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. Scott Curtis

    The end goal is to get chemical weapons away from Syria. That is now going to happen. Diplomacy is much less costly that weapons and war (that can easily slip out of control). The President used military pressure to get diplomacy to work. I am happy and proud that this happened so quickly with the right result (pending execution).

    This is EXACTLY what I want in a leader. Hats of to the State Department for executing the strategy.

    September 15, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  2. ThinkAgain

    @Dennis: I feel sorry for the likes of you who don't have the guts to accept Repub policies are all proven failures.

    If it weren't for President Obama's leadership, our economy would have completely disappeared into the drain GW and Repub policies started us down.

    If one of passengers in the GOP presidential candidate clown car had won in 2008 or 2012, bin Laden would still be alive; we'd be at war with Iran; there would be no American auto industry (along with the millions of other supply-chain jobs up in smoke); the housing market would have completely collapsed (but that's OK, because then "investors" – read: foreign entities – would have bought everything up and be renting back to the former owners).

    If we had a Repub president, we'd still be in Iraq and not getting out of Afghanistan; the top 1% would own even MORE of our nation's wealth (they currently own 50%); the Middle Class would soon be a distant memory; public funding for schools and national parks roads and all infrastructure would be non-existent; women would be unable to plan their pregnancies or make choices about their own bodies; Wall Street would be bubbling and bursting at an even faster rate, gambling away ordinary people's life savings with impunity; and social safety nets would be gone, turning our streets into something resembling Bombay/Mumbai.

    But that would be fine with you, right? Because at least we wouldn't have a black-muslim-communist-socialist in the White House.

    September 15, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  3. Jake Jackson

    It's good to see the President take a responsible course of action instead of leaping into another war. Poor Bob Corker. He seems to put his foot in his mouth every time he opens it. A commander-in-chief, faced with a war and a complex geo-political situation, should feel "comfortable"?

    September 15, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  4. Godfrey

    Instead of arguing on the points Obama raised, the Republican fan base is quick to spew insults on the president or issues non related to the story. When you can't win based on intelligence and wisdom, this is how the people behave and these republicans are no different. They just vomit everything without properly thinking what they are saying, as long as it helps them to vent their anger and frustrations for not being in power.

    September 15, 2013 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  5. BO

    Look who's talking. Mr. Sizzle over steak himself.

    September 15, 2013 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  6. Skarphace

    Dennis: Only those still enjoying the "free stuff"" are mindlessly satisfied with his Presidency.

    Really? That amounts to about 10% of the country, and people in poverty are much less likely to vote in any election. How the heck did Obama get elected with less than 10% of the vote? Do the math and you will find out how ludicrous your statement is.

    September 15, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  7. smdahl

    The American people have done a great service to this president in forcing him to begin to earn his Nobel prize. Now we need to push him further to stop arming his client: Al Qaeda.

    September 15, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  8. Al

    Obama is not happy, he has had to eat his words of attacking Syria, and all because a better man stood up and brokered a deal.

    September 15, 2013 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  9. high fructose corn syrup

    This is more complicated than picking between McDonalds or Burger King for dinner tonight you sheep. Putin has plenty to lose if we proceed; and so do we if we have to start another "delivery of freedom. " But F' it, the iphone 5s made in China is a more important matter. Damn, my 5 minute break is over...but at least i have a job.

    September 15, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  10. NameFrank Deery

    Russia is an autocrisy, has been from the Romanovs through Putin. A vast, diverse nation like Russia almost demanded it. Obama is the get of a 60's hippie era, with Islamic ties, who is mired in that ideakistc era. Now Gone! Well, the fact he "fundraises"
    in Liberal 1% enclaves like LA, Vegas, et al,
    shows that "Chicago thug" style, now more obvious than leadership skills so badly needed today.

    Obama is a failed President, who should be involved more in Colorado's problems today,
    than spinning his FAILED Presidency all over the Sunday talking heads shows!!!!!!

    Let Biden or Kerry do it!

    September 15, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  11. Donn Arnold

    Mr. Obama, you have kept us in Iraq, expanded Afghanistan...NOT brought the troops home as you promised. Now you meddle with Syria, risking involvement in a third war. Americans oppose it. You have blown up on our faces.

    September 15, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  12. anthony collins

    Kudos to the President and shame on the arm-chair critics who lust for blood and mayhem. Dropping bombs and killing more people in Syria will not help the US or anyone else, and those who demand more warfare are clearly without understanding of history or of the social-political reality in the Arab world. The alternative solution being pursued jointly by the US-Russian leaders represents the most ethical, positive and humane solution to a horrible problem. That being said, if it become obvious that Assad and the other side can't control their bad habits despite this excellent opportunity they are being given, then the big stick from outside forces needs to pound their butt with an ol' time spanking.

    September 15, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  13. james

    The media can end the Syrian conflict by helping Obama save face. It is up to the media to restore Obama's credibility. Syria and the chemical weapons are a mere sideshow. This is about Obama and his image.

