Is Obama committed to defeating the Islamic State threat?

This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," August 16, 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 talk about progress in ending the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. But is he committed to averting a military one and defeating the ISIS threat?

Plus, she's criticizing the administration for its foreign policy, but is Hillary Clinton's hawkish turn for real? And will it help or hurt her in 2016?

And Chris Christie is under fire from fellow Republicans for refusing to back one of their own. So why won't he support Andrew Cuomo's Republican challenger in New York?


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We broke the ISIL siege of Mt. Sinjar, we helped vulnerable people reach safety and we helped save many innocent lives. Now, the situation remains dire for Iraqis subject to ISIL's terror throughout the country, and this includes minorities like Yazidis and Iraqi Christians. It also includes many Sunnis, Shia and Kurds.


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

That was President Obama announcing Thursday that U.S.-led airstrikes have broken the siege by Islamic militants against religious minorities who were trapped on a mountain in northern Iraq, but acknowledging that the situation remains desperate for millions of Iraqis as the terror group continues its advances. So is the administration willing to do what it takes to defeat the ISIS threat?

Let's ask Wall Street foreign affairs columnist, Bret Stephens.

Bret, the president says we're not going back to war, no boots on the ground in Iraq, but aren't we already there, at war right now?

BRET STEPHENS, FOREIGN AFFAIRS COLUMNIST: Right. We're dropping bombs on ISIS. We're just not doing it in a way that is going to be effective and really turn back their advances, or much less defeating this terrorist caliphate state.

GIGOT: But have we made progress in the last week? Because the Yazidi siege seems to have been broken. Maybe some are still --


STEPHENS: That's what the president says. That's not what the Yazidis say.

GIGOT: But there's no longer 40,000. Some of the Kurds are taking them off of that mountain. We've seen the threat, immediate threat to Erbil and the Kurdish territories diminish. We have Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki resigning, giving the new government a chance to get together. That's some progress. Aren't we better off this week than last?

STEPHENS: That remains to be seen. The president is using sort of minimal means, plus keeping his fingers crossed and hoping every break goes his way. We do have the end of the Maliki era, eight-year era, but we don't know if the new prime minister, Prime Minister Abadi, will be able to form a government. He has 30 days. Will it be a competent government? Is it going to reach across the lines? Is he going to be able to organize the Iraqi army? Are the Kurds going to get the military assistance they need to meaningfully defeat ISIS?

GIGOT: How would you answer those questions? Start with the Kurds. The French are now arming them. We seem to be giving them more weapons. That's progress.

STEPHENS: Yes, but remember when ISIS took over Mosul, they also seized six divisions worth of military equipment. Maybe some of it ended up in Kurdish hands but most of it they seized. So it's a heck of a gamble, Paul, to say, well, let's hope that the French assistance to the Kurds is just sufficient for them at least maintain their grip on the Kurdish autonomous region.

Also, remember, Paul, our strategic goal isn't simply to secure the Kurdish homeland, isn't simply to prevent Baghdad from falling into the ISIS hands. It's to defeat ISIS. Many people -- Ryan Crocker, our former ambassador --

GIGOT: Ambassador.

STEPHENS: -- Jim Jones, national security adviser to the president, in our own pages, saying the existence of ISIS, the existence of this terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East is a threat to American national security.

GIGOT: But if the president doesn't want to put boots on the ground, even though -- well, we already have close to 1,000 there as advisers. But if he doesn't want to go in, in a major way, we're going to have to reconstitute and reenergize the Iraqi military. Would you agree with that?

STEPHENS: It's essential.


STEPHENS: But it's very hard to see this mission being accomplished in any serious way without much more substantial American military support. And one of the very disheartening things about what's happened is we have promised the Iraqis all kinds of military equipment, two squadrons of --

GIGOT: F-16s

STEPHENS: -- F-16s --

GIGOT: 36 planes.

STEPHENS: -- maintenance on their M-1 tanks, attack helicopters, a rebuilt airstrip at Balad Airfield. And in point after point, we are failing to meet our most basic commitments. Just to give you an example, of those F- 16s, only one of them and maybe two has now been delivered and the Iraqi pilots are training somewhere in Arizona.

GIGOT: What about those who say, look, we know we can kill them from the air. Our Air Force is dominant over there. But it won't defeat ISIS. So if we get in and escalate that way, what is going to happen is ISIS will adapt, as the enemy always does, they'll find sanctuaries and they'll go back into Syria and move their equipment there, as they already are, and we're going to end up actually being at war with them in a low-level way without accomplishing anything.

