Interview with Charlie Rose
Rose. Tonight, a conversation with President Obama. This week he traveled to Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Our relationship with those allies, the wars in Iraq and Syria, the roles of Russian and Iran will be key items on his agenda. Also talked with the president about how he sees America's role in the world, the lessons he has learned, and what he hopes to accomplish in his last year in office. The interview took place Monday afternoon, in the Blue Room at the White House. And here is that conversation. Thank you for letting us to be here, it's a great pleasure to see you again.
The President. Great to have you, Charlie.
Rose. You're going to Saudi Arabia...
The President. Right.
Rose. ... and you arrive there on Wednesday. These are friends of the United States, and they've expressed some concern about the relationship with America. A lot of it is old ideas having to do with the Iranian nuclear deal. Some new thing came out in a magazine article written by Jeff Goldberg.
The President. Right.
Rose. Do you have any reservations about anything you've said? Would you like to change anything or modify in that article about how you saw the Obama Doctrine?
The President. No, I think it's important to look at my quotes as opposed to whatever is surrounding those quotes. And what I've indicated in the past, I continue to believe, which is that Saudi Arabia has been a strong ally of the United States, and a friend of the United States, certainly since I have been president. Our interactions with them around counterterrorism issues has been vital. I think that they have been cooperative in trying to stabilize a region that is going through tumultuous times. We did have a significant difference on the Iran nuclear deal, but ultimately they supported it, after we explained to them exactly why this was the best path for us making sure Iran did not obtain a nuclear weapon. I think that all the evidence subsequent to that deal has borne out my argument that, in fact, Iran would abide by it. And I think that there is also a continuing belief on my part that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, generally, have to be guarded against Iran, they have to be in a position where they can defend themselves against Iranian mischief in the region. But that, in the end, Iran is a large country in the region and that a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is in nobody's interest. It's not in Saudi Arabia's interests, it's not in Iraq's interests, it's not in Jordan's interests, it's not in the United States' interests. So when I had Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries up to Camp David, our goal was to say how can we give you confidence that you are protected against any state that might attack you? How are you organized to prevent arms flowing into your country that get into the hands of provocateurs or terrorists? But also how can we work together on the diplomatic front to try to resolve conflicts like Syria that threaten to burn down the entire region? And occasionally, there going to be differences in terms of tactics in how we view both U.S. policy as well as Saudi policy, but that's true among all the allies and friends that we have.
Rose. Just back to the article for a second. It was titled, The Obama Doctrine. What is the Obama Doctrine?
The President. I didn't title as such. You know, I've always shied away from labeling my foreign policy under a single banner because the hallmark, I hope, of my foreign policy has been to be very practical in thinking about how do we advance U.S. interests, how do we make sure that the United States is safe and secure? How do we promote international rules and norms that have been critical in the development of not just U.S. peace and prosperity after World War II, but the entire world's? How do we promote our values in a way that recognizes it's not always going to be perfectly consistent? There's going to be times where we're dealing with a country that doesn't follow democracy the way we would hope, or human rights the way we would hope. But — and so, what I think emerges from that article, but more importantly from the actions that we've taken since I have been president, is somebody who is committed to keeping Americans safe, we'll go after anybody who's going after us, whether ISIL, or Al- Qaeda, or Bin Laden, or anybody else, but also is using diplomacy, multi-lateral institutions, economic development strategies, human rights as tools to continue to promote what I think is the best tradition of American foreign policy.
Rose. But it has been part of your policy which is a pivot to China.
The President. Yes.
Rose. And on top of that, is some sense that you think the United States, because of the future in Asia, should not get bogged down in the Middle East. What do you define as, getting bogged down in the Middle East?
The President. Well, what is true, is number one, I think that our invasion of Iraq was a mistake. I mean, that's well known, that was part of what the debate back in 2008 was about. What I believe is that the United States as the world's singular super power has an obligation in all areas of the world where there's mayhem, and war, and conflict, for us to try to be a positive force. But that does not mean that we should be deploying troops everywhere where a crisis is taking place, that we have to be judicious about how we use military power, that we should not view ourselves as the muscle for any particular side of a dispute if and when it does not directly relate to U.S. core interests, but rather, it's important for us to use diplomacy, and work with other countries, and build coalitions to try to resolve these issues. So, you know, probably the area where I've gotten the most criticism from, some in the foreign policy establishment here in Washington, is around the Syria situation.
Rose. And the red line.
The President. And there, what you have is people who I think instinctively feel that, where something is going wrong, where we have a problem, the solution is for the United States to send its military in and impose order. Surely what we've learned, not just from Iraq, but even the great challenges that we've had in places like Afghanistan, where we've now been there 13 years, devoted enormous resources, lives lost, and I can tell you from visiting Afghanistan, talking to our troops, they are the best of the best. I mean, these folks know what they are doing, they are outstanding in what they do. And yet, it's still a very challenging environment. So the notion that, while we were still busy in Afghanistan, still trying to keep Iraq together, that we would now then potentially involve ourselves in another military excursion in Syria, that's the kind of unwise decision-making that I think leads us to make big mistakes. And ultimately, also miss out on opportunities elsewhere in the world.
