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. Walt

    The good old USA has become the laughing stock of the planet. Say what you want but step out side your borders and listen to what the international community thinks of your leadership and ineffective action. Your President just got duped by a thug in Putin. You've got John McCain running his mouth, out both sides, undermining a peace process and the public's democracy being held hostage by Congress. It's tough to watch, because I quite like my neighbors to the south but none the less I've stopped visiting you. You've become too loud, too self righteous and self appointed world cops. Well this little Syrian run has seen the rest of the world step back and let you know where things stand. And that's not with you.
    The so called leader of the free world has just been told that. You're not the leader of the free world. That's the message when other countries step back.
    Do the American people even know what their debt is let alone know what that means? The USA can't afford a war and no one wants to share the cost. That's the hard reality.
    The USA is one big mess and they don't see it.

    September 15, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  2. salimB

    Agree that President Obama result-oriented policy might get us what President Bush did but at no cost. The problem is that in order to do that , Obama replaced the Chemical by Qaeda as mass destruction weapons in Syria. Something that is proven to be much more destructing .
    His from-behind policy of allowing allies to encourage opposition to go lethal, helped Qaeda to build grass roots within Sunni Arab communities of Syria.
    His shift of focus from punishing the regime to removing the chemical weapons is pushing opposition further toward Qaeda !
    While we are waiting for the end result of removing the chemical weapons , his policy had proven success in one thing:
    Moving Sunnis toward Qaeda and moving Shia toward Iran as protectors . Something his predecessor was graded A+ in Iraq .

    What might make Obama different than Bush, is to make peace, wiping out Qaeda and rebuild of Syria politically and economically as one single package with removing the chemical weapons.

    September 15, 2013 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  3. worldlypatriotusaveteran

    I'm politically independent, but also a proud patriot. I served our country for three decades. I follow international and domestic issues much closer than the average American citizen.

    That being said, I'm proud of the President and his "style." LOL! He handled the Syrian crisis with an open mind. He used diplomacy as an element of American power, and he retained the option of military power, if it's necessary.

    Nearly all of the criticism I read is partisan politics and political theater. I listen closely to the criticism. However, I find most of the criticism has little substance. Mostly, it sounds like, "You did it wrong, because you didn't do it MY WAY!"

    September 15, 2013 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  4. Name maria

    America wins because .none of our young men / women and hard earned tax dollars WASTED on another no win war.! These people have been fighting for years and will continue long after we become a financially drained third world.

    September 15, 2013 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  5. silencedogoodreturns

    So now once again, Obama has changed the goalposts. Originally, if Syria crossed the red line, it was to punished. Now, the goal is simply to rid Syria of chemical weapons, a goal which has NEVER been brought forth before.

    September 15, 2013 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  6. Ming

    This foolishness that Putin is some how out maneuvering the president is the most unintelligent way of thinking ever. Putin I respect and admire very much but all I've seen is him saving his ally from a butt whooping that's it. Diplomacy is not a new option in this Syria situation "Diplomacy" idea has been going on for close to 2 years if not more.Russia and China the ones doing the out maneuvering now have been blocking it. All of a sudden " throw missiles" every one wants diplomacy oh lets work it out.. BE REAL IF IT WASN'T FOR THE THREAT BY THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT WOULD PUTIN BE STRIKING A DEAL TO SAVE ANYONE? NO he would still only be supplying the Assad regime with weapons and that's it No Diplomacy. End story.

    September 15, 2013 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  7. oh no!

    russia's putin made a complete fool out of obama who was all ready to attack another country that has done nothing to the US and without even NEGOTIATING FIRST!this is just another chance for the entire would to see what a terrible failure and embarrassment to america obama is...

    September 15, 2013 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  8. Keith

    Shouldn't headline read:

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


    September 15, 2013 12:12 pm at 12:12 pm |
  9. TAJ

    Hasn't our bufoon-in-chief realized yet that the sooner he just shuts up, the better? He can't touch Putin and the more he wags his tongue, the deeper in it he steps. Ah yes, but that's all he knows to it!

    September 15, 2013 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  10. Fred Flintstone

    God bless George Zimmerman, my he live on in fame!

    September 15, 2013 12:20 pm at 12:20 pm |
  11. Obo is a tool

    Putin takes a huge dump on Obo and laughs. Obo is Nerf ball.....

    September 15, 2013 12:21 pm at 12:21 pm |
  12. Don't blame me, I'm Obama!

    Comical how all u libs think Obama is SO smart. But he is getting played like the community organizer he is and the US is losing its standing in the world as our allies don't trust such a weak president...

    September 15, 2013 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  13. rschier

    "MHO, 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."

    Fine. It's up to the Syrians – and the Syrians alone – to put a stop to it.

