September 15th, 2013
09:29 AM ET
5 years ago

Obama on Syria criticism: Washington grades on style, not substance

Washington (CNN) – President Barack Obama has responded to critics who disagree with his handling of the situation in Syria, saying he's more concerned about the end goal - no chemical weapons in Syria - than about "style points."

In an interview that aired Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Obama downplayed the controversy over Vladimir Putin's opinion piece in The New York Times last week, saying "this is not a Cold War" and that he welcomes the Russian president's involvement in the issue.

As for the public perception of his own management of the U.S. response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, Obama said, "Folks here in Washington like to grade on style."

"And so had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear - they would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy," he continued. "We know that, 'cause that's exactly how they graded the Iraq War - until it ended up… blowing up in our face."

Asked by ABC's George Stephanopoulos whether the recent events changed his view of former President George W. Bush, Obama said, "No, no. What it says is that I'm less concerned about style points. I'm much more concerned about getting the policy right."

Obama got some of his most candid criticism last week from an ally, Republican Sen. Bob Corker. The senator told CNN's Dana Bash that the president has lost his credibility and is "very uncomfortable being commander in chief."

And following a deal reached between the U.S. and Russia on Saturday for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons to international control, two Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, said the Syria deal "does nothing to resolve the real problem in Syria" and allows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to "go on slaughtering innocent civilians and destabilizing the Middle East."

Talking about his relationship with Putin, Obama said he doesn't think his Russian counterpart "has the same values that we do" and that Putin has a "different attitude about the Assad regime." But, he said, both countries "have an interest in preventing chaos" and "preventing terrorism."

"This is not a contest between the United States and Russia. I mean, the fact of the matter is that if Russia wants to have some influence in Syria post-Assad, that doesn't hurt our interests," he said.

"And I think there's a way for Mr. Putin, despite me and him having a whole lot of differences, to play an important role in that," he continued. "And 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.'"

On Iran, Obama said recent negotiations over Syria could still deter Tehran from building nuclear weapons, even though the U.S. did not use force to address the chemical weapons crisis in Syria.

The president confirmed that he and the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, have communicated indirectly through letters. Obama believes Iran understands that the nuclear issue is far more significant to U.S. security interests than are chemical weapons in Syria.

"A nuclear arms race in the region is something that would be profoundly destabilizing," he said. "And so I - my suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn't draw a lesson that we haven't struck to think we won't strike Iran. On the other hand … what they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically."

"Negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult. I think this new president is not going to suddenly make it easy," he added. "But you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that in fact you can strike a deal."

Filed under: President Obama • Russia • Syria
soundoff (263 Responses)
  1. Sahfeeyah

    No more blood shed please, Syrians have suffered enough. Thanks Obama for taking a bloodless stand..but the war in Syria has got to stop. How still remains unanswered. Russia supplies Assad with weapons, do you honestly think Putin will want to lose his 'client's business?

    September 15, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  2. Sahfeeyah

    No more blood shed..Syrians have suffered enough. Thanks to Obama for taking a bloodless stance; but the war in Syria has got to stop. How remains unanswered though. Russia supplies Weapons to Assad, so does Obama honestly think Putin will want to lose his 'client'/major buyer's business by ending the war?

    September 15, 2013 10:06 am at 10:06 am |
  3. Tenie

    He is delusional about is performance.

    September 15, 2013 10:20 am at 10:20 am |
  4. Terry

    He is awesome

    September 15, 2013 10:20 am at 10:20 am |
  5. Anonymous

    I like John McCain's approach better. Bomb first then try diplomacy layer.

    September 15, 2013 10:22 am at 10:22 am |
  6. JamVee

    I have to agree with the President in that it's far more important to have it work, than it is to have it look cool. On the other hand, Russia gets all the credit on this one, and that's because they DESERVE all the credit on this one.

    September 15, 2013 10:22 am at 10:22 am |
  7. Wirius

    I'm in agreement here. We avoided war and got an agreement on getting rid of some chemical weapons. Its not how we get there, but where we get that matters to me.

    September 15, 2013 10:23 am at 10:23 am |
  8. mcwreiole

    He is one of the most hypocritical style masters in the world. Our President was never and is never one to worry about substance or ultimate effect of his policies or speeches. He is ALL about style and style only. If he had one care in the world for "substance' he never would have pushed, bribed, cajoled and extorted this nightmare piece of legislation called obamacare.

    September 15, 2013 10:24 am at 10:24 am |
  9. Anonymous

    So credit goes to Obama for substance and to Putin for Style in avoiding the war? interesting.

