Steve Kroft: How did they end up where they are in control of so much territory? Was that a complete surprise to you?
President Obama: Well I think, our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.
Kroft: I mean, he didn’t say that, just say that, “We underestimated ISIL.” He said, “We overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight.”
Obama: That’s true. That’s absolutely true. And I…
Kroft: And these are the people that we’re now expecting to carry on the fight?
Obama: Well, here’s what happened in Iraq. When we left, we had left them a democracy that was intact, a military that was well equipped, and the ability then to chart their own course. And that opportunity was squandered over the course of five years or so because the prime minister, Maliki, was much more interested in consolidating his Shiite base and very suspicious of the Sunnis and the Kurds, who make up the other two-thirds of the country. So what you did not see was a government that had built a sense of national unity. And if you don’t have…
Kroft: Or an army.
Obama: Or an army that feels committed to the nation as opposed to a particular sect. Now the good news is that the new prime minister, Abadi, who I met with this week, so far at least has sent all the right signals. And that’s why it goes back to what I said before, Steve, we can’t do this for them. We cannot do this for them because it’s not just a military problem. It is a political problem. And if we make the mistake of simply sending U.S. troops back in, we can maintain peace for a while. But unless there is a change in how, not just Iraq, but countries like Syria and some of the other countries in the region, think about what political accommodation means. Think about what tolerance means.
Kroft: And you think we can teach them that?
Obama: Well, I think there’s going to be a generational challenge. I don’t think that this is something that’s going to happen overnight. They have now created an environment in which young men are more concerned whether they’re Shiite or Sunni, rather than whether they are getting a good education or whether they are able to, you know, have a good job. Many of them are poor. Many of them are illiterate and are therefore more subject to these kinds of ideological appeals. And, you know, the beginning of the solution for the entire Middle East is going to be a transformation in how these countries teach their youth. What our military operations can do is to just check and roll back these networks as they appear and make sure that the time and space is provided for a new way of doing things to begin to take root. But it’s going to take some time. And in the meantime, what I can…
Kroft: You’re saying buy them time, so they can get their act together?
Obama: Yeah, but in the meantime, it’s not just buy them time, it’s also making sure that Americans are protected, that our allies are protected.