Rose. When you say don't do stupid stuff. And when you say, I rather be — I'd like to be judged by what I didn't do. Some say that, in fact, that you're putting too much emphasis on what we don't do and not enough emphasis on the choices we might have to do.
The President. Yeah, and I've heard this argument and, look, Charlie, when we sat down together back in 2009, when I first came into office, we were still in the midst of two active wars, we had 180,000 troops that were deployed, we were still seeing hundreds of our young men and women killed and thousands injured. And since that time we have been able to wind down active combat in those two theaters. Those countries are by no means in great shape, but they are not in significantly worse shape than had we left 20, or 30, or 40,000 troops there. And diplomatically, we have been able to make sure that Iran doesn't have nuclear weapons. We have been able to at least begin the process of political conversations in Syria and a cessation of hostilities. We are, in the meantime, taking out terrorists constantly, so it's not as if we are passive and standing by. Al-Qaeda core has been dismantled, Bin Laden is dead, ISIL is losing territory, and, so, I've shown no hesitance to use our military where necessary to protect American lives, American interests, but what I am insisting on is making sure that we think through why we're using our military, how we expect to shape results as a consequence of the use of our military, what other tools are available to us because, otherwise, we will have a constant repetition of the kind of experience that we had in Iraq in 2005, 2006.
Rose. But let me focus on the red-line decision that you made. Many look at that and say, because you did not, and you went over the opposition of some of your advisors which is what a president is expected to do, make the hard choices, that what we have today in part because of that decision, we have a devastated state, we've had close to 500,000 people die, and we've had refugees of up to four million people, and those –
The President. Yeah, so let me respond. First of all, the state was devastated at the time we were thinking about making the decision –
Rose. But much worse today.
The President. No, no, hold on a second, Charlie, at that point you already had a couple hundred thousand dead, the state had already been shattered, and the question very narrowly, even among those who criticized me, was do we take a one-off, a pin-point strike to send a message to Assad, so that he would no longer use chemical weapons because the red line I had set was that, if you use chemical weapons, then we are going to make a different calculation in terms of how we view the conflict there. Now, in fact, as a consequence of the steps I took and the diplomacy that we engaged in, Assad removed the vast majority of those chemical weapons from Syria. There was never a claim that, had I taken military action because of those chemical weapons, that we would have resolved the civil war in Syria. But I want to be clear. I think that there are those who make the argument, Charlie, that some how we can change a civil war inside of Syria. If they are being honest, what they would have to argue is we would, in fact, deploy a large army to overthrow Assad. The notion that by sending a few missile strikes into Syria, that we would have resolved the Syrian conflict is simply not borne out by any of the subsequent facts.
Rose. Well, beyond that, as you know, there is this question of red line, and if you announce a red line and somebody crosses the red line, that it raises questions about your will, your dependability, and your credibility.
The President. Except for the fact that we ended up removing those chemical weapons — essentially, Syria caved, they gave in. With the help of the Russians, they, for the first time, acknowledged that — chemical weapons, signed up for the international treaty saying they would not have chemical weapons, and systematically removed them. So the notion that, even if they were willing to do what we've asked them to do, that we should still send a couple of bombs just to kill some people, so that they know that we're serious. That is precisely the kind of conventional wisdom that I think it's very important for me or anybody who occupies this office to test. Now, if the notion is that I have been hesitant to use military force, and the people doubt my willingness to do so, I think, as I've said before, they should ask Bin Laden.
Rose. OK, but let me ask you the question, could we have done more in Syria, early on, to support the free Syrian army, and rebel forces, and if we had done that, and if Assad, perhaps, had been thrown out of power —
The President. There's a lot of ifs.
Rose. I know that. You understand this.
The President. No, no, but, Charlie, this is exactly why I think it is important for us to learn the right lessons from these decisions.
Rose. And that's why I —
The President. And the notion that somehow, had we provided some caches of arms to a very loose and not particularly well-organized opposition, that they would have been in a position to overthrow the Assad regime, isn't borne out by anything that's happened subsequently. Right now, there's no shortage of arms among the opposition. Right now — and there hasn't been for quite some time, and what we saw was is that when they made progress, because of the support of Iran, and because of the support of Russia, of the Syrian regime, there was a limit to the progress they could make, there was not going to be a military solution. And so, we tend to have sometimes these fantasies about how the United States can go about bringing change in countries. One of the questions that I asked when we were making early decisions about Syria, I asked my team, I said, please provide me with some example somewhere of us providing some sort of insurgency opposition, arms, and then successfully creating a peaceful, functional society, and overthrowing a dictatorial regime that is supported by outside powers, and, not surprisingly, there were no such examples.
Rose. I just want to ask, are you saying that no leader in the Middle East has raised questions about, because of the principle of the thing, about how drawing a red line and then not doing —
The President. Well, that's a different issue.
Rose. I know it's a different issue. I'm talking two issues, the red line on the one hand, and supporting —
The President. That's a different question.
Rose. — rebel forces.
