The president said in an wide-ranging interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that the Islamic State militants went “underground” after being squashed in Iraq and regrouped amid the Syrian civil war.
“During the chaos of the Syrian civil war, where essentially you have huge swaths of the country that are completely ungoverned, they were able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of that chaos,” Obama said.
The president said his director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has acknowledged that the U.S. “underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.” He also said it was “absolutely true” that the U.S. overestimated the ability and will of the Iraqi army.
Obama also acknowledged that the U.S. is dealing with a conundrum in Syria, as the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State is helping Syrian President Bashar Assad, who the U.N. has accused of war crimes.
“I recognize the contradiction in a contradictory land and a contradictory circumstance,” Obama said.”We are not going to stabilize Syria under the rule of Assad.”
However, Obama called the threat from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and other terror groups a more “immediate concern that has to be dealt with.”
“On the other hand, in terms of immediate threats to the United States, ISIL, Khorasan Group — those folks could kill Americans,” he said.
In terms of Iraq, Obama said the U.S. left the country after the war with “a democracy that was intact, a military that was well-equipped and the ability then (for Iraqis) to chart their own course.”
However, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “squandered” that opportunity over roughly five years because he was “much more interested in consolidating his Shia base and very suspicious of the Sunnis and the Kurds, who make up the other two thirds of the country,” the president said.
Obama said military force is necessary to shrink the Islamic State’s capacity, cut off financing and eliminate the flow of foreign fighters. He said political solutions are also needed that accommodate both Sunnis and Shiites, adding that conflicts between the two sects are the biggest cause of conflict throughout the world.
However, Obama made clear he has no interest in a major U.S. ground presence beyond the 1,600 American advisers and special operations troops he already has ordered to Iraq. When asked if the current conflict was not really a war, Obama said there are clear distinctions between this campaign and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We are assisting Iraq in a very real battle that’s taking place on their soil, with their troops,” the president said. “This is not America against ISIL. This is America leading the international community to assist a country with whom we have a security partnership.”
Obama also discussed the midterm elections, U.S. relations with Russia and reviewed his six years as president.
Obama described his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin as “blunt,” saying Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is threatening progress made since the Cold War.
“I’ve always had a business-like relationship with (Putin)– and it’s blunt and it’s firm,” Obama said. “And what I’ve said from the outset is that Russian aggression, violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a smaller or weaker country, violates international norms and is contrary to all the progress that’s been made in creating a peaceful and prosperous Europe after World War II and then after the Cold War period.”
Obama also said he believes Democrats can maintain control of the Senate in November.
“I can put my record against any leader around the world in terms of digging ourselves out of a terrible, un– almost unprecedented financial crisis,” Obama said. “Ronald Reagan used to ask– the question, ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ In this case, are you better off than you were in six? And the answer is, the country is definitely better off than we were when I came into office…”
FoxNew.com / The Associated Press contributed to this report