Senator Levin Calls for International Coalition to Oppose ISIS

Thursday, September 11, 2014
Senator Carl Levin (D-MI)

Chairman, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate

Michael Getler

Ombudsman, PBS

Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) joins Michael Getler of PBS to discuss the ongoing crises in Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq and the U.S. response. Levin supports providing arms and equipment to Ukraine and to moderate forces that are fighting against ISIS, but says that U.S. ground forces should not get directly involved. He emphasizes the importance of Arab and other regional governments joining in the coalition to publicly oppose ISIS. Levin endorses the ISIS strategy as outlined by President Obama and says that he believes that it will ultimately gain bipartisan support.

GETLER: Good morning, everybody. Welcome to today's on-the-record meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations. We certainly have a lot to talk about.

And just so there's no confusion, since we're about the same size and same age and we both wear our glasses on the edge of our nose, this fellow on my right is the very distinguished senator from Michigan, Carl Levin, and I'm Mike Getler, the PBS ombudsman.

Senator Levin is, of course, the widely respected chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, served for 36 years when he retires in January. He literally needs no introduction to this group, and he has some remarks before we get started with the questioning, so I'm not going to say much.

I am—I would like to say, however, that while journalists are supposed to be the ones with the nose for news, that I must congratulate the Council and the senator for superb timing for this discussion and look at American foreign and defense policy. It is, of course, the 13th anniversary of the terrible events of September 11, 2001. It's a week since the senator returned from a trip to Iraq and Ukraine. And it's just hours since President Obama spoke to the nation on the challenges now confronting us.

So, Senator Levin, you have the floor, sir.

LEVIN: Up here? Thank you.

GETLER: I guess, yes.

LEVIN: Michael, thanks, first of all, for all your good work, for your introduction, and it's great to be back at the Council on Foreign Relations again. I think this is three years in a row, perhaps. As I came up on the elevator, I was reminded that we're also here—as Michael mentioned—on the anniversary of the horrific events of September 11, 2001, so this is a very appropriate time to talk about these issues.

I just returned from a trip to Ukraine, Iraq and Jordan. That's the type of trip, by the way, that does not make it into the Washington Post series on congressional junkets to choice travel destinations.


Current events in these countries are a direct consequence of two of the most dramatic transformations in international environment that I've seen in my 36 years in the Senate. First, the end of the Cold War and, second, the rise of a virulent strain of Islamic extremism.

Russia's actions in Ukraine are a direct challenge to the post-Cold War hopes for Europe. In effect, Putin has asserted a new sphere of influence, or reasserted an old one, in which he believes he can act with impunity to impose Russia's will, much as the Soviet Union did in Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

In many ways, Putin's actions in Ukraine have been a wake-up call to which the Western democracies are beginning to respond in a way in which we did not do in the case of the Russian occupation of territory in Georgia and Moldova—Moldova, excuse me.

In light of Ukraine's proximity to Russia, Russia's overwhelming military advantages in the area, and Putin's apparent willingness to violate the norms of international conduct, there's little that Ukraine would be able to do to stop a direct large-scale Russian military action should Russia choose to invade openly. NATO will not go to war with Russia over Ukraine, nor should we lead the Ukrainians to believe that we will, as we tragically did with the Hungarians in 1956.

So what should the United States and our allies do in Ukraine? First, we should continue to find ways to make it clear to the Russians that they cannot reject the post-Cold War order in Europe while continuing to participate in the European economy at the same time. That's why sanctions are important and must stay in place even if a cease-fire is effective until Russia conforms its actions to the norms of international behavior.

Second, we should do more to help the Ukrainians defend themselves. The Ukrainians emphasized to me on my visit that they are willing to fight for themselves, and as long as they understand that we will not be sending our own men and women to fight for them, I believe we should provide them with the military equipment that they need. That means both lethal and nonlethal equipment, including MRAPs and other equipment that would otherwise be shredded or abandoned as we leave Afghanistan.

We should do this because assisting people who are willing to fight to defend their own country and their own freedom reflects our values. Providing such equipment would enable the Ukrainians to raise the price the Russians have to pay for their aggression and hopefully make Putin think twice about continuing or furthering aggression.

Russia's violation of international law in Ukraine has already drawn NATO closer together, reinvigorating the alliance by providing a new challenge and a strong common interest. Putin could, as he boasted, occupy eastern Ukraine, but in the long run, he would be acting against Russia's own interest, because he cannot not prevail against a united Europe.

My Iraq visit focused on ISIS and the imminent threat that it poses to Iraq, the region, and the international community. Our military leaders and intelligence experts have uniformly told us that airstrikes alone will not be sufficient to defeat ISIS. ISIS's rapid spread has been possible, in large part, because it exploited Sunni discontent with the Maliki government, which insisted on ruling Iraq on a narrow sectarian basis. If the new prime minister shows that Iraq will now be governed inclusively, ISIS will find fewer Sunni leaders willing either to aid and abet their terror or to look the other way.

