GWEN IFILL: We get two views now on how the president’s speech may be received in the Middle East and around the world.

Jessica Tuchman Mathews is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Raghida Dergham is a columnist and senior diplomatic correspondent for Al-Hayat, the Arabic language daily.

Thank you. Welcome to both of you.

So the president made the case, Jessica Mathews, for concerted international interventions. Was that the right case to make?

Jessica Tuchman Mathews
Mathews is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She served as Carnegie’s president for 18 years.
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JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: I think that speech hit it right on the nose for this audience, in that he was tough, but at the same time engaging.

He was, for the first time in a long time, not defensive and not backward-looking at the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but forward-looking, and the focus was not on what we’re not going to do, but what we’re going to do. So, he — I think the tone of this speech really finally captured a presidential tone that he has lacked recently, indeed of a world leader.

And you could see it in the room, that people were listening, were engaged, were sitting forward in their seats. And the applause at the end was much more than pro forma.

GWEN IFILL: Raghida Dergham, what is your sense of what he said and what he didn’t say and perhaps what he needed to say today?

RAGHIDA DERGHAM, Al-Hayat: I thought the president lost the opportunity to clarify a little bit what his strategy might be.

He sounded more of a preacher, to tell the Islamic world and the Arab world in particular, here’s the list of what you need to do, and rightly so. But what he didn’t address is, for example, Iran’s role in the region, regional ambitious, its role — ambitions, its role in Syria in particular, which is a problem for his allies in the coalition.

What he did not say is, for example, anything of the same language or similar language about President Bashar al-Assad, whom, in the past, from the podium of the G.A., General Assembly, he has called him a man who has lost legitimacy, and other times he has said your days are numbered, practically.

And this time, he was very lenient on Bashar al-Assad. He practically didn’t leave that message that there is an urgency to address that part of the problem, not only the ISIS problem. Notably also and significantly, in my view, he did not mention anything about Yemen, a place that is being taken over by the Houthis, who are very close to Iran.

And, therefore, that’s something that people were talking about. Libya, which is falling apart, got half a line. And I think there is a problem with that. But, all in all, his call for moderation was very important and his call on Arab countries to really put their effort in making sure there’s moderation is very important. But it’s just a call for the moment, and I think he needs to do more than that.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Jessica Mathews about that.

It was a very different speech than what he has delivered at the U.N. General Assembly in the past. Did it need to be?


And it — the contrast last year couldn’t have been stronger. That was a defensive speech. He was apologizing for things. He was uneasy in talking about America’s role. Today, he was confident in America’s role and unapologetic about both our strengths and our use of force, but also about two things, that the situation in Syria only had a political solution, and about the need to confront the ideology of violent extremism.

And I thought he did it without in any way being preachy or blustery or separating himself from everybody else in the room.

GWEN IFILL: But what about the part Raghida was just saying about Assad? Can ISIS be defeated and Assad allowed to stay?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Well, that — everybody knows that this is a tough line to follow. I think the most optimistic thing anyone can say that’s accurate is that our engagement now, our active engagement, both in the air and on the ground in training and equipping forces, provides an opportunity to perhaps get a cease-fire, to even the military forces on the ground and get a cease-fire from which you can move forward with a political solution. But it isn’t going to be easy.

GWEN IFILL: Another interesting point today, Raghida Dergham, the president decried the hypocrisy of wealthy nations that accumulate wealth, only just to enable some of these terror groups. And we actually heard King Abdullah of Jordan make a similar point. Is that speaking — is that speaking to anybody in particular that you heard?

RAGHIDA DERGHAM: To individuals, not to the states. Those states have been acting in alliance with the United States in fighting ISIS and other extremists who are right now part of the problem that is not for Syria and Iraq alone, but also for them.

So they have been very well aware of that. The trouble is that there are individuals who support these extremist, violent, terroristic groups. And these are the ones we should worry about. In order to — for these countries, their governments to either take action against them or at least bring, rally the public with the leadership in order to take action against them, you needed to give more.

The president needed to give more than simply say, here, you have a problem, and here’s how — the way you do it. You just do laws and then we will cooperate with intelligence and then end of the line.


GWEN IFILL: At the same time, however, we are hearing here, Jessica Mathews, that the heads of Al-Shabab and al-Nusra Front, and perhaps Khorasan, who we — the strikes that began earlier this week, have all been eliminated.




GWEN IFILL: Let me just ask Jessica Mathews this first.

How important is that piece of this to making the larger case at the U.N.?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Well, it’s enormously important, because it allows him — with U.S. planes in the air acting as effectively as they have, it underlines the strength of our intelligence. And that comes not just from our own, but from connections in the region.

And I think it underlines the strength of that American pledge, and that he repeated several times, we will not be deterred, we will not be distracted, we will not disengage, we will stay engaged in the region. This was a very different message than he has given before. There was none of the holding back and almost wishing we weren’t involved that we have heard so often before.

GWEN IFILL: Raghida Dergham, brief response?


Look, there has been a history of reluctance because of the president’s actions last year, going all the way to an execution of a threat and then backing down from it.

So the fact that he is now engaging in the fight in Syria, the fact that he has taken as his allies the Arab states and not the regime in Damascus that said, listen, here I am, I am your partner in fighting terrorism, this is important.

But it’s also quite important to know who are the boots on the ground. In Syria, it is that opposition, the moderate opposition, that it’s not enough to wake up and say, you know what, I should have armed you before. It’s not — it’s almost suicidal to tell them, you take care of this on your own.

So, you need elements. You need elements of going stronger, public pronouncement against Bashar al-Assad. And in Iraq, you also have the boots on the ground, the Sunnis, the moderate Sunnis, the ones who have done awakening before. And they’re saying that I’m not going to give you my blood for free. I’m not going to just — I need reassurances once again, because it’s happened before that I have come and helped, and then Iran was having the free hand in running Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: All right.

RAGHIDA DERGHAM: So we need other assurances. I should have — I would have…


GWEN IFILL: I’m sorry.


RAGHIDA DERGHAM: … to have heard that from the president today. I wish he did.

GWEN IFILL: All right. Raghida Dergham of Al-Hayat newspaper and Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thank you very much.



This interview was originally published on PBS NewsHour.