STEPHENS: First off, air power can accomplish a lot. Bear in mind, this is open ground. We're not talking about the jungles of North Vietnam or Laos of Cambodia. And ISIS has gone from a guerilla movement to an actual army. So the amount of equipment you can take out, you can do a lot to create openings for the Iraqi army, for the Kurdish Peshmerga to put ISIS on its feet, to provide divisive balance for the good guys, the Iraqi army and the Kurds, to at least reverse the gains that ISIS is making.

GIGOT: But are American troops, some substantial force, I'm talking 5,000, 10,000 of them, going to have to go back to -- as part of this effort, if we want to defeat ISIS?

STEPHENS: Yes, I think they do. Frankly, 5,000 or 10,000 American troops should have always been maintained in Iraq. That is the tragic mistake that this administration made, which amusingly President Obama now blames on his predecessor, President Bush, by not getting out of Iraq.

GIGOT: But sooner or later, there will be thousands of American troops back on the ground. Very briefly, you think that's right?

STEPHENS: I think there should be, but I don't think this president will do it.

GIGOT: OK. Well, I think he may get there. He may not have any choice.

All right, when we come back, she is distancing herself from the foreign policy blunders of the Obama administration. But will Hillary Clinton's hawkish makeover work, or leave her more vulnerable in 2016?



HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: We agree we are committed to the values and the interests of the security of our country together. We have disagreements, as any partners and friends, as we are -- might very well have, but I'm proud that I served with him and for him.


GIGOT: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Martha's Vineyard this week attempting to make nice with President Obama after publicly criticizing his foreign policy. In a recent interview with the "Atlantic," Clinton claimed the president's failure to help the Syrian rebels, early on, led to the rise of ISIS. The likely 2016 contender also took a shot at the administration's overall foreign policy, saying, quote, "Great nations need organizing principles and 'don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle."

We're back with Bret Stephens. Wall Street Potomac Watch columnist, Kim Strassel; and Political Diary editor, Jason Riley, also joining us.

So, Kim, did Hillary Clinton achieve her goal of distancing herself from the president's foreign policy?

KIM STRASSEL, POTOMAC WATCH COLUMNIST: Well, she certainly made it clear that she is critical of it. And you can see why she's doing that, maneuvering for 2016. The polls show the public do not approve of what's happening in the president's foreign policy. I think the problem that Hillary Clinton has is she's yet to explain her own role in it, as his secretary of state, or to explain to the American public what her actual vision is. It's one thing to be critical. It's another to define your own views. She's been very careful not to do that yet.

GIGOT: One of the points she's making, Jason, is it triangulating, to borrow a word from the '90s, with a husband who moved between the Democratic left and Republicans, right down the middle. She's saying I'm not Barack Obama but I'm also not George W. Bush. She's trying to go into the middle. How credible is that?

JASON RILEY, POLITICAL DIARY EDITOR: She wants to sort of attract his critics without alienating his supporters. It's a very tall order because, as Kim said, she had a role in shaping this so-called light-footprint strategy that has made the globe much more dangerous than the one that Barack Obama inherited from George W. Bush. So she can say, I wanted to arm the rebels in Syria, but she was there at the time, and when that uprising began, and she refused to call for Assad's ouster, for example. She can say, I oppose a nuclear Iran, but she's the one who's gone, pushed for the diplomatic route.

GIGOT: Bret, how credible can she be, in this hawkish role?

STEPHENS: What she's going to be saying is that, privately, I was giving the president that hawkish advice, that we should be arming the Syrians, taking more muscular policy towards Iran. There's some partial validity to it, especially when it comes to Syria. But remember, she was the most outspoken proponent of the Russian reset, the outreach to the Kremlin, the results of which we now see in the contempt Russia shows the U.S. and the United States over Ukraine and many other issues. Ultimately, she stood behind the president's policy. Just remember that kind of maudlin she did with Barack Obama with Steve Crofts of "60 Minutes," how close she was, how closely they worked together. She owns those words. She owns that relationship.

GIGOT: What about the risk that this positioning, Kim, makes for her presidential run if -- I mean, is it inviting a challenge from the Democratic left? The base is still pretty liberal.

STRASSEL: Oh, I think it's inviting challenges both from the Democratic left, right, who their complaint, by the way, about Barack Obama is that he's done more than they would have even wanted him to do. So she certainly is inviting a challenge from that side, and they've got plenty of reasons to -- one, they're already talking about putting their own candidates forward. They're not necessarily happy with her.