President Obama has been cautious about resorting to military force in Iraq and elsewhere. In the Middle East, the use of military force by Western nations without Arab support can be counterproductive, providing fuel for the hateful propaganda used by extremists who attack a Western presence as, quote, "occupation." For instance, neither ISIS nor its predecessor—Al Qaida in Iraq—existed before the U.S. invasion in 2003. Instead, Al Qaida in Iraq was created in response to the American presence in that country and fed off the resulting conflict.

So what should the United States do about ISIS? The president laid out a forceful strategy last night. It deserves bipartisan support.

First, just as ISIS poses a threat to the international security, the response needs to be international. President Obama has begun building an international coalition to respond to ISIS. A U.N. resolution endorsing the use of force against ISIS, while not necessary, would help rally international support.

"The Ukrainians emphasized to me on my visit that they are willing to fight for themselves, and as long as they understand that we will not be sending our own men and women to fight for them, I believe we should provide them with the military equipment that they need."

The participation of key Arab states in the region will be critical to the effectiveness of any international coalition. If Western countries act in Iraq and Syria without visible participation and leadership by Arab nations, it will play into the propaganda pitch of extreme elements within the Sunni community that they, ISIS, is the only force willing to stand up against foreign domination. Active participation by Arab states is key, because the fight against ISIS is a struggle for the hearts and minds of Sunni Muslims, as well as a military struggle.

The vast majority of Muslims oppose the brutality of ISIS, whose horrific actions may be a turning point in persuading mainstream Islam of the need to expunge this poisonous offshoot. If mainstream Muslims fail to join, and the conflict could be successfully portrayed as one of the West against Islam, the poison is likely to reappear in new and different forms, as it has in the past.

Second, within the context of a broad international alliance, I believe that Congress will support airstrikes against ISIS, taking on the group's leadership and infrastructure in both Iraq and Syria. The president's hand will be strengthened by congressional support, and he was wise to welcome it last night, but he already has the authority he needs, under both domestic and international law, to conduct such a campaign.

Under domestic law, the president has authority to act under Article II of the Constitution when necessary to defend the United States. The beheading of two American journalists, coupled with ISIS's threats against the United States and its training of Americans, provides sufficient basis for such action. Under international law, the president has authority to act in Iraq in accordance with the request of the government of Iraq. He has authority to act in Syria, because the Syrian government has proven unwilling or unable to address the ISIS threat from its ungoverned territories.

Third, we should train, equip, and assist those Iraqis and Syrians who are willing to fight ISIS. Their boots are on the ground already, and their own countries' future is at stake.

This effort should start with the Kurds. While limited in their military capabilities, the Kurdish Peshmerga have proven willing to fight in their own defense and even to take the fight to ISIS in key strategic areas near Kurdistan.

Moreover, the Kurds have provided some defense for nearby areas occupied by religious minorities and have taken in refugees fleeing from ISIS assaults, providing a haven of religious tolerance that has too often been absent in that part of the world. We should do all that we can to ensure that the Peshmerga has the equipment that they need and to help train them in the tactics that will succeed against ISIS.

But training and equipping the Peshmerga will not be sufficient to counter the ISIS threat outside the areas under Kurdish control. We should provide similar training and assistance to the Iraq armed forces as the new Iraqi government hopefully demonstrates that it is prepared to govern in an inclusive manner.

If anything should bring the Iraqis together in a common cause, the threat posed by the barbaric tactics of ISIS should do it. As Baghdad addresses the grievances of Iraq's Sunni communities which have helped give rise to the ISIS threat, Western nations should increase the level of military assistance provided.

Finally, we and our allies should take additional steps to openly train and assist the vetted, moderate opposition in Syria, as the president is requesting and has requested. Even if ISIS is pushed out of Iraq, the organization will survive unless it is also defeated in Syria. In Syria, as in Iraq, ISIS can be set back by airpower, but cannot be defeated without an opposing force to take the fight to it on the ground. That force needs to be a well-vetted moderate Syrian opposition force that is trained, equipped and supported by the United States and its allies, again, including partners among the Arab states.

In Iraq and Syria and Ukraine, the fight is for their people to win, but we can and should provide robust assistance to those who are prepared to fight for themselves against terror and aggression. It is the right thing to do, it reflects our values, and it is in our national interest.

U.S. military force is not always the answer, but it can be, and often is an essential part of the answer to terror and aggression. Equally important is an effective political and economic strategy, which in the case of ISIS must include both a broad international coalition with active participation by Arab nations and the establishment of a moderate, inclusive alternative in both Iraq and Syria.


GETLER: Thank you. Thanks very much. We'll get started by asking what roles do you see actually being played by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Arab allies, if there's to be a coalition and if Arab Muslim participation is crucial to some ultimate success. Is a public role possible for them? And if so, what might that be for those countries?

