campaign. They would coordinate the activities of the Peshmerga, Shia militia and also Sunni tribes. And we would provide air support to that. We call that close-air support where troops are operating in populated areas and also when they're operating very close to the enemy. And we have to have people to facilitate the use of the air power. They're called air ground controllers.

    GIGOT: OK. So what --

    KEANE: And we would also need is trainers and advisers.

    GIGOT: Advisors.

    KEANE: Because, as you know, much of the Iraqi army has to be reconstituted. Some are fighting very successfully now, but some of them have broke. We need new leaders and we need trainers. And that is going to take time.

    GIGOT: OK, what kind of -- how large a force are we talking about in terms of American combat troops? Are you talking about Special Forces? Are you talking about Apache helicopters that are just behind the front lines that are firing on enemy armor and armored vehicles? Is that it? Are we talking several thousand Americans here?

    KEANE: Yeah. A great question in terms of numbers and the capabilities. The fact is we have hundreds of advisers now and trainers. That would probably have to climb to a few thousand.

    GIGOT: Wow.

    KEANE: I do believe that we need to bring in Special Operation forces. These are the forces that operated so successfully in Iraq and Afghanistan to take down the Taliban leadership and the al Qaeda leadership. They would choose where they would operate from, and they would conduct drone attacks, but also ground assault attacks against those leadership positions, as we're doing right now in Afghanistan almost every night. I think that force that we would have in Iraq would be somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 troops.

    GIGOT: What about those who say that if we do bomb the way you've described, particularly in Syria, we'd only be helping the Syrian government of Bashar al Assad and his Iranian allies and leaving them to dominate that region, and that wouldn't be in the interest of the United States either.

    KEANE: No, I don't agree with that. What we'd be doing actually -- the Free Syrian Army is the only organization that is truly contesting ISIS. They have been vetted. We are now giving them missiles. We have to increase that rather robustly. What we would be doing by bringing down ISIS in Syria, we would permit the Free Syrian Army to operate exclusively, as they were once before, against the regime, against the Assad regime. If we increased the arms and increased the training for that, it's likely they'd be able to change the momentum. Quite frankly, we have not been doing what we should in helping them.