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Americans Vote in Midterm Elections; Battling ISIS Domination in Iraq and Syria; Imagine a World

Aired November 04, 2014 - 14:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST (voice-over): Tonight: President Barack Obama's popularity in the dark as millions of Americans vote in the U.S.

midterms. And the commander in chief's mission to degrade and destroy ISIS, Obama's senior envoy tells me it is a fight to the death.


BRETT MCGURK, DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: There are very few organizations on this Earth as ruthless and barbaric as this

organization. And the world has seen it now. And for those who are willing and ready to stand up to them, we're going to help them.



AMANPOUR: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in New York. And the battle for the state of the

nation is underway in hotly contested midterm elections. Much is at stake, but the main question seems to be who will win the Senate?

Latest opinion polls show that the Republicans are likely to take control and they already have the House of Representatives. So what would be the

fallout for a Democratic president's agenda during his last two years in office?

The popular news satirist, Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show," tells me that it's not just comic fodder.


the Republicans are going to win the Senate. They're going to increase the House. They're going to win the Supreme Court and the judiciary and

they're going to win a lot of the restaurants and lobbyists. They're going to win K Street.

So the only thing that they don't get, I think, is the presidency in this election. But if it goes the way they want, enough votes, they may get

that, too. They may -- Obama may have to leave as well.

AMANPOUR: He may very well.


STEWART: So they may get everything that they want. And from what I understand, their first order of business will be to destroy ISIS and

eradicate Ebola, if the commercials they've been running are to be believed.

AMANPOUR: So this is comedy as usual.

STEWART: Oh, this is major. This is not comedy as usual. This is a true changing point in American history.


AMANPOUR: Well, that's the satirical view, and we'll talk a lot more politics and films with first-time director Jon Stewart on tomorrow's show.

But now how did it get to this point? President Obama's popularity is at an all-time low, despite some crucial legislative victories. The

Republicans' relentless mantra about his failures seems to have stuck.

Joining me here in the studio are two keen commentators and observers of the election and U.S. politics. Gary Younge is the U.S. correspondent for

"The Guardian" newspaper and Brian Lehrer hosts his own daily radio show right here in New York on WNYC.

Good to have you both on the program.

So Jon Stewart was basically making a big joke and saying that this could be a pivotal historical moment, that everything could change.

Do you think, comedy aside, that these midterm elections are going to make a dramatic difference, Brian?

BRIAN LEHRER, HOST, "THE BRIAN LEHRER SHOW": Well, I think one of the big questions is how much are the Republicans going to be able to restrain

themselves if they do have both houses of Congress from putting all kinds of relatively radical bills on the president's desk and forcing him to veto

them, maybe making them look bad for the 2016 presidential election, to which they -- for which they don't have an advantage.

And you know, Jon's joke there about, oh, even maybe Obama will have to go, that was a joke but there are some who question whether the Republicans, if

they have both houses, will be able to restrain themselves from even trying to impeach Obama as a political act. I don't think it's going to happen.

But there are going to be voices that say, oh, we could maybe get him impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate and throw him out of

power. It's going to be interesting to see if that comes about.

AMANPOUR: I certainly wasn't expecting that. You really shocked me Brian.


AMANPOUR: But still, they have --

LEHRER: -- out of office but there are going to be some radical voices in the party, I think, who at least raise that.

AMANPOUR: And you, Gary, writing for a British newspaper, for a British mostly audience, how do you explain this story of this massively popular

president who's seen that popularity drain away and, as I mentioned, and others obviously have pointed out, the Republican mantra of his failure,

failure, failure seems to have stuck, despite his successes?

GARY YOUNGE, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, the story of the last six years has in part been Obama's inability to kind of get things through, to get things

through the system. And so largely I think in Europe, in general, people understand his failures. And to a certain extent misunderstand them partly

as him always only being obstructed.

And that's certainly the way I think many people think about him in Britain, because he's far more popular abroad than he is here.

AMANPOUR: And let's face it, there was the stimulus bill. There was 2.5 million jobs created. America actually has a much stronger economy than

anybody would have expected this time several years ago. Affordable health care act (sic), a lot of successes.

But let me ask you as well, because I think something that is very particular, probably to the United States, is this whole idea of

representative or non-representative politics, is happening at a time when we have what happened in Ferguson. I know you visited Missouri. You saw

the discontent there.

How are the sort of social dynamics playing into this election?

YOUNGE: Well, until relatively recently, I would say that they weren't particularly, that if you think of what happened since the presidential

election, the massacre in Newtown, Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, these major kind of talking points in American society have barely come up. And then

in the last weeks, the Democrats have been in some Southern states -- Georgia, I know, and North Carolina, raising some of these things on black

radio, for example, look, in Ferguson, they didn't vote and look what happened. This candidate supports a "stand your ground" law, the law that

allowed George Zimmerman to walk away. And I know in Arizona, for example, the gun control issue has come up.