But she's also inviting a challenge I think from the right because you are beginning to see Republicans, who have been a bit quiet ever since the Bush years on foreign policy, look at what's happening in the world and decide it's time to reassert their own views on foreign policy again. So you see a lot of 2016 Republican candidates out there talking a lot more about foreign policy. And they're definitely going to be pushing her to have to explain what her views are and what are the limits of her own philosophy.

GIGOT: Where is the heart of the Democratic Party right now on foreign policy? Is it with Barack Obama and this policy of doing as little as possible, or is it more with Hillary Clinton right now?

RILEY: I think the polls show that -- the American people don't want troops on the ground in a lot of these places. That's what they're telling us.

GIGOT: So they're with Barack Obama?

RILEY: But they also don't like to see what they see in the world, these flare-ups all over the world.

GIGOT: OK, but what about --


RILEY: They hold the U.S. president responsible for that --


RILEY: -- even if they don't want troops on the ground.

GIGOT: What about the Democratic Party? You're talking about the general polls. But the Democratic Party, the people who vote in primaries, where are they on this? Are they with Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton?

RILEY: They tend to be more liberal so they're probably with Obama.

GIGOT: So this could open --


RILEY: Even Obama is getting more hawkish as you were talking about earlier.

GIGOT: But this could open up a challenge for Hillary Clinton from the left.

RILEY: It could open up a challenge. And what Hillary is also going to get is she is going to get the press. Because she's essentially clear the field right now until she decides whether to run, she's going to get the press going to her to second-guess everything Obama does. It will be very interesting to see how she handles that.

GIGOT: And what does this do, Bret, for Republicans with Hillary criticizing the president from the right on foreign policy? Does this give them maybe a chance to find their voice, which they haven't had?

STEPHENS: Right. This gives them a real opening when the presumptive Democratic nominee is already criticizing or at least mildly criticizing the president, to reassert their Republican conservative internationalists bona fides, to point out what a disaster this administration has been when it comes to relationships all over the world, and to make a case for a muscular American internationalism that doesn't quite tip over into a kind of utopianism that one might accuse the Bush administration of.

GIGOT: Rand Paul may have something to say about that a little differently, but that's a different show, a different subject. We'll be back to it.

All right, when we come back, he's being accused of stabbing a fellow Republican in the back. So what's really behind New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's refusal to support Andrew Cuomo's Republican challenger?


GIGOT: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is coming under fire from fellow Republicans for his refusal to back the challenger to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Christie, who chairs the Republican Governor's Association, has been crisscrossing the country this summer raising money for GOP candidates, but says he won't do the same for Rob Astorino, suggesting last month that his campaign against Cuomo is a lost cause. But others in the party see things differently, including some of Christie's potential rivals for the 2016 presidential nomination. Whereas, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal announcing last week that he'll headline a Manhattan fundraiser for Astorino, and Rick Perry of Texas and Scott Walker of Wisconsin also lending support to his campaign.

We're back with "Political Diary" editor, Jason Riley; and "Wall Street Journal" assistant editorial page editor, James Freeman.

So, James, how does the head of the Republican Governors Association not support a Republican candidate for governor?



You can understand, given that Cuomo has an enormous lead in the polls and a huge money advantage, you can understand Christie saying I'm not going to drop $10 million into that race right now. But there's no reason to go out of his way to knock Astorino, particularly when you have a very talented guy in Astorino. Most of the state doesn't even know who he is yet.

GIGOT: He's the Westchester County executive.


GIGOT: That's not exactly a Republican stronghold.



GIGOT: And yet, he managed to win in 2010.

FREEMAN: Twice he's won in a Democratic area. Twice he's shown he can get minority support, Latino support, black support, Democratic support. Anyone who gets to know him will see he's a formidable communicator with a strong message. So it's way too early to write this guy off.

GIGOT: How do you explain this Christie behavior, Jason?

RILEY: It's tough. He's almost aggressively indifferent to what happens to Astorino in this race. We don't pay for landslides, he said to the press. I mean that's incredible.



RILEY: What the thinking is behind this --

GIGOT: Yeah, what's --


RILEY: -- is that he has a sort of nonaggression pact with Governor Cuomo of New York, who is Rob Astorino's rival, and it's a thank you. Christie is thanking Governor Cuomo for not speaking out against him on the Bridgegate scandal that Christie has been going through. And that's the thinking that's behind this. They've reached some sort of deal where Christie is not going to support the man challenging Cuomo.