    September 15, 2013 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  10. Anonymous

    So credit goes to Obama for substance and to Putin for style in "averting the war" ??? interesting

    September 15, 2013 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  11. Karl Jonas

    McCain won't be happy until we're involved in another Middle East war. He lives for war. Bomb bomb bomb.

    September 15, 2013 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  12. Name

    Well he should be because the world has been watching and he has looked like a true "community organizer"

    September 15, 2013 10:36 am at 10:36 am |
  13. Tigas

    When you have no substance, how can they judge you.

    September 15, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  14. steve

    Thank you Mr. President for keeping the goal in mind here instead of worrying about what you had planned to do. If you can change your position because a better solution to the problem at hand has arrived more power to you. Most of us just feel bombing may not be the best step forward in this situation. I just think that you are showing flexibility and lightness of foot is a very good sign that you are a pragmatist at heart even most of your critics seem to miss this. This is not over by a long shot but I think you are saying the right things and playing your hand well. Hope there is a big pot at the end of this hand that you can get some winnings for our world.

    September 15, 2013 10:44 am at 10:44 am |
  15. timverba

    I think the criticism, like that of Senator Corker, is based on the misunderstanding that the President of the United States is not the commander in chief of the world. President Obama does not have the power nor the capacity to command Russian or Syrian action. He must negotiate. It is easy to negotiate from a point of strength. Sometimes you negotiate from a point of weakness on purpose to make long term gains. The way this agreement, with Russia and Syria is shaping, the United States gains a stronger position over time. One month ago we were not talking about the removal of chemical weapons in Syria. But we have been talking about the removal of Assad since 2005, Mubarak for decades, and Gaddafi for half a century. We finally got some action under President Obama.

    September 15, 2013 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  16. Erok

    Well played Mr. President. Well played!

    September 15, 2013 10:48 am at 10:48 am |
  17. Anonymous

    The PEOPLE took the power back from the profiteers.
    Don't let these corporate puppets in DC make you think otherwise.

    The Power of the People, has overcome the power of war-propaganda.
    We are Waking Up. We are Winning.

    September 15, 2013 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  18. ST

    Who is not aware that Pres. Obama is a man of CHANGE? He is doing almost everything in his own way. Some who are used with old ways and see him ignores them, are the ones who are criticising.

    September 15, 2013 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  19. srcactus

    Yes, Barack. And thanks for your remarks and why don't you and George play a round and stay out of the public eye for a few more days.

    September 15, 2013 10:52 am at 10:52 am |
  20. Bob Head

    Wow, what a story teller. His lips are moving and you know what that means.

    September 15, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  21. Stephen Colbert

    President Obama is in over his head on Syria. His speech at best came across as a suck up to the American public and honestly as arrogant to the rest of the world. However, as the speech was to the American public, it really does not matter what the foreigners think. I would have liked the President to explain as to how he failed to express outrage and involvement for the death of more than 100,000 Syrians in the last two years (that is an average of 150 a day), and suddenly has this outrage at a suspected chemical weapons attack.

    The irony of the whole argument is that he claims to be enforcing international agreements, when no other country was willing to side with the United States on military involvement in Syria. If the President wants to be a human rights champion, there is a lot of opportunity to do it here in the U.S. Start with dispensing the money hole that has the name Guanatnamo Bay detention center written all over it. Either try them or set them free. Then take to task the crooks of Wall Street who have raided the life savings of millions of people and left the elderly who are dependent on retirement income hanging out in the streets. If he wants to help the people of Syria militarily, he should resign from the Presidency and join the Free Syrian Army himself.

    September 15, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  22. judith

    Obama has made a thoughtful, reasonable and constructive decision. Totally the opposite of the last administration which rushed us into an unnecessary war at great expense of blood and money. Thank God we do not have a war mongering President and a war profiteering Vice-President.

    September 15, 2013 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  23. Logic N LA

    Haters will be haters no matter what. Two weeks ago the were down on Obama for saying we would bomb. Now they are down on him because we didn't. Bottom line- Russia had Syria's ear for decades and did nothing to stop this bloodshed that finally ended up with use of chemicals. the threat by Obama to use military force after crossing a line he set ages ago for our involvement s what brought about negotiation of any kind. No spin just timeline facts.

    September 15, 2013 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
  24. ru serious

    This president has been an empty suit, albeit a stylish one. He talks a good game but there is no substance, just "style". His foreign policy is a disaster which we will dearly pay for down the road.

    September 15, 2013 11:11 am at 11:11 am |
  25. srcactus

    2 years late and Obama came up a dollar short to Putin., embarrassing to say the least but the result is important and that does look promising. Now can we get back to Benghazi and get some insight on that year old problem?

    September 15, 2013 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
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