But one of the things I find particularly peculiar about this election is the degree to which it doesn't seem to be about anything big, apart from

winning the Senate. In previous elections, they were called wave elections. There was 2010, the role of government; 1994, Gingrich and the

Contract America; 2006, the Iraq War.

This one doesn't seem to be about anything --

LEHRER: This is a stop Obama election, not a get something that we really believe in done election for the Republicans. And it's a midterm election.

So turnout is relatively low. Everybody loves a celebrity marquee race at the top of the ticket for president. We don't have that this time.

When I voted in New York today, they gave me this sticker, "I voted."

AMANPOUR: I hope we can get a close-up of that. Yes, indeed, because actually, apathy is quite the story.

LEHRER: Correct. And at the same time, when you talk about a representative democracy and is it a representative election, a lot of

people don't realize that in 2012, more Americans voted for Democrats for the House of Representatives than voted for Republicans. But because of

the gerrymandering, the district line drawing that Republicans were able to do after their wave election in 2010, the math doesn't equal out.

So Republicans have many more House of Representative seats but not more Americans are voting for them.

AMANPOUR: That is really interesting and all these sort of numbers and percentages make up a picture that many people might not fully understand.

But what about this idea of every two years there is a significant election here in the United States? Some have posited the very real question, can

one actually govern? Can one actually do anything?

YOUNGE: That's certainly one of the things that my readers in England can't fully comprehend.

Didn't you just have an election 2012? I thought it was a big fuss then. And a third of the Senate going after all of the seats is on. It is very

particular that every two years there will be national elections, but they won't be presidential elections. In Britain it's every five. Most

countries every four or five.

LEHRER: But you know, I would defend our bicameral system here in the United States. Two different houses where in the House they are constantly

running for reelection because it's every two years. And in the Senate, the Constitution says they get to sit for six years. And they can be more

deliberative and not have to worry about it every time. It keeps the House very close to popular opinion and it keeps the Senate in a good way a

little bit insulated from it.

AMANPOUR: So do you think, since the narrative of the last several years has been this dysfunction and this political partisanship and the gridlock,

obviously, would a Republican total control of Congress be more or less gridlock?

LEHRER: It might be the same amount of gridlock because nothing that the Republicans pass that's really a Republican agenda item is going to get

signed by the president. I think one of the interesting things to watch, if they do win the Senate, is will they be able to put wedge issues on the

president's desk, things that are just acceptable enough to the American people that are conservative that they put pressure on him.

But are they going to pass some kind of radical anti-climate change policy bill? Are they going to put some kind of radical anti-immigration bill,

anti-abortion bill and force the president to keep vetoing and vetoing, repeal of ObamaCare, which couldn't get through the Democratic Senate?

It's going to be interesting if we see this new form of gridlock actually take shape.

YOUNGE: I think the same things aren't going to get done, but there's going to be different excuses for why.

AMANPOUR: And what, of course, which most people want to know about, is the impact of these elections on the next presidential election because, as

you say, those are the marquee elections obviously. Everybody wants to know who's going to win.

I mean, first and foremost, do you think this election will see a reduction or an increase in Tea Party influence?

YOUNGE: I think a reduction. I think Tea Party voters are more likely than any other voters, including other Republicans, to vote. But their

candidates aren't doing great. In Wisconsin, Walker is struggle and in Kansas, which is one of the big stories, the government there, Sam

Brownback, is also struggling.

And I think that after 2010, we've had -- we had a taste of the Tea Party and it hasn't been able to deliver for its base. And I think it has, in

part, been blamed for the gridlock. Obama's also been blamed by the other side. But I think -- so I think there's going to be a reduction in that


LEHRER: I think the Tea Party has been very powerful in the House. They've managed with their minority in the House to control John Boehner,

the Speaker, and push through a lot of their agenda and stop him from making compromises with the president.

But the Democrats hold a big electoral vote majority for the presidency and one of the challenges, I think, for the Republicans, if they have both

houses of Congress, is to not look too radical, which would hurt their presidential candidate in 2016.

AMANPOUR: So we all prognosticators and we try to read the tea leaves way too far into the future.

On Wednesday, when all this is shaken down, who do you think? Is it Hillary Clinton? Is it Jeb Bush? Is it, I don't know, Rand Paul?

Who is going to be sitting there saying, wow, this shows a path for me to run for president?

LEHRER: Well, my personal opinion is that it doesn't change those dynamics, who wins the Senate. Hillary Clinton is still the prohibitive

favorite among the Democrats. I think Rand Paul is having a very good year among the Republicans and we'll see who else emerges.

But I don't think it hinges on who wins the Senate tomorrow -- tonight, in my opinion.