LEVIN: The public role is not only possible, it's essential. If we're going to turn the momentum against the extremists and the terrorists and the fanatics and the violence-users inside of that strand of Islam, it's got to be led by the mainstream Islamists. There's no alternative.

I believe it is possible now for two reasons. One is because of ISIS and who they threaten, and it is very clear that they threaten those same countries, the existence of the governments in those countries. And the second reason is that what the president is doing in asking for us to openly fund training and equipping under Title 10, he's asked for $500 million for training and equipping, and he's asked for specific support and authority to train and equip. He already has the authority, by the way.

The reason for asking for that open authority under Title 10, which means Defense Department personnel and not other personnel doing it covertly, is to show the Arab world that we are openly doing something which we have only done covertly, which I believe they will—which will help them to do the same thing. A number of those countries have provided support in the effort, for instance, against Assad, but they have not done it openly.

But for this effort against ISIS to work militarily in the short run, but in terms politically, to turn the strand of Iran—of Islam into a minority that has no political power, there's got to be open support of this effort, and it's got to be part of an open coalition which will show the Muslim world and the Sunni world, which is part of it, that this is an effort which is—which reflects the mainstream values of Islam, and it is for them to expurgate, to purge this poison that the strand has produced.

GETLER: Why haven't Muslim leaders in this country especially and elsewhere spoken out more publicly against ISIS?

LEVIN: I think they have spoken out publicly. I don't know that it's been covered adequately. But I think in other countries, they have not. A number of imams in other countries have, as a matter of fact, aided and abetted this—or the extremists, put it that way.

All the reasons, they could either flow from an ideological agreement or from a monetary support. There's all kinds of motivation that can be there, but the—it needs to be done more, because, again, this poison has got to be purged by Islam, and it's totally anti-Islam. I will always—I won't go into that anecdote, it takes too long, but a conversation that I had with Sadat reinforced my belief that mainstream Islam is totally inconsistent with what the fanatics are doing.

"If we're going to turn the momentum against the extremists and the terrorists and the fanatics and the violence-users inside of that strand of Islam, it's got to be led by the mainstream Islamists. There's no alternative."

GETLER: Just to get back to those three countries, I mean, do you believe that their role in a coalition—that's Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, for example—will be visible to the American public and visible to everybody in terms of actual contribution to a coalition and...

LEVIN: The hope is that it will be. That's what the effort is of Secretary Kerry and the president right now, is that it be open. It needs to be for it to be success—for this effort to be successful long term. And it's obvious that ISIS is a threat to them that I think now that they can do it openly without fear of retaliation in their own countries by a minority that will take to the streets.

GETLER: Yeah. I noticed the president actually didn't call for the ouster of Assad again, but how do you weaken and attack ISIS without strengthening Assad?

LEVIN: Because you go after both of the problems by various ways, inside of Syria, but mainly by training and equipping the forces that oppose those two alternatives, which are now in Iraq holding open a third alternative. The two alternatives—I'm sorry, in Syria, I misspoke—the two alternatives now in Syria are either Assad or ISIS. The moderates have been weakened, so you've got two alternatives.

The goal of the president is to have a third alternative that is offered in Iraq. And there's—it may be complicated to have both of these efforts going on in the same country, but for the most part, they will be focused in different parts of the country.

GETLER: Do you—most of the reporting has suggested that people are cautious about this whole approach, find it hard to imagine it working, or at least the recommendations that there had to be some kind of larger American military on-the-ground presence, not a lot of troops, but certainly a larger—or some force of special forces or something like that in order to give this a greater chance of success, this overall strategy.

Is that something you would agree with?

LEVIN: Not combat forces on the ground, no. I think it—number one, it is not necessary. Number two, it works against us politically. It doesn't lay the responsibility where it must fall, which is on the people in Iraq and Syria to achieve these goals by themselves, a unified Iraq, less sectarian than under Maliki, and a Syria which purges itself hopefully of both Assad and of ISIS.

GETLER: But there's such—I mean, the—the facts on the ground about the Iraqi army after all these years are not encouraging. And is there any reason to believe that that army is going to perform better?

LEVIN: The hope is that a new government, which is not sectarian the way Maliki was, will have the support of an army unlike the previous army, which was not willing to support a sectarian government in Baghdad.

GETLER: Senator, do you believe that there's—that the president is actually being drawn into another conflict or is intentionally being drawn into this conflict by ISIS and related groups? It's something that sort of they want for their strategy.

LEVIN: They might want it, but they won't want it after what they're going to face.


I mean, it's kind of hard to, you know, psychoanalyze people whose mentality is on a different planet from my perspective. So they may want it. They may want death. I mean, there's a lot of people who say that these folks want death, they want to be killed, they want to get to Heaven faster. If that's their wish, we should try to help them achieve that.


GETLER: Speaking of psychoanalysis, can you give...

LEVIN: Whoops.

