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What Obama really meant when he talked about Iran, ISIS, and Syria on Sunday

President Obama
President Obama
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

President Obama talked US foreign policy, among other things, in an interesting interview on Sunday with Bob Schieffer of CBS. Here are Obama's four most important foreign policy quotes from the interview, what he really meant (politicians, as you know, will speak in code), and why the quote is significant.

1) On Iraq

"Essentially, what we're doing is we're taking four training centers with coalition members that allow us to bring in Iraqi recruits, some of the Sunni tribes that are still resisting ISIL, giving them proper training, proper equipment, helping them with strategy, helping them with logistics. We will provide them close air support once they are prepared to start going on the offense against ISIL, but what we will not be doing is having our troops do the fighting."

What Obama means: The US is going to train and arm Iraqi Sunni militias to fight against ISIS. This is basically a repeat of what the US did in 2005 and 2006 in Iraq: training local Sunni militias to fight against al-Qaeda.

Why this is significant: In theory, the US shouldn't have to arm or train informal Iraqi militias, because Iraq already has a formal military. Obama should know; he paid for it. But the Iraqi military already failed against ISIS, largely because it is dominated by the country's Shia majority (ISIS, which is Sunni itself, was invading Sunni regions) and is perceived by Sunnis as basically a Shia sectarian army. In reaching past the Iraqi military to train rebels, Obama is essentially admitting that the Iraqi state is broken and not up to the task of policing its own territory.

2) On big-picture Iran strategy

"Let me speak more broadly about the policies vis-à-vis Iran. We have two big interests in Iran that are short term and then we got a long-term interest. Our number one priority with respect to Iran is making sure they don't get nuclear weapon. ... The second thing that we have an interest in is that Iran has influence over Shia, both in Syria and in Iraq, and we do have a shared enemy in ISIL. But I've been very clear publicly and privately we are not connecting in any way the nuclear negotiations from the issue of ISIL. ... There's no coordination or common battle plan and there will not be because, and this brings me to the third issue, we still have big differences with Iran's behavior vis-à-vis our allies [such as Israel]."

What Obama means: His most important goal with Iran is ending the country's nuclear weapons program. That's even more important to Obama than Iran's role in the messes in Iraq and Syria (confusingly, they're on our side in Iraq but against us in Syria). It's even more important than Iran's sponsorship of proxy groups such as Hezbollah.

Why this is significant: Obama is being illuminatingly blunt in listing his priorities. The sympathetic reading of Obama's Iran strategy — something that he clearly cares about a great deal — is that he's thinking about the long game. He's betting that this is the real core issue and that ending the nuclear program and easing Iran's hostility and isolation will ultimately go a long way to addressing the other Iran problems.

The unsympathetic reading, the one advanced by Israel and some Republicans, is that Obama has his priorities backwards and should be most worried about protecting Israel from Iran, then about curbing ISIS, then about the nuclear program.

3) When asked if his policy is still for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to go

"We do want to see a political settlement inside of Syria. That's a long-term proposition. We can't solve that militarily nor are we trying to."

What Obama means: Obama's end goal in Syria is for the current government to negotiate a peace deal with the rebels. Obama has long said that Assad, as part of that deal, must step down — but not at American gunpoint.

Why this is significant: Obama has been saying this for a couple of years. But it's a point that is widely misunderstood. American strategy in Syria is not to topple Assad, nor is it to dissolve Assad's government. It's to get everyone to come together and sign a peace deal. That's part of why the US is only a little involved: Obama doesn't want to topple Assad, which he thinks will just create chaos. But he wants Assad's government to feel enough pressure that it'll sign a peace deal rather than trying to defeat the rebels outright.

4) On staff changes

"We will be bringing in new folks here because people get tired."

What Obama means: Yes, as rumored, Obama may be replacing some people in his administration.

Why this is significant: One of the most trenchant criticisms of Obama's foreign policy has been that he shuts out the State Department, Pentagon, and intelligence agencies, concentrating foreign policy-making in the relatively small White House. That would be okay if his White House staff were so brilliant that they could really replace all those giant institutions. But they're not, and they can't, and that's part of why American foreign policy has been sort of a mess the last couple of years.

This quote is a hint that maybe Obama will submit to some of the mounting pressure to replace some of his top foreign policy people, such as National Security Adviser Susan Rice. But it's not clear that this will fix the actual problem, which is that Obama neutered his foreign policy agencies.

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