On This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Sunday, Sep. 15, President Barack Obama gives an exclusive interview on the status of talks on Syria and the potential for military action against the Assad regime. Following the agreement reached over Syria’s chemical weapons after three days of talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva, President Obama explains to his most vocal detractors — including those known as the “mainstream media” — who call “his handling of this crisis haphazard and meandering,” according to ABC’s Good Morning America, that it is “the outcome that matters.” He addresses the uninformed critics who complain or offer mis-analyses in regard to his management of the crisis with Russian president Vladimir Putin as being “repeatedly out-maneuvered by the Russian president,” as reported by GMA weekend anchor, Dan Harris. Stephanopoulos commented that the president is very strong in his management and orchestration of the talks resulting in a deal brokered between the U.S. and Russia, as well as the talks at home regarding congressional voting and public responses on Syria and the Assad regime.
The plan in progress resulting from the deal struck on the Syrian chemical weapons by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced on Saturday, Sep. 14 topped the one-on-one ABC News exclusive interview on This Week with Stephanopoulos. The president told George he was convinced that America is in a much better position “now than when he was poised to order military action just two weeks ago.” President Obama replied to Stephanopoulos’ query as to why that is the president’s assessment, “We’re definitely in a better position. Keep in mind that my entire goal throughout ... is to make sure that what happened on August 21st does not happen again. That we do not see over a thousand people, over 400 children that are subjected to poisonous gas, something that is a violation of international law and is a violation of common decency.”
George asked if the president was confident that that kind of violation would not happen again. The president responded, “I think we have the possibility of making sure it doesn't happen, again. Think about where we were. This event happens and the initial response is the Syrians act as if they don’t know anything about it — at that point, they’re not even acknowledging that they've got chemical weapons. The Russians are protecting the Syrians — suggesting that there’s no possibility that the Assad regime might have done this. And, the inspectors weren't even in, yet. And, as a consequence of the pressure that we've applied over the last couple of weeks, we have Syria — for the first time — acknowledging that it has chemical weapons, agreeing to join the convention that prohibits the use of chemical weapons, and the Russians — their primary sponsors — saying that they will push Syria to get all of their chemical weapons out. The distance that we've traveled over these couple of weeks is remarkable, and my position, and the United States’ position has been consistent, throughout — which is that the underlying civil conflict in Syria is terrible.
“I believe that because of Assad’s actions,” the president continued in his, now, recognizable fair and analytical manner, “his response to peaceful protest, has created a civil war in Syria that has led to a hundred thousand people being killed and 6 million people being displaced ... I've also said ... the United States can’t get in the middle of someone else’s civil war. We’re not going to put troops on the ground. We can’t enforce, militarily, a settlement.”
In a typically calm, non-reactionary process, the president continues to lay out what the intents of the United States will be, hardly any differently than the average man or woman of reason and intelligence would lay out their plans and procedures for determining why they are choosing divorce for their spouse’s breach of their marriage contract. Straightforwardly, he stepped through that intent, “What we can do is make sure that the worse weapons — the indiscriminate weapons that don’t distinguish between a soldier and an infant — are not used. If we get that accomplished, then we may also have a foundation to begin what has to be an international process in which Assad’s sponsors — primarily, Iran and Russia — recognize that this is terrible for the Syrian people, and they are willing to come — in a serious way — to arrive at some sort of political settlement that would deal with the underlying terrible conflicts.”
George, playing devil’s advocate, posed a question the president’s critics have attempted to use as a negative since early on in the supposed U.S. – Russian conflict in this crisis. He asked if the U.S. was “being played” by the “unlikely partnership with Putin.” Stephanopoulos questioned the Russian president’s intent with his “op-ed, which stirred up a lot of controversy in the United States,” quoting Putin, “He said ‘there’s every reason to believe that the rebels are the ones who used the chemical weapons.’ So, does that tell you that he’s willing to lie to protect Assad?”
President Obama answered, soberly, “Nobody — around the world — takes seriously, the idea that the rebels were the perpetrators —”
Suddenly interrupted by George’s interjected, “He [Putin] wrote it in the New York Times,” the president acknowledged, “Well, I understand. What I said is ‘nobody around the world takes seriously the idea that the rebels perpetrated this attack.’ Now, what is true is there are radical elements in the opposition — including folks who are affiliated with al-Qaeda — who, if they got their hands on chemical weapons, would have no compunction in using them in Syria, or outside of Syria. Part of the reason why we've been so concerned about this chemical weapons issue is because we don’t want those folks getting chemical weapons anymore than we want Assad to have chemical weapons. So, the best solution is for us to get them out of there.
“With respect to Mr. Putin, I have said, consistently, that where the interests of the United States and Russia converge, we need to work together. I talked to Mr. Putin a year ago, saying to him the United States and Russia should work together to deal with these chemical weapon stockpiles and to work to try and bring about a political transition inside of Syria.”
Stephanopoulos asked, barely allowing the president to complete his last statement, “Do you trust he has the same goals? Do you really trust that?” The president answered, without hesitating, “I don’t think that Mr. Putin has the same values that we do. And, I think, obviously, by protecting Mr. Assad, he has a different attitude about the Assad regime ... I've also said to him, directly, is that we both have an interest in preventing chaos. We both have an interest in preventing terrorism. The situation in Syria, right now, is untenable. As long as Mr. Assad’s in power, there’s going to be some sort of conflict, there. And, that we should work together to try to find a way in which the interests of all the parties inside of Syria — the Alawites, the Sunnis, the Christians — that everybody is represented ... that there’s a way of bringing the temperature down, so that the horrible things that are happening inside the country are not continuing to happen ... I think that there’s a way for Mr. Putin, despite me and him having a whole lot of differences, to play an important role in that. So, I welcome him being involved. I welcome him saying ‘I will take responsibility for pushing my client — the Assad regime — to deal with these chemical weapons’ because I think that if, in fact, not only Russia gets involved, but if potentially, Iran gets involved in it as well in recognizing that what’s happening there is a train wreck that hurts — not just Syrians — but destabilizing the entire region.”
George interrupts to ask again, this time adjusting the original question somewhat, “Aren't you worried at all that Putin’s playing for time, and playing you?” President Obama stated, undeterred, “Well, Ronald Reagan said ‘Trust, but verify,’ and I think that that’s always been the experience of U.S. presidents when we're interacting with, first Soviet leaders, and now Russian leaders.
“Mr. Putin and I have strong disagreements on a whole range of issues. But, I can talk to him. We have worked together on important issues. The fact of the matter is ... we couldn't be supplying all of our troops in Afghanistan if he weren't helping us in transporting of those supplies ... We've worked together on counter-terrorism operations ... This is not the Cold War. This is not a contest between the United States and Russia.
“If Russia wants to have some influence in Syria, post-Assad, that doesn't hurt our interests. I know this gets framed [as] — or looked at through the lens of — the U.S. vs Russia. That’s not what this is about. What this is about is ‘how do we make sure that we don’t have the worse weapons in the hands, either of a murderous regime, or — in the alternative — some elements of the opposition that are as opposed to the United States as they are to Assad.’”