GETLER: Could you give us your overall sense of the president's ability—I don't mean his personal ability—but his ability to pull all this together, to pull together a Congress, a coalition, a public? He's taken a terrible beating among the chattering classes and the pontificators in the last several months. His poll ratings have dropped. They may have gone up somewhat after these horrible beheadings and whatnot that have galvanized people, but he would appear to be at a stage where his foreign policy presence has been weakened, and yet he's got this huge challenge.

And how—among Congress and your sense—how well is he able to really pull this together at this time of his presidency?

LEVIN: He is able to do it, and I'll predict he'll succeed in doing this for a number of reasons. Number one, the American people want to respond to this threat. It's clear from the nature of the threat. It's clear from those—the beheading events that the American people want a strong response. And they'll support the strong response, which we saw yesterday from the president.

Secondly, the world community is going to galvanize here, and that's essential. This president really has had a number of kind of strains in his thinking, which I think are—the American people support. Number one is force as a last resort. Secondly, they want—I think they agree with this president in saying that we cannot achieve for others what they are unwilling to achieve for themselves. The people of Iraq and Syria have got to basically make the decision and fight for their own countries and their own freedoms.

We can help. We should help. But the main focus cannot be us invading a country the way it was in the Iraq war. And so that is another strand in the president's thinking.

And the third strand, which I believe the American people support, is that you need an international coalition, unlike Iraq, where it was a Western country going in without any Arab support, into a Muslim country, what this president has always focused on is coalition, a broad-based coalition, not just a Western coalition, which already I think is clear that there's going to be many Western countries that are going to participate in what the president has outlined. But having visible Arab support is what his goal is. And that is something which I believe the American people also support.

GETLER: Do you see a chance of this spreading into Saudi Arabia, for example, conflict?

LEVIN: Not in a big way. In terms of violent acts, there already have been violent acts in many countries, so I can't say there won't be violent acts in many countries. But in terms of a large-scale kind of civil war-type of an environment, I don't see it.

GETLER: Do you see this very intense focus on ISIS now, especially reinforced by the president's speech, as somehow providing Putin with an opportunity to do some things in Ukraine and the—that would perhaps have gotten more attention? In other words, perhaps he could...

LEVIN: I think he's kind of moving in the other direction, from this morning's reports, in terms of removing some presence there. But I don't think so. I think Ukraine is very, very much in the minds of this administration, and should be, and I hope that we find a way to not only add additional pressure with sanctions, until Putin lives up to international norms, but also provide additional military equipment to the Ukrainians.

Their president is going to be here next week. I've not met him, but he's from—what I read about him is an impressive person in terms of being a patriot, a Ukrainian patriot, but also in someone who's got some kind of business sense, which gives him a certain kind of cache, I think. But also, he's been, I think, strong relative to his comments about Putin.

"We cannot achieve for others what they are unwilling to achieve for themselves. The people of Iraq and Syria have got to basically make the decision and fight for their own countries and their own freedoms. We can help. We should help. But the main focus cannot be us invading a country the way it was in the Iraq war."

GETLER: Just two quick questions before we turn to the audience. One, this—at a time like this, where there's so much emphasis on what the world is really like today and a lot of conflict, on the other hand, the size of the army and the Marine Corps are continuing to decline. Does that bother you, as a leader of the Armed Services Committee?

LEVIN: I think we have to downsize somewhat. We're doing it in a cautious way. I am troubled by the hit that readiness has taken through some of the budget cuts. And there's been an effort with some success to restore the readiness, but we're going to have a somewhat smaller military, but that is always ready. That's the key, and that's the decision.

Where we've also shorted ourselves is on some modernization. So I believe that the whole sequestration decision looking back at it was wrong. Its purpose was not to be implemented. Its purpose—making these across-the-board cuts in the discretionary accounts, defense and non-defense, its purpose was never to be implemented. It was to force us to do something rational. It did not succeed in that regard, and I think we ought to find a way, frankly, to repeal sequestration. And if you had a half-hour, I'd tell you how I would do it, but I won't be around here to implement it, anyway, but that doesn't mean I can't leave some...

GETLER: You're OK with the troop levels...


LEVIN: ... with the—with the gradual reduction, I am.

GETLER: Yeah. And also, I know you've been to Afghanistan many, many, many times. And it's kind of receded, gotten off the map a little bit. But there is this sense—or, again, critics talk about the—how the withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq has perhaps contributed to the ascension of ISIS. And just give us a quick look at the situation in Afghanistan, if you wouldn't mind.

LEVIN: In Afghanistan, the glass is at least half-full and I believe getting fuller. That's not the perception of the American people. I think the media coverage of Afghanistan has been so overwhelmingly negative, focusing on the bad events, the sad tragic events, the violent events, which are there, but not focusing at all on the accomplishments which are really quite extraordinary, in terms of the number of kids that are going to school, including girls. Forty percent of the students now are girls. Forty percent of the teachers are women. The opening of universities, the—Kabul is a totally different place in terms of business, in terms of people on the streets than it was five or six years ago, much less 10 years ago.