    September 15, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  14. POTUS is Absolutely Correct

    What these comments from President Obama tell us is that he is an effective, disciplined and reasoned commander in chief. Despite criticism from the right and left, and the unwillingness of many critics to admit it, the fact is that the POTUS has calibrated and handled this matter with discipline, solid reasoned judgment, pragmatism and effectiveness, particularly compared to the sometimes foaming mouth approach of Senators McCain and Graham who would have America back into another foreign policy disaster. Kudos to President Obama.

    September 15, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  15. Emmymu

    Obama should have started a war to ensure his credibility. Basically sums up the critics of the President to date. Because that's not an absurd justification to invade another sovereign nation.

    Sorry Amercia but a – you are the only country who thinks you have any global credibility and b – Obama used diplomacy to move towards a peaceful resolution. As he said – this is not the Cold War. Working with Russia was a sign of strength and measure not of weakness.

    You're a great country in many ways but like a classic narcissist your lack of self awareness as a country and your astonishing lack of understanding of geo political issues (news flash –
    America is not the greatest country on the planet or the Center of universe) clouds your achievements and accomplishments – of which there are many.

    More Amercians need to understand the meaning of humility and then you might start to gain back the respect of the world. And though I'm lukewarm on Obama in general – his response to both the Syrian crises and then to the ensuing critics was the mark of true leadership.

    September 15, 2013 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  16. greg

    The final US missiles launched at Syria and no chemical weapons in Syria is the best possible outcome regardless of how we got here.

    If this is the final result I would have to give both Obama and Putin high marks for their respective contributions to achieve these results!

    September 15, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  17. Barbara Feeney

    I think Obama and Kerry did what they thought was best and in the process outfoxed them all.

    September 15, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  18. wallstreetcrime

    I'm amazed by the Obama haters coming out in this thread as they complain bitterly about his "lack of leadership" while NEVER bothering to note that Assad rolled over.

    We lost not one American soldier and spent pennies getting this right compared to the quagmire that Bush/Cheney got us into.

    Obama's calm approach makes Bush and Cheney's hurried rush to war look like what it was. An amateurish bid to be the biggest, baddest kid on the block that cost more than 5,000 Americans their lives and left thousands more horribly and permanently injured.

    Bush lied and thousands died. Obama remained calm and no American lost their life. Obama wins, Bush and fakeriots lose.

    September 15, 2013 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  19. pkfops

    Assad now knows he can no longer keep his wife and 3 small children safe.

    September 15, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  20. here and back again

    The issue was the "use of chemical weapons". That has effectively been removed. This is not to say that Syria won't continue to use them...but they would then have egg on their face forcing Russia to admit the truth and that they (Syria) will not allow that to happen with their #1 weapons supplier. is this a failed policy by this Administration? That's isn't. It is just a failed attempt to deface the Administration one more time. You know...just like the other 1000 attempts.

    September 15, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  21. John Martin

    Do you seriously think ANYTHING will keep these Muslims from fighting? Sunni v. Shia will go on until they kill every last damn one of another. Who cares if it is Putin or Obama who appears to have the... ha ha... solution? A month from now the media will be on some other trumped up bandwagon and all the partisans will be beating their chests about something else. Let the Arabs solve their own problems and let Israel finally put up or shutup with its warring neighbors without our umbrella.

    September 15, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  22. Paddy

    Thank God for freedom in America where you can speak your mind without any harassment. To all those Putin fans, you are lucky to be born in America. Otherwise, you know what will be your plight for disrespecting him right now. In any case, my sympathy goes to does Obama haters because It does not matter what he does, they will still hate him. At least respect the office that he holds if you are not going to respect him as the president of the United States.

    September 15, 2013 02:02 pm at 2:02 pm |
  23. Ming

    He hasn't helped for 2 yrs while 100k get slaughtered, are you saying he should help? Well wouldn't striking the regime over a chemical weapons use help the opposition? Yes. Are you saying he should not get involved? Well please don't cry about not arming the rebels,don't cry when he gives the so called "diplomacy" a chance. Leading from behind? Really? Please explain..way I see it Russia is protecting it's ally in the Regime in a country they already have relations with. So technically all these killings has been happening under Putins watch. The US minus the CW angle only interest there is it's allies in the region not Syria itself. So it has to be dealt with but restraint is needed. So lets ask this question...what happens when this CW issue revisits and the culprit is the regime with Assads consent or not? Do you really think Putin will risk going to war for Assad? Do you think the Russians will interfere with those missiles? When and if they do will someone's ship boat catch a missile by mistake? Now about out maneuvering thing? Can't use diplomacy there, it was giving a chance..Strategy I dare you..

    September 15, 2013 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  24. KBNJ

    Arming Al-Qaeda backed rebels and threatening military strikes that could help them get control of chemical weapons that could be used against is not STYLE, Mr. President, it's SUBSTANCE, and that's what we're grading you on. F. Remember the war on terror – you know the one Congress actually voted on and is still going on – is against Al Qaeda?
    That said, I'm extremely grateful the chemical weapons, or at least some of them, are now likely to be taken out of the hands of BOTH our enemies. Never thought I'd be thanking Putin for anything, let alone THAT.

    September 15, 2013 02:08 pm at 2:08 pm |
  25. david

    Americans are exceptional, putin hates hearing that, truth hurts much right putin? haha.

    September 15, 2013 02:08 pm at 2:08 pm |
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