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. srcactus

    The difference between Obama and Putin? Obama doesn't know what he doesn't know and Putin does. One of the determining differences experience makes.

    September 15, 2013 04:43 pm at 4:43 pm |
  2. omgamike

    A lot of these comments are so funny to read. I am just thankful that our President is flexible enough to see a better way than war in front of him - sees it and runs with it. Just as M.A.D. was used effectively during the cold war, our President is using the threat of unilateral force (if need be), to stimulate a productive discussion with the end goal of ridding Syria of chemical weapons. Too many low information people out there, who need to watch something other than Fox News.

    September 15, 2013 04:43 pm at 4:43 pm |
  3. scott in ga

    You were mad when he wanted to launch a strike, now you're mad when he finds a diplomatic solution to avoid launching a strike. Republican Party you're the very definition of hypocrite. Just like your new leader KGB Putin who enjoys the benefits of a free press while denying a free press to his own people.

    September 15, 2013 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  4. Dink_Winkerson

    Everybody wants to take credit for "The Great Plan". Let's just see how well it works first. If it flops they are all going to be moonwalking away from it as quick as they can.

    September 15, 2013 04:48 pm at 4:48 pm |
  5. Dan

    Comments are praising Putin just because the President looked bad. Don't call yourself a patriot if you're gonna do that.

    September 15, 2013 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  6. Matt

    Sorry, but I just can't take anything this president say's seriously anymore. The scandals. The lies. The incompetence. The hypocrisy. It's all too much.

    Sad that we have to wait another 3 years until he's gone. ..and even more depressing that all of the likely candidates (so far) are complete losers as well.

    September 15, 2013 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  7. Ann Terhune

    People are weird. The hawks want us to bomb the Syrians and the gutless weasels who call themselves liberals wanted us to do nothing. Obama led this well–that is what the mst people wanted–no strike. This is what real leadership is. People made fun of Bush for his swagger, but criticize Obama for not swaggering enough. He is criticized either way. The outcome s what we wanted–no chemical weapons and no strike. Perfect!,

    September 15, 2013 04:54 pm at 4:54 pm |
  8. Clarke

    Thank you President Obama. You reached your goal and that of most of American's. the end result was done with skill, no military action and no CW. Perfect!

    September 15, 2013 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  9. Thomas Guerra

    I like how Obama handled this very complex and swiftly changing situation. We may not like a punt in football or an intentional walk in baseball, but that's how to play it sometimes. Well done, Mr.President.

    September 15, 2013 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  10. badcyclist

    Having an articulate, thoughtful president seems to bother Republicans for some reason.

    September 15, 2013 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  11. joe morgan

    In 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 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  12. vinster76

    to those of you who don't like opinions that just might happen to not agree with Der Fuhrer.......You can spin this president's actions any way you want...You can criticize republicans or conservatives, independents, or Tea Partiers as Neanderthal-like, low-informed, Fox viewers, trailer trash, angry white men, on and on and on ad infinitum. You make excuses like nobody I have ever seen for the failings of this president....He just got his rear end handed to him in an incredibly humiliating fashion by the leader of a country that is not even a superpower any longer....To call him incompetent is being kind to him......He is clueless, spineless, and dangerous to our nation.......

    September 15, 2013 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  13. joe morgan

    you probably cannot handle the truth. You are pro Govt. press.

    September 15, 2013 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  14. noneyobeeswax

    I don't see why everyone is not relieved.

    Obama said "...[whatever happens in Syria happens in Syria, as long as it does not constitute blatant war crimes, it is not our place to intervene miltarily]... ". After drawing the red line I think it is that it is fair to say no one (not Obama or Putin) thought Al Assad would be stupid enough to actually use them. If German intelligence is to be believed it was his senior military officials who were chomping at the bit (in which case he is still stupid not to maintain the chain of command structure necessary to make sure this did not happen).

    But lo and behold Russia says jointly with the US "Syria will have no chemical weapons in 9 months". The fact that Russia did this without publicly asking what Assad thought says volumes. It says "ok Assad, you can come quietly and then continue your war after getting a spanking of UN observers all over the country OR you pit yourself toe-to-toe against all 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council (all the super-powers and super-powers-to-be).

    I just think it is funny that Syria after being publicly told that their chemicals are going to be taken aware from them declare "victory". I just read that and thought "wow, these dictator-diplomats and their cronies sure know how to bend sanity if it means they can pretend to look good.

    September 15, 2013 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  15. joe morgan

    Truth hurts. does'nt it, you exceptional guy.