I've been there a dozen times. It is visible what the difference is in Afghanistan. The Afghan people are glad we came. The Afghan people, according to their polls, believe we've had some real success in Afghanistan, we being, by the way, a coalition. How is it the American people overwhelmingly think it's a failure? How does that happen?

Well, where do the American people get their information from? They get it from our media. And if the media doesn't cover the positive side of the story, the American people are understandably going to say it looks like we failed in Afghanistan.

I think Bob Gates maybe put it as well as could be put. He said this is the first war that he has ever seen that—Afghanistan is the first war that he's ever seen that the closer you get to it, the better it looks.

GETLER: Well, OK. We will now get close to our audience. Again, please wait for the microphone, speak directly into it, state your name, affiliation, stand up, of course, and keep your comments to questions and brief ones, please. Yes?

QUESTION: Thanks. Senator, I'm Barbara Slavin. I'm with the Atlantic Council, and I also write for I want to go back to the Assad question. The Syrian moderate opposition, so-called, has not gotten its act together in the last three years. It has been feckless at best, both politically and militarily.

It seems a huge leap of faith now to think that we really can create an alternative in that country. And if I could tack on an associated question, if one assumes that eventually you do have to get rid of Assad to get rid of ISIS, don't we have to work with the Iranians in order to engineer that? Thanks.

LEVIN: Well, we're not going to work with the Iranians to do that. Their motivations are different from our motivations. They support Assad; we don't. And is it a complex situation? Yes. Is it achievable? I believe it is achievable. Is it a huge challenge? Of course it is. But there are going to be forces trained and equipped to go after ISIS. There are going to be continuing training and equipping, hopefully much expanded, of forces that want to keep the heat on Assad.

It's a large country. The—most of the territory, which is effectively governed by ISIS, is in the different part of Iraq than the part that is essentially governed by Assad. And there's also parts that are governed by the moderate—so it's complex, but it has to be done, and I don't know of any better alternative. I just don't know of a better alternative than what the president laid out.

I mean, if we—sending in troops—U.S. troops and Western troops in there, if any of the people who are critical of this want to do that—and there may be some—then they should say so. But I heard some of the Republican criticism. It's been—even before the speech, by the way—this isn't your question, but it gives me an opportunity to pick a bone anyway with some of the—some of the partisanship here.

I have never seen—never seen such virulent partisanship in 36 years, particularly in the area of international policy. I mean, I was a critic of President Bush's going to war in Iraq. I voted against it. I thought it was a mistake. And then the vote was there, and I joined in supporting our troops.

But it was never virulent. It was never continual. It was never just rat-a-tat-tat against Bush. It was you agree with him or you disagree with him. You disagree with him, you're civil, you say why, and you move on. I mean, on the eve of the president's speech, Mitch McConnell on the floor—and I was there when he made it yesterday—attacks the president on every single thing. The president's to blame for everything in foreign policy, he was focusing on that. This on the eve of a president's speech.

I've seen Republicans in a highly partisan way attack the president when he's abroad. We would never do that when a president's abroad. So the Republican partisanship against this president has reached a level I have never seen in 36 years.

Now, that's not a response to your question, but thanks for bearing with me.

GETLER: Yes, this gentleman.

QUESTION: Thank you. Jonathan Broder from Congressional Quarterly. Senator, have you given any thought to what Plan B ought to be if the ground forces that we're counting on to defeat ISIS, both in Iraq and Syria, don't, if ISIS beats them?

LEVIN: Well, I think, first of all, you've got to fully flesh out the coalition and to see how that works. And as you do that, you obviously want a Plan B, but I think that the Plan A is being fleshed out militarily, and I—the focus has got to be on fleshing out Plan A.

You know, I don't think there's a Plan B that has come to anyone's mind, because if there were a better plan than this one, I think people would have proposed it. And I haven't heard too many alternatives to this plan. I've heard a lot of criticism, but I haven't heard of many alternatives.

So the answer is, I think that we should and hopefully will both inside the Pentagon, inside the State Department, inside the White House be working on alternatives as this is underway. But I don't think there's a fully fleshed Plan A yet, in terms of a coalition being put together, and so it's got a hard—personally I have not. Do I think it's being thought of? I hope so, Plan B.

GETLER: Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Lloyd Hand, King & Spalding. Mr. Chairman, thank you for your comments. And particularly in light of your—the end of your comments to the previous questioner here, I heard you say—and I appreciate and raise the need for congressional support. But in light of that current attitude preventing the Congress, how do you see that happening? And when do you see that happening?

Incidentally, it was reassuring to hear from some responsible Republicans, Democrats, some bipartisan support for that in the press this morning.

