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. mklsgl

    IMHO, this could easily become a classic case of winning a battle but losing the war: chemical weapons may be entirely removed but the bloodshed between the Syrians will continue unfettered.

    September 15, 2013 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  2. MsLulu

    It reminds of when I was little and I was being bad my dad would say "do I need to take my belt off?". And I would say oh no I'm going to behave now. I think Obama is trying to tell Assad, we don't want to open the can of whoop-ass unless we have to and we are going to give them an opportunity to correct themselves, but if we do have to open the can we certainly will if absolutely necessary. But sometimes it's just the threat alone that can change things.

    September 15, 2013 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  3. Jon Dough

    Attempting to work this out with and adversary is an amazing breath of fresh air. We can always go back and bomb and slaugter and "rebuild" anytime. Stay out of the civil war – we have no real friends here, and focus on not letting chemical weapons become the norm – FOR ANYONE.

    September 15, 2013 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  4. Bill Bishop

    When you are playing chess, you start out with a strategy, and then adapt your strategy based on the moves of the other player. The Syrian situation is a huge global chess game. If Obama were to keep playing the same strategy no matter what the other players do, he would surely lose. Sometimes when you watch a grandmaster play chess you don't know what he is up until he says checkmate. That has been Obama's style so to speak.

    September 15, 2013 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  5. smkedbacon

    Preseident Obama's continual denial of hearing America is insulting to America. Be it Obama care, carbon tax, or Syria he has made it his personal agenda over the American publicwish and direction for America. This continual denial only reenforces the image of a dictator that needs to be controlled.

    September 15, 2013 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  6. SteveAR

    So Obama was concerned about getting the policy right, huh? Obama's policy was to have Assad leave office. Now Assad can stay in office for as long as Putin lets him. Assad can keep his chemical weapons for as long as Putin lets him. Assad can keep slaughtering his own people for as long as Putin lets him. So this is Obama's new policy, eh? To make America a joke?

    I have no doubt Georgie Porgie was right there nodding his head in agreement with his god-king Obama.

    September 15, 2013 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  7. Kelly

    I had actually begun to lose respect for Obama with some of these moves re: Syria. He has shown real leadership by being will to undergo criticism from the MccCains of this world in order to maintain a semblance of peace. Thoughtful, patient and willing to actually listen. Amazing and wonderful to see an actual leader in place and not someone who wants to put on a show.

    September 15, 2013 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  8. ben

    This president is in way over his head and never takes responsibility for anything except for things that goes well.

    September 15, 2013 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  9. SunK

    Look who is talking now...what was his reaction when Bush was doing the same thing without Style.

    An inexpreienced Obama against a seasoned politician Putin.....let's see who wins....either style or substance.

    September 15, 2013 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  10. SunK

    Obama is completely confused and clueless. He has never been able to work with people who opposes him...

    September 15, 2013 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  11. Joan

    Never had more respect for a president than I have for Obama at this moment!! He lets the 'Republican Noise' run off him like muddy water! He Rocks!!

    September 15, 2013 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  12. JKB

    More concerned about the end goal than style points? So is he saying that the ends justify the means? I hope that's not what he's saying.

    September 15, 2013 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  13. boungiorno

    we all need to pray

    September 15, 2013 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  14. jhonny ausemkock

    This guy is either downright delusional or he thinks every one of us is an 1d10t. I happen to believe the latter. His arrogance knows no limits, much like his dishonesty. I hope Putin CAN get Syria to disarm. Unfortunately, he's our only hope. It's become obvious Obama has no real plan for the situation.

    September 15, 2013 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  15. Thomas

    If you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that in fact you can strike a deal.

    Hard to do if congress ties your hands !

    It's nice not having a cowboy in office , it's nice to not having a reactionary response to a difficult solution .

    Let Putin take some responsibility for his client .

    Mesure twice , cut once .