    September 15, 2013 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  16. MJW

    I salute the POTUS for using whatever negotiating skills necessary to avoid innocent people being killed by American bullets or bombs. The Republicans don't know how to have a discussion about is always 'my way or the highway' for them. That is what cause some countries around the world to hate America. The President did the right thing. No one trusts Putin, but if he can help to ovoid a war we should be willing to listen. The Republicans are such cowards....they will not allow a simple compromise over anything, just plow your way into everything, killing as much people as you can, destroy other countries and then expect them to like us. I just like to sit back and watch them devour each other.

    September 15, 2013 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  17. James Rustle

    Many liberals here seem to be equating loyalty to ones country with personal loyalty to President Obama.

    This is why I won't vote for the Democrats a long time. I was on board with them 5 years ago when they were protesting the previous administration, but turns out they only had a problem with what party was committing the abuses, not the abuses themselves.

    September 15, 2013 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  18. vinster76

    Well, I can see I have to educate you folks as to how we got to this recent embarrassing situation vis a vis Syria....Homeboy draws red line in sand, red line in sand is crossed, homeboy threatens Syria with cruise missiles, simultaneously giving the Syrian government all the information it needs to protect or move it's assets..homeboy asserts the right to act unilaterally, without Congressional advice, – next, videotape surfaces of a homeboy as late as 2007 giving speech after speech decrying as an impeachable offense, the unilateral use of airstrikes by a US president......(yes,, what a coincidence, Bush just happened to be the president at the time), once said video makes the news around the world, homeboy decides he has been caught in his hypocrisy and decides to seek congressional approval.....thus illustrating to the world just how weak and indecisive he truly is.....And, by the way before you call me a war-monger.....I do not support any use of force in Syria, at all.........

    September 15, 2013 05:18 pm at 5:18 pm |
  19. jeff

    obama's correct, if he was graded on substance, he would get a F-

    September 15, 2013 05:23 pm at 5:23 pm |
  20. yitkis

    Stupid libs are not only stupid they are blind. Or, actually they are dishonest. Or actually they are all 3 of the above.

    Obama did not care about those chemical weapons. He wanted to play golf and that nobody disturbed him. And, after all, he probably would not mind if those weapons were used eventually agains tour ally Israel like he did not mind when American diplomats were being killed in Libya and he did not move a finger to help them. But he did want to help his brothers muslims, that is what he was always doing in the past. He always wanted to give them our money and our weapon but even with that he lingered as he always does because he is busy with his golf or because of his lazy nature. Then the essence of such help, the essence of those who he was hoping to help came to open and he retreated to "unbelievably small" action – to bomb Assad with a couple of bombs, but people explained to him that it may have unexpected repercussions and can really lead to war, he quailed and passed the decision to Congress.

    Tell me, libs, areyou honestly not seeing all of that? Or psychotic obamamania completely closed your eyes? Or are you so dishonest to such an extent and hate the rights that are trying to explain all that to you that you continue blindly to argue all of that?

    September 15, 2013 05:26 pm at 5:26 pm |
  21. RobinMO

    The president has shown strong leadership through this crisis. His critics fall into 2 categories: Those who have never seen a Middle East war they did not want us to get involved in, and those who automatically oppose Obama. The former ignore the disaster of W's war on Iraq, and the latter denounced Obama for threatening to retaliate against Syria a week ago and now denounce him because he has found a peaceful way of removing Syria's chemical weapons. He has wisely resisted the McCain insanity of helping a bunch of Islamic extremists take over another country. We need to learn from Reagan's foolishness in arming the Afghanistan "freedom fighters" in the 80s.

    September 15, 2013 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  22. vinster76

    and now, the CNN headline is "Putin takes the lead on Syria" – just like you planned it right Mr. President? Man, you are good.......

    September 15, 2013 05:29 pm at 5:29 pm |
  23. StillKillingEm

    Agree totally with Ann Terhune. Obama played it well – no chem weapons and no strike – and he doesn't care who gets credit for it. Let Putin have the swagger this time; maybe it will improve US-Russian relations.

    September 15, 2013 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  24. Name sgt henry voloder

    I think Obama is using the war as a scape goat to acquire more oil

    September 15, 2013 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  25. vinster76

    the USA is on its' way to irrelevance around the world.....thanks to this liberals can spin this failed presidents actions any way you want, the fact remains, he has been handed his rear end by the Russian leader......Putin just took Obama to school in foreign affairs.....I cannot fathom FDR, Truman, JFK, or any other gutsy president getting caught looking like such an abject failure in foreign affairs after five years in office, as this man has.....spin that!

    September 15, 2013 05:33 pm at 5:33 pm |
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