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Despite Obama's wishful thinking, prospects grim in Middle East [Commentary]

In striving to sell his strategy for taking on the jihadist terror group the Islamic State, President Obama has offered a heavy dose of wishful thinking about the new Iraqi leadership and his coalition of the willing that includes Arab allies.

He spelled it all out on CBS's "60 Minutes" in response to questions from host Steve Kroft, who got the president to acknowledge that he had received bum information from James Clapper, his top intelligence chief. Then, as the saying goes, Mr. Obama threw him under the bus.

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He told Mr. Kroft rather indelicately that Mr. Clapper has acknowledged that the intelligence community "underestimated what had been taking place in Syria." Mr. Obama was referring to the rapid emergence of the Islamic State's well-armed fighting force in the no-man's land between Iraq and Syria, where it has proclaimed an Islamic "caliphate."

Mr. Kroft noted that "we underestimated ISIL," as the Islamic State is sometimes called, and that Mr. Clapper had said "we overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight." Mr. Obama acknowledged: "That's absolutely true," thus scapegoating his spy chief again.

The long interview was a useful window on Mr. Obama's rationales for engaging the Islamic State, and also on his optimistic expectations of others' promises to join the fight. Mr. Kroft reminded Mr. Obama of his earlier observation that "America must get off a permanent war footing." The president replied by distinguishing between counter-terrorism and putting American "occupying armies" in Iraq andAfghanistan, as his predecessor did and as he reluctantly continued on succeeding him.

So, Mr. Kroft asked, was the latest conflict "not really a war?" Mr. Obama argued: "This is not America against ISIL. This is America leading the international community to assist a country (Iraq) with which we have a security partnership."

The president went on to sugarcoat the outlook, saying "the good news is new Prime Minister (Haider al-) Abadi so far at least has sent all the right signals," creating a more inclusive government in Baghdad. Mr. Obama's guarded optimism, however, opens him to criticism of buying another pig in a poke.

He seemed to acknowledge that America is in for a long haul in this latest effort, probably extending beyond his presidency. "I think there's going to be a generational challenge," he said. "I don't think that this is something that's going to happen overnight."

Mr. Kroft suggested that Mr. Obama was saying he was "buying time" so Iraq "can get their act together." The president agreed, but added: "It's also making sure that Americans are protected, that our allies are protected." He referred here to the intelligence warning that jihadists holding American and European passports were threats to the home front, a way of injecting self-defense into the equation.

In all this, the president accentuated the positive, relying on the new Iraqi prime minister, himself a Shiite like departed Nouri al-Maliki, to produce a government around which a majority of Iraqis will eventually rally. Mr. Obama professed to see "some progress, I wouldn't say great, yet." He said Mr. Abadi's "instincts are right," but "whether he can pull it off is something that is going to be a great challenge, and we've got to give him the support we can in the process." Challenged byMr. Kroft that the new government has yet to stir enthusiasm among the restive Sunni majority, Mr. Obama said, "It's going to take time."

Time is a commodity in short supply for Mr. Obama. He has little more than two years left as president to fulfill his goal of getting America off a permanent war footing. Such cautious searching for sunlight in this grim and confused situation has come to be expected from this president, who for a long time also hoped to find a pony in the pile of manure left for him by obstructionist Republicans in Congress.

At least now he has been obliged to face, as he did in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, that in foreign policy as well as on issues at home, the buck stops at his desk.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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