September 15th, 2013
09:29 AM ET
12 months 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. Dave

    Referring to al Assad as Russia's "client" was absolutely brilliant. Indeed, it is Russia who could do the most to end the conflict... by ending arms sales to Syria!

    September 15, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  2. don

    Obama wants to go to war because he has no choice, and he will do it no matter what. Obama has to go to war because the US economy is collapsing, this would make a good cover up for why the economy collapsed.

    September 15, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  3. Name Gee

    The american people are so unpredictable. First they say what about the red line if assad uses chemical weapons and he did aug 21. Then when the president move them warships really close in the mediterranean on syria's heel's and let's it be known we bout to hit em everyone say stay out of syria; no more of our son's in foreign affairs. So now that he gave diplomacy a chance and let russia handle it and save us from even more war again; now he don't know what he doing?? Or he soft?? Or mishandling the situation. Obama could easily have syria shredded without congress or the u.n but he know americans are tired of war!! The american people dont know what they want. Sit in the oval office and have to make big decision's like this or be the marine or soldier who have to keep going over sea's fighting for somebody else's stuff. Make up your mind's America!!!

    September 15, 2013 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  4. don

    Americans are waking up to this tyranny, this is why no one wants war.

    September 15, 2013 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  5. steve in SD

    the very same people who decried the drumbeat to war are now criticizing a strategic victory.
    half of the commentators on this board know only about 5 percent as much as they think they do. The other half are just partisans.

    September 15, 2013 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  6. Westy

    Whenever Obama starts talking about 'folks', and especially when he starts dropping 'g' at the end of words, I always instinctively put my hand over my wallet, don't know why...
    Always an incredible phony, and now shown clearly to the world as an incompetent buffoon.

    September 15, 2013 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  7. Skarphace

    mis: That is Obama foreign policy Doctrine, Lead from behind.

    Really? Obama led from behind when he sent warships to the Syrian coast after most of our allies decided to do nothing? If America had not put pressure on Assad, you can be guaranteed that he would have used chemical weapons again and again and again until the West finally decided to get involved with a military conflict, and there is a good chance that Russia would have gotten involved on the other side. Worst case scenario.

    Obama, by allowing Russia the chance to look like the good guys, helped convince Assad to agree to give up their chemical weapons without a single shot by anyone and without putting a single American soldier at risk. This, to me, makes Obama a very good leader indeed.

    September 15, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  8. Firstname Lastname

    What else do you need to say but this right here:

    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."

    September 15, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  9. Walt

    Wow are you Americans ever arrogant.You're broke.

    September 15, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  10. Skarphace

    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.

    So what? If Assad agrees to give up their chemical weapons, which is what the "red line" was all about, without adding to America's debt or putting a single American soldier in harms way, then how is that a bad thing? The Syrian civil war is not our war, and neither side in the conflict is pro America, so why should we get involved?

    September 15, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  11. Bianca

    It is a mature, well balanced response, worthy of a president of a world power. A rare moment of grown-up behaviour - be that Republican or Democrat. Obama knows that the world is watching, and his response is geared to the world's audience.

    The problem he will still have to overcome is the arming of some of the worst of terrorists the world has seen. Just because our media is shies away from reporting acts of their brutality, that does not mean that the world is in the dark. We are the only ones who are not aware that the killing and butchering of people is exclusively done by the rebels of all stripes and persuasions - that we are arming and politically supporting! I am convinced that this is the real reason the diplomacy prevailed. Most countries in the world will be reluctant to publicly dress us down, but they must privately expess their concern for the incredibly brutallity so called "rebels" are inflicting on people. Most of these people are recruited from far away places, and do not even speak the language. They come from our other "successes", like Bosnia and Kosovo. In thousands! They come back in body bags - and that is not a secret to the public there!
    The task ahead will be to let the real Syrian army free up the pockets where the terrorists are still holding civilians hostage. In many other such situations, hostages have been killed, brutally. Just a week ago, a village close to Maloula, has been butchered by the thugs. Most people were beheaded, and a little girl was dismembered by a saw. All that was reported by a nun in a nearby monastery. Now, the Christian village of Maloula has been devastated, along with ancient Christian heretage. If US does not cooperate in defeating these groups, it will be hard to focus on chemical weapons destruction. And if we continue with the absurdity that "Assad is killing his own people" in spite of the hundreds of thousands of video and audio evidence of "rebel" brutality - we will continue to lose the respect around the world . Russia is FAR from isolated in knowing that the thugs killed people with chemicals, just as they did in March earlier this year. The real test of maturity for US will be to ignore the adolescent behaviour of our own political culture of bombing for fun, and work with adults around the wold that can put the end to the suffering. And US may have to put an end to supporting geriatric regime in Saudi Arabia, who are punching way above their weight, and even blackmailing US into remaking the wold in their, Wahhabi image. We are yet to reap the consequences of letting Saudi Arabia talk us into jailing the entire elected leadership and in favour of their Salafist general. Unless we end being so dependent on Saudi monarchy, our entire architecture of global security may crumble.