GIGOT: Is there some political downside for --


RILEY: Oh, I think there's a huge downside, Paul. Conservatives already have their issues with Christie over his hugging Obama before the 2012 election, and thanks for the Sandy support --


-- over gun control, over global warming. And you'd think that Christie would sort of make good with some of these conservatives by embracing somebody like Astorino with the primaries in mind, the presidential primaries in mind. He hasn't done that. And there's a pattern here. Ken Cuccinelli, who ran for governor in Virginia last year, could not get a lot of support from Christie.

GIGOT: What about his defenders who say, look, there's a limited supply of money. We can't give everybody everything they want. The polls don't look good for Astorino. And Cuomo is going to every Wall Street donor and saying, if you give to Astorino, you're on a list, man. I'm going to win the second term and I'm going to remember that, and don't come looking to me for favors. So Christie says, look, what can I do?

FREEMAN: OK, but I think some of that Cuomo aggressiveness is out of the fear of the challenge that Astorino represents. Cuomo has very bad facts to run on. He has an economy growing even more slowly than the Obama economy nationwide. He has an above-average unemployment rate. He just shut down a corruption commission investigating Albany because his friends in Albany didn't want this commission investigated. There is a very big opportunity here once people get to know Astorino. And he is a guy who knows how to communicate who can seize the opportunity. So I think, again, it's way too early to decide we're not putting money into that race.

GIGOT: So you think he's basically missing an opportunity for his own political self-interest? Am I putting that too harshly?

FREEMAN: I think it's almost guaranteed --


GIGOT: Cuomo -- I mean Christie I'm talking about.

FREEMAN: Christie, yeah. I think he's making a bad decision based on the facts on the ground. And, as Jason says, memories are still fairly fresh of that embrace that helped Obama in the closing weeks against Romney.

RILEY: This race is going to be closer than the polls show right now. It's probably low turnout. Astorino will get a lot of support upstate where the economy is just horrible.


RILEY: And Cuomo opposes fracking upstate. So there are issues. The corruption issue has legs. This is not something that will go away anytime soon. This is a race -- but Astorino does need money. And so long as Christie is say we don't support people who are going to lose in a landslide, it will be hard for Astorino to raise money.

GIGOT: Briefly, James, is Christie still a credible candidate for the Republican nomination?

FREEMAN: I think you have to --


GIGOT: For president?

FREEMAN: -- given his ability to raise money, he's shown that, given national polls, his name I.D. But he has the same problem Andrew Cuomo has. They are running slow-growing, high-tax, high-regulation states, and they will have a hard time saying it's working.

GIGOT: All right, James, thank you.

We have to take one more break. When we come back, "Hits & Misses" of the week.


GIGOT: Time now for "Hits & Misses" of the week.

Kim, let's start with you.

STRASSEL: Six months ago, billionaire activist, Tom Steyer, burst onto the national scene vowing to drum up $100 million to support pro-environment Democrats and sell the public on a climate agenda. Since then, he's struggled to raise money. Vulnerable Senate Democrats and the public remain firmly in support of pipelines and drilling. This week, he all but admitted that his great big campaign was, in fact, going to be pretty tiny. So a hit, I guess, to the billionaire for belatedly acknowledging that the public is not interested in his anti-energy economy.

GIGOT: All right, Kim, thanks.


FREEMAN; This is a hit, Paul, to the "New England Journal of Medicine" for publishing an important new study showing the risks, the health risks of a low-salt diet. Yes, it's true.


We've been badgered and hectored for years to cut our salt intake. It turns out, there's dangers to eating too little salt. So I don't think it's time to declare an end to the war on flavor, but this is good news for all of America's diners.

GIGOT: Freeman's ship has come in.

FREEMAN: Yeah, exactly.


STEPHENS: This is neither a hit nor a miss, but a will miss you for Robin Williams who tragically died this week. He was an actor of tremendous range. Most of us know him for his comedic genius. But he was able to play serious, somber, darker roles with great artistic brilliance. His performances in "Garp," "Good Will Hunting." He was a great supporter of our troops. And above all, he made us laugh. Sadly, most of it is unrepeatable here or unprintable on the page --


-- but we still think of it often. He was also a great supporter our troops. And we will miss him. And we send our condolences to his family.

GIGOT: Yeah, a great supporter of USO, Americans serving overseas.

All right, thank you all.

And remember, if you have your own hit or miss, please be sure to tweet us, at jeronfnc.

That's it for this week's show. Thanks to my panel and to all of you for watching. I'm Paul Gigot. Hope to see you right here next week.

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