LEVIN: Good. Well, I think it will get—the president's proposal will get bipartisan support. I think some of the strident voices there hopefully now against the president are going to now cool it for a while, while we try to see if we can't find a way to support the president, whether it's through a new AUMF, a new Authority for the Use of Military Force, or whether it's through a resolution of support, whether it's through supporting the funding that he's asked for the training and equipping on their—this is Title 10, which sounds technical, but that gets to the question of the openness of the support, which is so critical to the issue of gaining Arab open support, which in turn is so critical to long-term success.

So I believe there will be bipartisan support for it—I don't know the form, because there's many ways you can express support here. The AUMF approach has got some complexities to it, as we saw from the last AUMF, which is still in effect 11 years later.

So I hope now—in terms of timing—I hope we can come up with a—some mechanism of support, whether it's a combination of supporting the Title 10 request for train and equip money, which I surely hope we're going to do before we leave, whether it's in addition to that, some kind of a resolution of support, which is perhaps less of a legal document, which is what an Authorization for Use of Military Force is, because that is in law and it could be more possibly some kind of a sense of the Congress resolution of support.

I hope we can do something in that area before we leave, as well as the Title 10 financial support for the $500 million. And I think both of those are possible. The AUMF, if it comes to be, I think a longer—take a longer time to figure that out, because, again, that is a legal binding document, which has some implications in terms of how long a period, what are the limits of the force, you got to work out some language which you as a fantastic lawyer know takes some time.

GETLER: Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Jim Slattery from Wiley Rein. Senator, great to see you.

GETLER: Hold on.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for 36 incredible years in the United States Senate.


QUESTION: I've always valued you—your leadership. I want to come back to the question that Barbara Slavin's raised. Are we certain, absolutely certain that Iran is not willing to play a constructive role in dealing with Assad and replacing him somehow? And is there an opportunity for us to have a conversation with Iran about replacing Assad as we deal with ISIS, which they clearly see as an immense threat to them?

And, you know, I am puzzled by why today we are just paralyzed, it seems like, in dealing with opportunities where the enemy of our enemy may be our friend, at least for a period of time, and why we're unwilling to seize these moments. I've been involved for 10 years in an Abrahamic outreach to Iran. And so it's totally a passion for me and a pro bono project, but I strongly believe, Senator, if we do not deal with Rouhani and Zarif and the others around him, God help us in dealing with Iran over the next 5 to 10 years.

I just want us to be as creative as we possibly can be in dealing with this situation. So thank you again for your leadership.

GETLER: So your question is, are we paralyzed, I guess?

QUESTION: And also, are we certain that Iran is not open to helping us deal with a post-Assad Syria?

LEVIN: I can't say that I'm certain of anything in the Middle East, first of all.


With the—those nations, with Iran, with the Iraqi leadership. There are some things I am certain about in the Middle East, but we won't go into that, and that's not your question, that most of the things that you ask about I can't say I am certain about. Does that mean we can...

QUESTION: Should you explore that?

LEVIN: I don't—I don't see how you explore dealing with Iran on this area. At the same time, we're, I believe, wise in trying to explore with Iran a way of making sure that they don't get to a nuclear weapon. I think they would—if you tried both at the same time, I think they would somehow or other get intertwined, and the nuclear piece is so important that we succeed, that just hanging onto that possibility is difficult enough, frankly, without talking about adding another complex issue to it.

So I just don't think it is practical. I don't think it's wise to see if that is a possibility, what you describe, at the same time we're negotiating hopefully or discussing a way to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon, because if that doesn't succeed, the ramifications are huge. And we shouldn't do anything which could upset it or raise their expectations that something that we are talking to them about in Syria might mean that maybe we wouldn't be as tough on them in negotiations on the nuclear side.

GETLER: This lady behind you, yeah. I'll get you next.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Frances Cook. I'm now a consultant. Senator, thank you for your service. One of my fondest memories in Oman, my last assignment overseas, was your visit with Senator Warner, we had a Democrat and a Republican traveling with a Republican secretary of state who was working for a Democratic president. That kind...

LEVIN: Those were the good old days.

QUESTION: That—that seems almost like the Peloponnesian Wars now. You've got a room here of foreign affairs professionals. Can you give us any hope or give us some idea of what could be done? We're making people overseas very nervous if we have trouble putting together this coalition, because they think we're a kind of hapless giant right now because of what's going on in Washington. Dick Cheney was on the Hill testifying this week, too.

LEVIN: Don't get me there.


QUESTION: I mean, him saying that Obama supports the Muslim Brotherhood, when that gets into the Egyptian echo chamber, it's a real problem for us.

LEVIN: Don't get me started on Dick Cheney.

QUESTION: What can we do? What can we do?

LEVIN: What we can do is continue to look for ways to be bipartisan. I come from a state that produced Arthur Vandenberg, who was a giant. He was heroic. He helped Truman succeed with NATO and all the other things which they were able to do after World War II. And he had to change his position, by the way, to do it. He had been an isolationist before World War II.