    September 15, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  16. us_1776

    This is Putin:

    1) Look at me: I'm Vladimir Putin, former KGB spy.
    2) Look at me: I'm Vladimir Putin, leader of birds.
    3) Look at me: I'm Vladimir Putin, I can ride a horse.
    4) Look at me: I'm Vladimir Putin, I can show off my 4'11" body.
    5) Look at me: I'm Vladimir Putin, I can put little punk girls in prison.
    6) Look at me: I'm Vladimir Putin, I can steal SuperBowl Rings.

    World's biggest narcissist.

    President Obama is right in just ignoring this KGB guy's op-ed insulting Americans.

    All Putin wants is attention.


    September 15, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  17. Arch Labor

    Any solution that can be reached that does not lead to a further escalation of this conflict is a win. I don't care who wins the style debate.

    September 15, 2013 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  18. Jeannie

    Old McCain..of course he's not pleased..Hes not happy until some war has started. And personally I like how Obama handled the crisis and hes absolutely right. Time to forget out scoring points and how the pundits, talking heads and the Washington insiders are going to spin this. The matter was handled with thought and diplomacy. This is how these issues need to be dealt with

    September 15, 2013 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  19. Mopery

    If we had attacked Syria, it would have been the second time in the last decade when we attacked a sovereign nation who had not attacked us. Russia and China would have left the U.N., and it would go the way of the League of Nations. The only reason the U.N. exists is for open communication between the nuclear superpowers, its loss would move us much closer to a nuclear war and the inevitable extinction of our species.

    September 15, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  20. yogi

    The credit the President deserves is that he always thinks through problems with calmness, weighing the options and consequences, and that approach will avoid more unnecessary US involvement in senseless wars. Look at the utter chaos the previous administration caused, abroad and domestically by solving problems with military options only, and the inability to look at diplomatic solutions. Republicans miss the broad vision and simply never go the diplomatic route.

    September 15, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  21. VCMD

    It's pathetic attempt to downplay his poor handling of this crisis. Nothing prevented him to threaten use of force and lay down the conditions to end the civil war in Syria couple of years back even without doing a regime change. That would be a well planned strategy. There was no need to lie to American people and Congress about the made up evidence of use of weapons by Assad's forces instead of Al Qaeda or groups affiliated to them. Fact is that this president was too busy portraying extremely radical Islamist groups as peace loving. He has his head buried in sand for two years, HOPING that the peace loving Islamist groups will stop butchering people. When situation became too bad, he tried to shoot from the hip and was isolated and check mated by Putin. Now he has the guts to claim that this botched plan was somehow well thought and well planned.

    September 15, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  22. Francisco

    Obama did a great job handling Syria. He put strong pressure on Syria and Russia. Putin went from sending warships, to demanding proof that the regime used chemical weapons, to desperately trying to find a way to resolve the issue. Putin was very inconsistent, and could not handle the pressure Obama gave him. Obama kept his mind ob one thing only the whole tine. That showed consistency and power. Now that Putin's solution worked because of Russia's huge influence over Syria, they know how serious and powerful Obama is, they see that if the wrong line is crossed, Obama means no child's play.

    I'm Brazilian, and that's how my country's citizens viewed this situation. We see Obama as having control, and as a really tough and smart leader. Our brazilian government is complaining about the NSA, but the citizens of the country do not care, in fact, we think it is good and that the government deserves it. Hopefully Obama and the NSA will find all the stolen money the government robs from its citizens. We brazilians want to see our government fall and see a government rise like the one in America.

    September 15, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  23. Tom

    Obama's response sounds like that a well meaning parent who is not relevant to a sport game and whose child was on the losing's not a matter of whether you win or lose but how you played the game. Don't see the Clintons or other Obama lovers coming out to his defense on this one.

    September 15, 2013 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  24. penguin

    Thank God we don't have Republicans running our foreign policy. We'd have troops in Syria as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. Be wasting billions to trillions of dollars and be otherwise ruined economically. As much as Obama has bungled, he is much better than clueless Romney or those libertarians who are just plain stupid

    September 15, 2013 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  25. mis

    That is Obama foreign policy Doctrine, Lead from behind. if your behind your are behind, do not be delusional and think you are leading Mr. Obama

    September 15, 2013 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
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