AMANPOUR: Well, we'll be watching.

Thank you both for being with us, Brian Lehrer, Gary Younge, thank you very much indeed.

And President Obama's 2008 election was defined in many ways by a promise to end wars and bring American troops home. So the last ones left Iraq in

2011. And today, of course, ISIS has filled that vacuum.

Up next, the president's special envoy to that fight tells me the mission to degrade and destroy ISIS is making progress.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

President Obama is in the fight of his life, not only trying to hang onto the Senate as we heard, but also trying to prevent ISIS from dominating

Iraq and much of that region. In Iraq, beleaguered Yazidis are begging for more help as ISIS tries still to wipe them off Mt. Sinjar. And the

battle for Kobani on the Syria-Turkey border is pivotal and it continues. And the French now say that Aleppo in Syria must also be saved, the heart

of the moderate Syrian opposition.

ISIS already controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq, including the critical Anbar province and as the president's deputy special envoy, Brett

McGurk, tells me, it is extremely difficult, with some progress and some setbacks.

But, he says, there is no walking away from this fight.


AMANPOUR: Brett McGurk, welcome to the program. Thanks for joining me.

MCGURK: Thanks for having me.

AMANPOUR: We want to get an update of where the United States and its allies are against ISIS and, look, we know that all of this intervention

started with trying to relieve the plight of the Yazidis.

Now the Yazidis are saying thank you very much, but you haven't finished the job. We still think that we are under the threat of genocide.

MCGURK: If you look at where ISIS was in June, pouring down the Tigris Valley, threatening Baghdad, pouring down the Euphrates Valley, threatening

Baghdad, we secured the defenses of Baghdad. Iraqi security forces are now starting to push up the Tigris Valley and they're making a lot of

significant gains, particularly in the Kurdistan region.

Sinjar Mountain remains a concern. It's a concern because ISIL wants to commit atrocities upon the Yazidis on that mountain. However, we are

watching Sinjar Mountain very carefully.

AMANPOUR: All right. So you have not abandoned the fight for Sinjar Mountain.

Is that how I'm reading you?

MCGURK: Certainly not. By no means. And in fact, we're watching the entire theater of operations and where ISIL tries to make a push and we

have the means and the abilities to push against them, we do it and we do it to tremendous effect.

I think if you look at what happened in Kobani, Kobani is where ISIL tried to make Kobani its main effort, really to close up a pocket of the border

that it has yet to control.

And what we've managed to do over the last month with our air operations, we've managed to kill hundreds of them, including their leaders. We've

managed now in working very closely with Turkey to reinforce that corridor.

AMANPOUR: About the finances, one of the big efforts was to try to get one of your allies, Qatar, to stop financing all sorts of extremists in that


According to reports, the Treasury Secretary official concerned with this, Mr. Cohen, has said that he is not satisfied that Qatar has stopped doing


What can you tell us about that?

How will you make Qatar stop this financing?

MCGURK: Well, I was just in Doha last week and we had very serious conversations with Qatari officials. We saw the foreign minister of Qatar

and others to talk about the financing to extremist groups. And they're fully committed to this coalition.

What we've seen from ISIL is that it's a unique extremist group in that it basically is a quasi-state entity. It controls territory like a state. It

controls resources like a state. And at this point, it's basically self- financing.

And that's why our primary effort cutting off ISIL's finances right now or going after the oil, the oil trade, destroying its mobile refineries and

making sure that it cannot self-finance.

AMANPOUR: OK. So let's move on to Iraq, which is clearly the -- sort of the focus of your efforts. A couple of things, Mr. McGurk.

One is how do you answer complaints that in various meetings that you've had there with senior officials and with General Allen that there's still a

mistrust of you yourself because of your close link with the former prime minister al-Maliki?

Amongst -- I'm saying a mistrust amongst the Sunni tribes, who you clearly want to bring into this game.

MCGURK: I can't speak for anyone about that. I've worked in Iraq for some time. I think I was very closely involved in the -- in the process over

the course of the summer that led to a new government and a new prime minister.

I can say we're working very closely with tribal leaders in Iraq. We're literally in almost daily contact with them. We have established

mechanisms in place so that they are in direct communication with our military partners, so we can get them the support that they need.

It's extremely difficult in Anbar province. ISIL has made a push in Anbar province, starting on January 1st, Christiane. We have to remember this.

Fallujah fell on January 1st of this year. ISIL tried to take Ramadi on January 1st of this year and they've been trying to take it every day


It's a cancer that has to be uprooted and that is why we are flying missions against ISIL, particularly in Syria, with our Gulf Arab partners.

And I can just promise you, Christiane, we're going to work extremely closely with the tribes and the new Iraqi government to make sure that they

have the means and the capacity to defend their communities and to fight back and to also expel ISIL from Anbar province. We're going to help them

do that.

