President Obama gave a long interview to Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” that took me by surprise. Obama pushed back strongly against the perception that his years in office have been characterized by failure and retreat in the Middle East and specifically against the idea that the recent actions by Russia to get involved militarily in Syria were signs of Russian strength in the face of American weakness. Obama, in a complicated way, said it was the other way around.
(This link will enable you to read the full transcript.)
I thought the exchange, broadcast Sunday, was quite unusual. Kroft had trouble maintaining the pose of a reporter asking questions. At one, point when Kroft apparently felt like Obama’s answering was too long, he interrupted with: “I feel like I’m being filibustered, Mr. President.”
At another point, as Kroft was essentially voicing the arguments of the president’s neoconservative critics that the Mideast is falling apart because Obama is too reluctant to get tough, Obama actually interjected: “There’s a question in here somewhere.” Kroft said yes, he had a question, and then resumed making an argument. He never quite reached a question on that round before Obama interrupted to rebut him.
If you watch the video, catch the priceless look on Obama’s face when Kroft asserted that “Mr. Putin seems to be challenging [U.S.] leadership.” To which Obama replied (playing the role of the questioner rather than the answerer): “In what way?”
Of course the “way” turned out to be recent Russian military involvement in Syria.
Eventually, Obama started pushing back hard and treating Kroft something more like an opposing debater. In a tough defense of his conduct, Obama said he has made America safer, in part by avoiding getting drawn into ground combat in no-win situations.
Here’s a chunk of it:
Obama: Let’s take the example of Afghanistan. We’ve been there 13 years now, close to 13 years. And it’s still hard in Afghanistan. Today, after all the investments we have there, and we still have thousands of troops there. So the notion that after a year in Syria, a country where the existing government hasn’t invited us in, but is actively keeping us out, that somehow we would be able to solve this quickly — is —
Kroft: We didn’t say quickly. [Me: To whom is Kroft referring when he says “we?”]
Obama: — is an illusion.
Kroft: A year ago when we did this interview, there was some saber-rattling between the United States and Russia on the Ukrainian border. Now it’s also going on in Syria. You said a year ago that the United States — America leads. We’re the indispensable nation. Mr. Putin seems to be challenging that leadership.
[Obama challenged Kroft to specify what Putin was doing that constituted “leadership.” Kroft replied that he had troops and warplane in Syria “bombing the people that we are supporting.”]
Obama: So that’s leading, Steve? Let me ask you this question. When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin. Syria was Russia’s only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they’ve had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally…
Kroft: He’s challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He’s challenging your leadership —
Obama: Well Steve, I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership. My definition of leadership would be leading on climate change, an international accord that potentially we’ll get in Paris. My definition of leadership is mobilizing the entire world community to make sure that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon. And with respect to the Middle East, we’ve got a 60-country coalition that isn’t suddenly lining up around Russia’s strategy. To the contrary, they are arguing that, in fact, that strategy will not work… And the fact that they had to do this is not an indication of strength, it’s an indication that their strategy did not work.
Kroft: You don’t think —
Obama: You don’t think that Mr. Putin would’ve preferred having Mr. Assad be able to solve this problem without him having to send a bunch of pilots and money that they don’t have?
[Kroft posed his questions as if he was merely conveying what Obama’s “critics” were saying. Obama challenged him to say whom he was quoting.]
Kroft: I’d say the Saudis. I’d say the Israelis. I’d say a lot of our friends in the Middle East. I’d say everybody in the Republican Party. Well, you want me to keep going?
Obama: Yeah. If you’re citing the Republican Party, I think it’s fair to say that there is nothing I’ve done right over the last seven and a half years. And I think that’s right. It — and — I also think what is true is that these are the same folks who were making an argument for us to go into Iraq and who, in some cases, still have difficulty acknowledging that it was a mistake.
And Steve, I guarantee you that there are factions inside of the Middle East, and I guess factions inside the Republican Party, who think that we should send endless numbers of troops into the Middle East, that the only measure of strength is us sending back several hundred thousand troops, that we are going to impose a peace, police the region, and — that the fact that we might have more deaths of U.S. troops, thousands of troops killed, thousands of troops injured, spend another trillion dollars, they would have no problem with that. There are people who would like to see us do that. And unless we do that, they’ll suggest we’re in retreat.
Kroft: They’ll say you’re throwing in the towel —
Obama: No. Steve, we have an enormous presence in the Middle East. We have bases and we have aircraft carriers. And our pilots are flying through those skies. And we are currently supporting Iraq as it tries to continue to build up its forces. But the problem that I think a lot of these critics never answered is what’s in the interest of the United States of America and at what point do we say that, “Here are the things we can do well to protect America. But here are the things that we also have to do in order to make sure that America leads and America is strong and stays number one.” And if in fact the only measure is for us to send another 100,000 or 200,000 troops into Syria or back into Iraq, or perhaps into Libya, or perhaps into Yemen, and our goal somehow is that we are now going to be, not just the police, but the governors of this region. That would be a bad strategy, Steve. And I think that if we make that mistake again, then shame on us.
Kroft: Do you think the world’s a safer place?
Obama: America is a safer place. I think that there are places, obviously, like Syria that are not safer than when I came into office. But, in terms of us protecting ourselves against terrorism, in terms of us making sure that we are strengthening our alliances, in terms of our reputation around the world, absolutely we’re stronger.