So I know how essential it is. And it's really—at the moment, if we're going to get Arab and Muslim countries to openly get involved in this coalition, we have got to be bipartisan here. If they see us squabbling and not agreeing on things we agree on—I mean, we—OK, you can start arguing about whether or not we should've made a greater effort to leave troops in Iraq after the Iraqi government said they wouldn't sign an agreement with us that our troops would be protected. I mean, there's so much history you can argue about, and I'm more than willing to argue that and a bunch of other issues, but right now, the issue is whether or not the body politic in this country is going to pull together to go after a real threat, to us and to the world. That's the question.

Ninety-five percent of us think we ought to go after them. When I say us, in the Congress, I think. You just took a poll, should we go after them, ISIL, ISIS, the answer is, I think 95 percent of us would say yes. Given that—and it's a pretty strong feeling on this issue, and a strong feeling on the public. You know, 70 percent of the public now thinks we ought to do it, too. For heaven's sake, in this circumstance, can't we then pull together, drop some of that partisan stuff that we heard from McConnell on the floor yesterday on the eve of the president's speech?

I just don't understand why he thought that would somehow or other either help this country or politically help his cause. I don't get it. But the answer to your question is, just the way I believe that ISIS ought to be cement, glue that brings talking the Muslim world, 99 percent of whom have got to hate ISIS, just the way ISIS can be a mechanism to unify the Muslim world and to expel that poison, that element of poison that is there and needs to be expelled, I think ISIS can have that effect, positive effect in the Muslim world to unify. For heaven's sake, the same point applies to us.

GETLER: Yes, sir? This gentleman here first.

QUESTION: Thank you. Jack Goldstone, Woodrow Wilson Center. Senator, you have far more experience in this region than I do, and so I defer to your insight, but I come back to this question about Syria and Iran. ISIS is already using American weapons that were captured from moderates we tried to equip. If we're going to...

LEVIN: That's not necessarily true. The weapons that they captured may not have been—according to that story—even American weapons, but keep going.

QUESTION: If we're going to make the moderates in Syria a strong and effective force, it's going to require some input of American advisers, trainers, supervisors. Iran already has boots on the ground in Syria supporting Assad. The Sunni coalition that is vital to the success of this effort may be perceived by Iran as a threat, a Sunni coalition aiming to displace a government they're supported.

How can we not be talking to Iran if we're building a Sunni coalition in the region, if we're putting American efforts into opposing a regime that they support? If they don't feel part of this effort, it may destroy all the efforts we've made to make progress in the nuclear and other areas.

LEVIN: If Iran doesn't feel part of the effort? Well, they're already there, so they're already making an effort without being part of a coalition. And, secondly, the government of Iraq has got—if they want to talk, which they obviously do, with Iran, they can do it. That's got to be the filter, though. It can't be direct conversations with Iran for practical reasons, I believe.

Look, I'm someone who very strongly believes that we ought to be negotiating with Iran on the nuclear side against some very strong opposition to even talking to Iran on the nuclear side. That to me is the number-one goal right now is to avoid that catastrophe of Iran getting a nuclear weapon. And I think this could muddy that water and confuse and complicate those negotiations, if in another area we're relying on Iran, because I think it could help—it could raise their expectations. Somehow or other, it could affect what they calculate we might be willing to do on the nuclear side, and I don't want them to change their calculus.

I want them to know how serious we are and the people negotiating with them are that they not get to a nuclear weapon and think that somehow or other, if they're in a coalition over in a different area, that that could in any way change our position or weaken our resolve on the nuclear side.

GETLER: Yes, ma'am?

QUESTION: I'm Mitzi Wertheim. I'm with the Naval Postgraduate School. This has been a fabulous discussion. My question is for you. How do we get the media to explain the story the senator has been telling us? And I understand you all do it for wanting to be the first (inaudible) on conflict, but I think you have to start demanding from Congress that they talk together. I mean, I remember when Condi Rice was sort of talking about all this, and I said, how can we sell democracy if we can't make it function here? So...

GETLER: Well, the media is...

LEVIN: Do you have a mic on?

GETLER: Yes, I do.


I'm not going to say anything, though. It's a strange beast. I think the senator comes at his views on coverage of Afghanistan from where he sits. I would argue generally—and I really haven't studied the press broad coverage on Afghanistan recently—but I would argue that if you go back and look at major news organizations, they've probably done a reasonable job.

The problem with—I think with press coverage often is that when the action stops or when American troops are gone, the press coverage goes with it. And I think that happened in Iraq, and it happened in Afghanistan, as well. In Iraq, there was intense coverage and very heavy coverage and many, many reporters there. When the withdrawals began and U.S. casualties went way down, the coverage actually went way down. At least that's my recollection.

And so one of the weaknesses of the press is perhaps that when Americans are not directly involved, especially when they're being killed or wounded in combat, there's less of a focus on these spots about the aftermath of—and I think that's in part responsible because there are not enough foreign correspondents, because of very expensive coverage, and so I think you'd find in almost any conflict that there's a very significant drop-off in daily press coverage.

