President Obama sat down on Tuesday for a long interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic.
In the context of today’s world of infotainment and political splatball and especially the epidemic of virulent Obama Derangement Syndrome in some quarters of our political spectrum, the exchange is a miracle of good probative questions and thoughtful answers.
I urge you to read the whole thing, which includes not only Goldberg’s summary at the top but a full transcript below.
Here are a few highlights:
On the effort to negotiate a deal that will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Goldberg asked Obama about the criticism that Iran will cheat and acquire the weapons anyway and the suspicion that perhaps the deal Obama wants to sign is designed mostly to tamp down the crisis long enough for Obama to get out of office:
Obama: “Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this. I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”
On the criticism that Obama’s unwillingness to get more militarily involved in the Mideast is making the situation worse Iraq:
“I know that there are some in Republican quarters who have suggested that I’ve overlearned the mistake of Iraq, and that, in fact, just because the 2003 invasion did not go well doesn’t argue that we shouldn’t go back in,” he said. “And one lesson that I think is important to draw from what happened is that if the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them.
“We can be effective allies. I think Prime Minister Abadi is sincere and committed to an inclusive Iraqi state, and I will continue to order our military to provide the Iraqi security forces all assistance that they need in order to secure their country, and I’ll provide diplomatic and economic assistance that’s necessary for them to stabilize.
“But we can’t do it for them, and one of the central flaws I think of the decision back in 2003 was the sense that if we simply went in and deposed a dictator, or simply went in and cleared out the bad guys, that somehow peace and prosperity would automatically emerge, and that lesson we should have learned a long time ago. And so the really important question moving forward is: How do we find effective partners — not just in Iraq, but in Syria, and in Yemen, and in Libya — that we can work with, and how do we create the international coalition and atmosphere in which people across sectarian lines are willing to compromise and are willing to work together in order to provide the next generation a fighting chance for a better future?”
On the question of whether the Iranians (and some others) are so deranged by anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism that that they cannot be expected to behave rationally on matters involving Israel:
Obama: “Well the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations. You know, if you look at the history of anti-Semitism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European leaders — and there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country—”
Here Goldberg interjected by suggesting that anti-Semitic European leaders have indeed made irrational decisions, to which Obama responded:
“They may make irrational decisions with respect to discrimination, with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool. At the margins, where the costs are low, they may pursue policies based on hatred as opposed to self-interest. But the costs here are not low, and what we’ve been very clear [about] to the Iranian regime over the past six years is that we will continue to ratchet up the costs, not simply for their anti-Semitism, but also for whatever expansionist ambitions they may have. That’s what the sanctions represent. That’s what the military option I’ve made clear I preserve represents. And so I think it is not at all contradictory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semitism in the core regime, but that they also are interested in maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their own country, which requires that they get themselves out of what is a deep economic rut that we’ve put them in, and on that basis they are then willing and prepared potentially to strike an agreement on their nuclear program.”
Goldberg explored the less-than-warm-and-friendly relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He wrote that Obama “tried to frame his conflict with Netanyahu in impersonal terms, [but] he made two things clear. One is that he will not stop criticizing Israel when he believes it is not living up to its own founding values. And two — and this is my interpretation of his worldview [Goldberg noted] — he holds Israel to a higher standard than he does other countries because of the respect he has for Jewish values and Jewish teachings, and for the role Jewish mentors and teachers have played in his life.” After equating the creation of Israel with the American civil-rights movement, he went on to say this:
[Quoting Obama now] “What is also true, by extension, is that I have to show that same kind of regard to other peoples. And I think it is true to Israel’s traditions and its values — its founding principles — that it has to care about … Palestinian kids. And when I was in Jerusalem and I spoke, the biggest applause that I got was when I spoke about those kids I had visited in Ramallah, and I said to an Israeli audience that it is profoundly Jewish, it is profoundly consistent with Israel’s traditions to care about them. And they agreed. So if that’s not translated into policy — if we’re not willing to take risks on behalf of those values — then those principles become empty words, and in fact, in my mind, it makes it more difficult for us to continue to promote those values when it comes to protecting Israel internationally.”
Elsewhere in the exchange, Obama made clear his continuing support for a two-state solution:
“The most important thing, I think, that we can do right now in strengthening Israel’s position is to describe very clearly why I have believed that a two-state solution is the best security plan for Israel over the long term; for me to take very seriously Israel’s security concerns about what a two-state solution might look like; to try to work through systematically those issues; but also, at the end of the day, to say to any Israeli prime minister that it will require some risks in order to achieve peace. And the question you have to ask yourself then is: How do you weigh those risks against the risks of doing nothing and just perpetuating the status quo?
My argument is that the risks of doing nothing are far greater, and I ultimately — it is important for the Israeli people and the Israeli government to make its own decisions about what it needs to secure the people of that nation.
But my hope is that over time that debate gets back on a path where there’s some semblance of hope and not simply fear, because it feels to me as if … all we are talking about is based from fear. Over the short term that may seem wise—cynicism always seems a little wise—but it may lead Israel down a path in which it’s very hard to protect itself.”