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Obama Administration Forced To Defend Strategy Against ISIS In Iraq

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Obama administration insists American troops will not return to fight in Iraq. The self-proclaimed Islamic State has marked significant gains lately, including capturing the city of Ramadi. The White House has said the fight against ISIS or ISIL must be led by Iraqi forces. And on CNN yesterday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter blamed the fall of Ramadi squarely on Iraq's military.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")

ASH CARTER: They vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet, they failed to fight. They withdrew from the site. And that says, to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves.

MONTAGNE: For more on how the administration is handling this, we're joined by NPR's Mara Liasson. Good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, we just heard the secretary of defense questioning the will of the Iraqi military. But on Friday, Brett McGurk, an official with the State Department, told us something a bit different. He said the enemy that the Iraqis face in ISIS is stronger than the enemy insurgents that American and Iraqi forces fought together a decade ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BRETT MCGURK: They're better manned. They're better trained. They're better resourced. They're better fighters. And the Iraqis cannot bring to bear anywhere near the level of capacity that we could bring to bear. I think it puts in context how difficult this is going to be and how difficult we always knew this was going be.

MONTAGNE: Well, how - what, then, is the message of this administration?

LIASSON: Well, it sounds like the administration either doesn't have its talking points straight or there's just a difference of opinion between the State Department and the Pentagon. Either it's the fault of the Iraqi security forces who don't have the will to fight, according to Ash Carter, or, as one military official said, they weren't driven from Ramadi; they got in their cars and drove from Ramadi, or, as Brett McGurk just suggested, they were outmanned and out-resourced by ISIS. But this all feeds into the impression that the administration's strategy isn't working. It's why the White House is now looking at what else it can do short of recommitting a large force of combat troops to Iraq.

MONTAGNE: Well, given this criticism that you mentioned, how is this going to figure into the presidential campaign season well underway?

LIASSON: Well, it's already figuring in. Foreign policy is now the No. 1 issue for Republicans, and you hear all the Republican candidates blaming the president and, by extension, Hillary Clinton for the rise of ISIS. The president's been in office for six years. They - and they feel it's high time that he owned the situation there. But the debate in 2016 will also be about what to do about ISIS, not just whose fault it is. And that's where the argument gets a little murkier because few Republicans are willing to say that they'd go back into Iraq with combat troops.

MONTAGNE: And back in Washington, Congress was unable to finish up some important work before leaving for Memorial Day - extending surveillance measures in the Patriot Act. They expire on June 1. Is Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, going to get that done?

LIASSON: We don't know. The politics of extending the Patriot Act are really scrambled. You know, the House easily passed a bill that would reform the collection of bulk phone data, leaving it in the hands of the phone companies instead of the government. They passed it by big majorities. The White House supports this. It's unusual that the White House and the House are on the same side. But the Senate can't get 60 votes to pass that. They also can't get 60 votes to pass a straight extension of the existing Patriot Act.

Senator Rand Paul, who's running for president, has been filibustering this, and he wouldn't accept even a short-term extension of the Patriot Act. So the Patriot Act expires on Monday, June 1. The Senate is being called back for a rare Sunday session at noon on the 31. That gives them about 12 hours to pass something, and we don't know if they'll be able to do it. You know, Mitch McConnell has said he wanted to make the Senate more open, more open to amendments. He has. Sometimes it makes for progress. But he still needs 60 votes, and he's still got all those Republicans running for president.

MONTAGNE: Mara, thanks for joining us on this Memorial Day.

LIASSON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.