AMANPOUR: You know, talking to me right now, you really feel and sound like you're in a fight to the death.

Do you believe that a sort of a 2008-style awakening will take place right there where you talk about it and where you clearly need it in Anbar?

MCGURK: It is very much a fight to the death. There are very few organizations on this Earth as ruthless and barbaric as this organization.

And the world has seen it now. And for those who are willing and ready to stand up to them, we're going to help them.

AMANPOUR: Again, you're correctly saying there are very few such barbaric groups. So then the question is you've outlined the coalition and your

aims and your mission.

Are you doing enough, even all that you've said, are you doing enough from the air?

Do you have enough people on the ground inside Iraq to raise up the divisions you need?

And will you have what's been reported as a spring offensive to break ISIS' grip?

MCGURK: Christiane, I'm not going to talk about the kind of operational planning that's ongoing. But I'll just assure you that there's a lot of

it. And we do have timelines in place for when certain operations will start. We're also being very prudent with expectations and given the

capacity of limitations of the Iraqis.

What I can say is that every single time we have worked with a local force on the ground and we have coordinated with them, with our special forces

who are in the field, and we've coordinated with them with our air coalition above, we have succeeded in defeating ISIL, not only defeating

ISIL, but actually routing them in some major battles.

What is happening now is there's an ongoing operation from Baghdad up to Baiji. You might recall the Baiji refinery has been under siege since

June, Christiane.

There's been about 150 Iraqi special forces soldiers and also regular army soldiers and some tribal elements and also some militias that have been

holed up in the Baiji refinery and they have fought off repeated major assaults from ISIL since June.

We're working very closely with the Iraqi security forces and the tribe to break the siege at that refinery. That's going to be a very difficult

operation, but it's ongoing. And we're working very closely now with the tribes in Anbar province to begin to turn the tide against ISIL in Anbar


But it's going to be hard. And one of the conditions, Christiane, I want to remind you, for any of this to work, we had to have a new Iraqi

government in place. We had to have the Maliki government out, which had been in place for eight years, and a new government to give new hope and

new opportunity and we have that now.

We now have in place in Iraq, Christiane, for the first time in five years a minister of defense, confirmed by the parliament. He's a Sunni Arab from

Mosul. He's a former air force commander in Saddam's army, actually. But he's a very well respected Sunni Arab officer.

And he is working directly with the tribes in Anbar province and in fact, Christiane, he was in Anbar province 48 hours ago at an air base there,

working with the tribes and talking to them about how we're going to coordinate the province and mobilize the population to fight back.

But it's going to be difficult and ISIL is also going to fight back. And there are going to be serious setbacks. And we are in this for the long

haul. And we are going to degrade ISIL and degrading them will take time. And then we're going to defeat them.

AMANPOUR: Fighting words, Brett McGurk. We really appreciate the time you've taken and thanks for laying all this out for us.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett McGurk from Washington, D.C.

MCGURK: Thank you, Christiane.


AMANPOUR: And a long haul indeed, many, many years, according to the U.S. Now Shiite Muslims are also on the ISIS hit list. But today in Iraq, they

defied threats and their fears.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims gathered at their holy shrine in Karbala for the period of mourning which is known

as Ashura. This commemorates the death of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad more than 2,000 years ago. It is an often bloody public show of

devotion on one of the Shiites' holiest days.

Now imagine a world where one of America's darkest days isn't just remembered but relived again and again. Echoes of the Iran hostage crisis,

another diplomatic battle now on celluloid, nest.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, it is the anniversary of an infamous day that came to represent the depths of a diplomatic estrangement between Iran

and the United States. As Iran's Islamic revolution raged outside its gates, the U.S. embassy in Tehran was overrun and ransacked this day in


Fifty-two Americans were held hostage inside for 444 days. Now imagine a world where 35 years later, both countries are in their most serious bid

yet for a diplomatic thaw with a possible nuclear agreement. And that very hostage crisis has become an inspiration for writers and filmmakers. Ben

Affleck's movie, "Argo," about the elaborate plot to rescue some U.S. diplomats won three Oscars last year.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've got an idea.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're a Canadian film crew for a science fiction movie. I'm flying to Tehran. We all fly up together as a film crew.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I need you to help me make a fake movie.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You'll fit right in.


AMANPOUR: And now, Jon Stewart, the host of "The Daily Show," the satirical take on the day's news, is focusing on Iran as he turns his hand

to filmmaking.

"Rosewater" opens next week. It's based on the plight of jailed Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari. A rare interview with Jon Stewart and Maziar

Bahari on our program tomorrow.

And that's it for tonight's show. Remember you can always watch us online at, and follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you for

watching and goodbye from New York.