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Week In Politics: U.S. Policy On Islamic State, 2016 Presidential Race

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Time now for our Friday political conversation with E J Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and sitting in for David Brooks this week, Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review and Bloomberg View. Gentlemen, welcome.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

RAMESH PONNURU: Thank you.

SIEGEL: We've just heard about ISIS and criticisms of U.S. policy in Iraq. E J Dionne, first of all, we heard Senator Lindsey Graham talking about how he holds the Obama administration, not the George W. Bush administration, accountable for what's happening. Is it fair to say that by now Iraq is owned by this administration, not the last one?

DIONNE: Well, this last couple of weeks has been a festival of recrimination, and I must say, it's disappointing to hear Jeb Bush engage in demagoguery saying that President Obama is - quotes a president who believes that America is not a force or presence for good in the world. That's not what Obama believes. Obama believes in Iraq that if the Iraqis aren't willing to fight for themselves we can't fight for them. So of course Obama...

SIEGEL: We've been trying to train them and encourage them to fight for themselves for years now.

DIONNE: Right, and that we have also tried to get them to build a government in which - that's dominated by Shia, who are the majority in which Sunnis feel comfortable. And there's a lot of reaction against the Sunnis. So yes, the current situation the administration has to take responsibility for, and there will always be a debate over whether any of this would have happened if we hadn't invaded Iraq.

SIEGEL: Ramesh, the current situation, what do you make of it? Do you accept the idea that there are ups and downs in war? This may be a down, but it's hardly a being down for the count.

PONNURU: Well, I couldn't help but be reminded of a lot of what we heard from the George W. Bush administration and Donald Rumsfeld from 2004 to 2006 in that Atlantic interview when President Obama said that he's talked to military commanders and they say we're not losing. That's exactly what they were saying during the depths of our struggles in the Bush administration in Iraq. And I wonder if part of the problem this administration is going to have or is setting itself up to have is not just that it bears some amount of responsibility that can be debated for what's going on in Iraq, but that it seems to be denying what is apparent to everybody else. When ISIS is expanding operations in Saudi Arabia, that doesn't sound like it's losing.

DIONNE: And the very sentence I don't think we're losing is hardly a great rallying cry. I mean, let's just say that out front. I think part of the problem is that our real purpose for the time being is to contain ISIS. And until these breakthroughs we had had some real success in doing that, but these have ignited opposition to the president's policy. I don't think we know what kind of issue this is going to be for another six or eight months because I think it is possible that they can take these cities and that the Iraqi government can eventually get its act together. But I still think it's going to be up to the Iraqis.

SIEGEL: Well, Ramesh, can you imagine a candidate for president in 2016, or President Obama for that matter, saying things have gotten so bad over there that we actually have to send in more than a token number of special forces? We have to - we have to think about a second or a third Iraq war as the case may be.

PONNURU: Well, the polling I've seen suggests more support for that than I would have expected, but it is still going to be an uphill climb. And it's going to be something that any candidate is very skeptical of and rightly is going to have a high bar before coming out for.

SIEGEL: E J, can you imagine another major effort in Iraq?

DIONNE: Well - can I - no. I can't see...

SIEGEL: No, that's off the table.

DIONNE: Yeah, right.

SIEGEL: All right. OK, onto another issue then, the one that turns Republicans into Obama supporters and Democrats into Obama skeptics - the Washington alphabet soup of TPA for TPP - Trade Promotion Authority for the Trans Pacific Partnership. E J Dionne, explain why it is that Democratic presidents for a quarter century have been for big trade deals and they cannot seem to bring along the Democratic Party behind that position.

DIONNE: Well, it's even slightly more odd than that because Democratic presidents are elected often as skeptics of trade deals and then engage in them once they're president. President Obama famously said in the primaries that he actually wanted to renegotiate NAFTA and then Austan Goolsbee, his aide, said to - spoke to Canadians and this leaked and he said well, don't really believe that. I think the president is looking at this primarily as a foreign policy issue, and the United States needs a strong role in Asia.

It doesn't want China to write all the rules. And Democrats look at this and say trade unbalance may have been good for the country as a whole, but it's really hurt a lot of lower-middle-class, working-class Americans. And all the promises that are made to them about redress never happen. And so it's not surprising that Democrats say no to these deals.

SIEGEL: Ramesh, can you make an argument that middle-class Americans would have more and better jobs if there were a big Pacific trade deal, given - say, that we have a trade deal with South Korea and we don't seem to export very much to the South Koreans?

PONNURU: Well, I don't think that it is possible to say that it's going to be a huge economic boon. But most economists do think based on what we know, which is not the full story yet about the TPP, that it would be positive. The thing that really I find striking is the degree of irritation and annoyance that comes into President Obama when he's talking about the Democrats on the other side of this - that he really sounds as though he thinks that Senator Elizabeth Warren and other leading opponents are just being demagogues on this issue.

SIEGEL: He thinks that, yeah.

DIONNE: He really - yeah, no. Ramesh is right. It really is striking how annoyed the president gets, which kind of surprises me because on my hunch is that if he were a senator from Illinois...

SIEGEL: He'd be against this deal.

DIONNE: He might well be against this deal.

SIEGEL: I guess it's the (unintelligible). OK, a little bit of time for some notes on 2016. First of all, Hillary Clinton is answering questions, Ramesh.

PONNURU: Well, a few questions. She took five minutes of press questions for the first time in a month, and so I guess sometime toward late June will be the next opportunity for that. And she wasn't all that forthcoming in her responses. The one - the most striking response for me was when she was asked about Sidney Blumenthal's emails to her as secretary of state. And she defended those as a way of getting outside the bubble, which is really - anybody who knows the history of Clinton and Sidney Blumenthal, that's an amazing statement to make.

SIEGEL: You think the follow-up question is which bubble is what you're asking.

PONNURU: Right.

SIEGEL: On the other hand, E J, on the Republican side we have no more David Letterman top 10 lists, but we have the Fox top 10 in the offing - explain.

DIONNE: I love that metaphor. By the way, the notion that the secretary of state gets outside letters, I do not see that as a scandal, but we can go from there. Fox is going to have a very hard time, you know, knocking it down to 10 because when you get down...

SIEGEL: Ten candidates will take part in the Republican primary race.

DIONNE: Right, and so they're going to base it on polling. But when you get that low in the polls, the difference between being 10 and 12 is probably four or five people in the polling. I cannot imagine what Republicans in the bottom tier are going to do to try to bump themselves up. But if you are excluded, you are deprived of that great moment that launches you from 10 to, say, six.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

PONNURU: A range in the Democratic debates will be a lot easier.

SIEGEL: A lot easier I should think. Ramesh Ponnuru and E J Dionne, thanks for talking with us.

DIONNE: Thank you.

PONNURU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.