QUESTION: And educating the public.

GETLER: Well, they're there to report. They're not teachers. I mean, they're not there to educate. They're there to report what's going on. But that—the interest level drops both among, I think, editors and perhaps the public, and they've tied together, when the U.S. involvement drops.


QUESTION: Hi, Elisa Massimino with Human Rights First. Senator, again, thank you. I want to add my thanks to your—for your service and your leadership, which have been so important. It sounds like you and the president agree that he has the authority to move as he's described, but it sounds like maybe for different reasons. You cited Article II. He, I think, has said he has authority under the 2001 AUMF.

And while it may sound like an arcane legal question, I think one of the concerns that we've had is that the open-endedness of the AUMF, which I think you have also shared some concerns about that, ultimately while it gives maximum flexibility might undermine support for the war effort.

And one of the lessons maybe we can learn is building that support requires kind of an understanding and clarity about what our mission really is for Americans to support this for the long term. Can you talk a little bit more about what you think the risks might be for open-ended authorization for the use of military force, either how it's been used under the 2001 AUMF or potentially under Article II of the Constitution?

LEVIN: Well, we've seen the AUMF that was adopted in 2002 for—and used in 2003, be used far afield from the area of interest at the time. Then we get into these legal arguments as to whether or not the groups that we go after or pursuant or with that authority—it's not pursuant, technically, but with that authority—are somehow or other connected adequately to the group that we were going after. I mean, it's a legal document. And it's got to be done with some real care.

By the way, it was not done in many of the conflicts that we've seen. We didn't have an AUMF in Kosovo. We didn't have an AUMF in Bosnia. We didn't have an AUMF in Libya. Now, so—you know, we've never had an AUMF just using airpower, by the way, and we've not always had an AUMF even where there was ground forces.

So I believe the president should get bipartisan support. I think his policy is right. You can disagree as to how we get here, how we got here, but I believe the policy that he has laid out is right. And for us to at this moment kind of disagree on technical wordings of an AUMF, which is law, instead of coming up with a—for perhaps a joint or a concurrent resolution supporting what he's doing with its—its limits, by the way, no ground troops, for instance, relying on a coalition. I mean, these are limiting factors. These are themes of this president which I happen to share.

But I think it gets to the point about, are we going to now try to overcome the complexities of an AUMF, which will be a divisive debate, probably, a complex debate, maybe a partisan debate? It leads to that, because it's such a legal document which is binding law, instead of pulling together in some way supporting the Title 10 funding and maybe having a resolution, a sense of the Congress resolution supporting what 90 percent of us support on it.

Leave out the parts where we disagree. Just put in there the parts we agree to show the world that we're supporting this policy. Not everybody, obviously, supports the president. But I think 80 percent, 90 percent of us—and I better stick with the 90 percent, or else I'll be looking inconsistent—I think 90 percent of us believe that this policy is right.

Some don't think it goes far enough. Some might think it goes too far. I think 90 percent of us think it's pretty close to being on target. We've got to go after these guys. They're a threat to us, to the region. We've got to have a coalition to be effective. I think people feel that. We've got to get the people who live there to carry the brunt of the fight. The people whose country it is have got to carry the brunt of the fight. It can't be us carrying the fight for them. It's got to be us assisting them.

I think those themes, those principles have general support in the Congress and in the American people, and we ought to focus on where we can agree right now, instead of trying to figure out in the next two weeks exactly what the parameters are of a law which is permanent law, which is an AUMF, which goes on forever unless there's a limit on it.

OK, now we could spend a week debating, well, how long should the next AUMF be in effect? That's a really good debate. That's—you know, that's an honest kind of debate we ought to have before we adopt an AUMF. How long should it be in existence? What limits should be in there?

And I just think that's the wrong message for the world right now, is to have that kind of a debate, which we may not be able to conclude in two weeks, without the Foreign Relations Committee having hearings on it, trying to put together a legal document, instead focus on where we can agree, which I think is the case, the funding, $500 million, training and equip, and some kind of a sense of the Congress resolution being supportive of a policy which is strong, which is what the president laid out last night.

GETLER: Unfortunately, we don't have any more time for debate. So this has been a very good exchange. Thank you, everybody. I'll remind you it's all on-the-record.


Top Stories on CFR


Experts argue that Mexico affects daily life in the United States more than any other country. For years, U.S. and Mexican officials have attempted to tackle immigration, trade, and security challenges, and their success has depended on cooperation. With so much at stake, Why It Matters investigates the complex relationship and the factors that threaten it.   


To maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait, U.S. policy will need to adjust to deal with a more capable and assertive China.


Over the two centuries since Colombia’s independence, the relationship between Washington and Bogota has evolved into a close economic and security partnership. But it has at times been strained by U.S. intervention, Cold War geopolitics, and the war on drugs.