    Obama has taken just a first, modest step. Let us hope that he will not cave in. And the most difficult time he will have within his OWN party, the likes of Ms. Clinton and the neoconservatives in his own camp.

    September 15, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  12. Santa

    Given the choice between a slick talking used car salesman and an actual statesmen...

    September 15, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  13. steve

    We heard "repeal and replace" from republicans during an election, but now it's just repeal and there is no replace.

    September 15, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  14. Jerry Okamura

    Like a killer with the cops hot on his tail and closing in saying I will give up my guns, if you will let me alone and they do..

    September 15, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  15. Steve P

    Don...certainly worked for GWB with the whole "WMD", "Mission Accomplished" fiasco/vendetta in Iraq, eh?

    September 15, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  16. Dennis

    Obama continues to be a ship without a rudder pushed about by whatever prevailing current at the moment.
    My embarrassment is not so much for him an empty suit as for those who continue to back him in spite of failure after failure. His campaign of hope and change has produced only hopelessness and no change. Only those still enjoying the "free stuff"" are mindlessly satisfied with his Presidency.

    September 15, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  17. yitkis

    Obama is inapt in everything including golf and basketball.
    He is only apt in destroying USA and he does it deep out of heart out of his hate to white America that started when he was still young and started to work for our enemies – Islam and communists in Russia. Islam in the face of Saudi king still support him financially which explains partly the success of his campaigns. Former Russian KGB still keeps him on leash and he feels close to them ("I will do more if re-elected"). Other presidents could be dumb to different extent but they cared about the country and felt this country theirs. This is not the case with Obama. He does not feel this country his and more Americans start understand that. Even if the above was not true, just his inaptness would have the same result – is inaptness is over the board.

    September 15, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  18. Anonymous

    In this world every country is exceptional in its own right. There is no such thing as special people.

    September 15, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  19. madhuthangavelu

    "....What it says is that I'm less concerned about style points. I'm much more concerned about getting the policy right."

    There it is, this is exactly how we want our president to be.
    We want our head of state the think cool and act out "correct" policy, not shoot from the hip, or look for ways to "save face" and be "credible" as our pundits wish. We want our 21st century POTUS to lay out 21st century visions and in the process, make clear to our war mongering, chest beating barbarian allies that there is yet a better way to save souls and live in peace....even in the horribly sectarian middle east !

    September 15, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  20. Mike S

    For Obama to call this a win of substance when only 1000 people have died from gas while 100,000 have died from bullets and the bloodshed continues with the bad guy still in power is the most asinine thing I've ever heard.
    For Obama this his a victory of style of over substance.

    September 15, 2013 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  21. gonzo

    Now suddenly having some prestige in the world is nothing but "style". He's losing this nation's credibility in the world, and you don't trade that for whatever distant, and ambiguous goals you may have. And, they are ambiguous because you can't predict how anything will turn out there. He talks like he's 100% sure that he's going to attain any goals. Of course, he'll say he did in the end, and the criminally pro-Obama press will cover for him!!

    September 15, 2013 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  22. mark

    Sharphace you understand. Most of the commentators are ignorant with little intellect. I like your analysis so much that I copied to LBC radio station in London. We have a lot of ignorant people in the UK as well.

    September 15, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  23. joe morgan

    n this world every body is exceptional in their own right. There is no such thing as special people or something like that.

    September 15, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  24. Skarphace

    don: Obama wants to go to war because he has no choice, and he will do it no matter what

    Then tell me this: why aren't we are war with Syria right now? Obama had his opportunity; his red line was crossed. If he wanted war, war we would have. Instead, he took a step back and analyzed the situation and cooler heads prevailed. We now have no costly war and no soldiers in harms way. Go ahead and keep criticising, however.

    September 15, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  25. manomundo

    Complete failure. Now the United States won't be involved in a war thousands of miles away. And this one was especially important, because the rebels the United States would help are vehemently anti-American. The net result is that billions of dollars aren't spent, and the Middle East isn't destabilized. I can see why McCain, Graham, Boehner, Cantor, et al. are so incensed, especially because Vladimir Putin brought it about. Where's the war? I ask. We always need a war!

    September 15, 2013 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
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