    September 15, 2013 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  14. Skarphace

    Anybody who thinks that Obama was not behind the deal between Russia and Syria to bring Syria to the chemical weapons ban table is unable to read between the lines.

    Of course Kerry knew what he was saying when he suggested in passing that if Assad gave up his chemical weapons then America would consider not attacking Syria. At that point, the deal between Obama and Putin had already been reached.

    So why didn't Obama try to take credit for it? Because of two reasons: first, it is not Obama's style to take all the credit. He did not do so in Libya, and he will not in Syria.

    Second, and more importantly, the Russians need some additional credibility when it comes to Syria. So far, Russia has been criticised soundly (and for good reason) for their support of the Assad regime. The worst thing you want is a dangerous animal trapped in a corner, and Russia was starting to act like they felt like such. This gives Russia a way to say, "Look, we are good guys here."

    This conflict in Syria, if handled too aggressively by America, could indeed result in hostile tensions between America and Russia, and that would not only be bad for the Middle Eastern region, but the world in general. The way Obama has handled this situation so far, by allowing an adversary score some political points in order to difuse tensions, was very well done, imo.

    Now let's just hope that Russia follows through.

    September 15, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  15. tyrone stanton

    putin the leader, obama the follower.... sad our dear leader is no longer leading...

    September 15, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  16. king

    even though i was rooting for Obama to strike Syria without asking congress, i still now think he made a wise decision. its crazy how the repubs hawks have been criticizing this president for the past 2 years for not getting involved in Syria, now when he decide to get involved they turned into turkeys, and still criticizing. it will come a day when these repubs dont catch a fit about everything this president does, even when they are the ones promoting what hes doing. i guest that will be wishful thinking huh.

    September 15, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  17. Alex

    Let me make sure I have this sequence of events right:
    1. Obama sets a red line several months ago on the use of chemical weapons
    2. Someone used chemical weapons on Aug 21st
    3. Obama demands a military action as the only means of resolve, Kerry says we have "evidence"
    4. International community rejects Obama's assessment, evidence that it was actually the "rebels"
    5. Congress rejects Obama's assessment and solution
    6. American people reject Obama's solution of war
    7. Even at the final hour he insists that military action is what he wants but given that he knows a vote in the senate will be shut down he'll delay a vote – no point in having the vote if he knows he'll lose
    8. Putin meanwhile seems to have thought outside the box and actually found a solution that doesn't require a war solution
    9. Obama applauded for finding a diplomatic solution

    This is preposterous. If it were obama's choice we would have bombed Assad from the get-go even when the international community had evidence that it wasn't the Assad's regime. Clearly this is a huge failure by the Obama adminstration and the lack of leadership and thoughtfulness of a competent president, all the while making Putin look like a peacemaker. You, Mr. President, were about to jump to your guns and tell the American people that this was the only option. Thanks Putin for making Obama look like a kid that got caught steeling candy at the candy store.

    September 15, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  18. plaitinen

    So, this is what it feels like to have "peace in our time".

    September 15, 2013 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  19. Larry L

    The President leads with maturity and wisdom. I find it unsettling to see Americans so eager to find fault with the President they'd quickly side with Putin – a vicious KGB thug with a long history of killing his own people. The radicals from the right-wing ignore the failures of the Republican Party for the past 13 years while desperately working to discredit the President at every opportunity. Racism and bigotry trump patriotism in that population.

    September 15, 2013 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  20. Thom

    Maybe the proper op ed to Putin's op ed would be for the NYtimes to publish in full page a copy of that Russian artist painting of Putin and his sidekick in lingerie. Given the painting is banned in Russia and the painter is exiled, it would be the perfect statement of free speech in a free exceptional country as was the allowing Putin's op ed to also be published.

    September 15, 2013 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  21. Tampa Tim

    Johnny ause... – like most republicans, you seem to be obsessed with your own body parts, ans should not be taken seriously.

    September 15, 2013 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  22. Skarphace

    mcwreiole: [Obama] 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.

    I am sorry, but you have your definitions backwards. The way he "pushed, bribed, cajoled and extorted", in you words, was the style. The ACA was the substance. And America needs universal health care. When Republicans can come up with a viable alternative, then we will talk.

    September 15, 2013 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  23. XanderdraX

    Syria is a lose-lose no matter what happens. If Assad is removed, its terrorist anarchy. If he stays, he kills innocent people. Glad to see the CIC actually using his brain rather than his knee.

    September 15, 2013 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  24. Lorelei Kraft

    President Obama should ask for the same privilege–the right to write an uuncensored op-ed piece in Russia's major newspaper.

    September 15, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  25. Tony

    Our President is doing an excellent job dealing with the situation. Those on here who want to give Putin praise or who want to discredit my President should pack his or her bags and move on out. We'll be more than happy to give you a going away gift in the form of a boot.

    September 15, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
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