The President. I think there is no doubt that there are many in the Middle East who would have preferred me taking a shot at Assad. But the reason is not because of some abstract notions of red lines. The reason is because they view Assad as a client state of Iran, and their view was, and continues to be, to some extent, that what we should be doing is being a very clear military arm of an anti-Iran or anti-Assad Middle East strategy. And, look, Iran's an adversary of ours, and if they go after any U.S. assets, if they are threatening us in any way, we will go after them, and they know that. Assad is a horrible leader, horrible dictator, who has shattered his country, and it continues to be our position that we need to get him out of there, but —
Rose. But is that a different dynamic now because Russia went in and supported him, and he's stronger now than —
The President. No, no, no, he's not stronger now. He's — there is been an even and flow, but keep in mind that Assad has been a client of Russia, and a client of Iran's for years. And, by the way, all those Arab states who now are seeking his overthrow, who are more than comfortable with having him in the Arab league, and he was a member of good standing with them, the key for the United States is to make sure that we disentangle the regional interests and jockeying that's taking place from our core interests as a country, and our efforts which have to be international, not just us but everybody, to try to relieve the human suffering that's taking place in this region, and reduce the degree to which this becomes a safe haven for terrorism. And the only way for us to do that is not to come in guns blazing and say we are going to impose militarily order in this massive region, where our engagement is already often viewed with suspicion. But, rather, to say we are going to insist that the various parties come up with a political solution that we will help, that, in Iraq, we will help to train and provide assistance so they can fight against those who would encroach on their territory and sovereignty. The same is true in Syria. But what we're not going to do is to duplicate the same kinds of mistakes that we've made in the past that did not result in more peace in the region, but, in fact, helped to precipitate some of the problems that we're dealing with today.
Rose. But how do you convince that it would not have made a difference if you had done more? And do you ever ask yourself, if we had done more we would not be looking at the catastrophe we're looking at now?
The President. Look, Charlie, every single day I make decisions.
The President. And you are working with probabilities. So, in Libya, we did take out a dictator who was threatening his own people. As I've said before, I actually believe that was the right decision. I think, had we not gone in, we would have seen another Syria in Libya. But Libya is still a big problem and a mess, and I think we did not do as good of a job as we should have. And I didn't do as good a job as I should have in thinking through the aftermath and how much work was going to be required in putting the pieces of that country back together again, and that's a much simpler proposition than in Syria. But nothing that's happened over the last several years leads me to believe that had I authorized some additional arms to the free Syrian army...
Rose. That's incremental, is it not?
The President. I'm sorry?
The President. What is incremental?
Rose. Authorizing some additional arms.
The President. Well, but that's my point, Charlie, you can't have it both ways — and I don't mean you, I mean sort — some of the critics.
The President. Either you're making an argument, which is coherent, that we should have just invaded Syria and taken Assad out. Now, keep in mind, that there was no basis for international law, Assad was not a threat to the United States, so we would have just been saying to ourselves that, as a matter of policy, where we see there's a big problem in a country where things are really getting torn apart, then we should impose military order. Now, that's a coherent argument, but if that's what we're going to do, then we're going to have to figure out why Syria is different from the Congo, why is Syria different from Sudan.
Rose. Why Syria is like Rwanda.
The President. Why — well, no, except — even with respect to Rwanda, I think it would be hard to argue that in Rwanda there were a whole bunch of folks who were shooting back and well-armed jihadists, and we hadn't just invaded and were still trying to hold together a country right next door. But my point is, though, that at least has coherence, right? You can make an argument that that's what we should do. I think that would be a bad decision for the United States to get into the business of unilaterally imposing militarily our will around the world. But, no, Charlie, it would have been unilateral because nobody else would have signed up for that. I know that for a fact because I could not even get the Europeans, or I couldn't even get the U.S. Congress to authorize —
Rose. Which raises an interesting question —
The President. But let me finish this thought. You couldn't even get those folks to support a very modest action, much the less a notion of an invasion, and the American people certainly should not have supported it, would not have supported it. But at least there is coherence to the argument. Now, if what you're arguing is that a couple of pin-prick strikes and providing some arms to some opposition members would have led to a complete transformation of Syria, then, I can't say for certain, because I'm not omnipotent, but I can say with great confidence, that would not have fundamentally changed the dynamic inside of Syria.
Rose. No, really what I'm asking are this – what circumstances would compel you, in a sense, to say, history will judge very harshly if we don't because of who we are, the United States of America, to do something about a situation creating a range of problems, destruction of a nation, refugees that are causing huge problems around the world. Men, and women, and children being killed in a devastating way, all of that, what's the test for you when you want to use American force?
The President. I don't think — well, those are two separate questions. We are always prepared to use force, unilaterally if need be, to protect the American people, right. So you're asking a very narrow — you're asking a narrow question, which is where should we be willing to intervene militarily because we have a duty to protect other people, because things are getting chaotic and we need to impose order, and so forth. And my approach is not to say we've got some perfect test that we can apply.
The President. Each situation is different. The costs and the benefits of our intervention are going to be different each and every time. But I think what we can say is that, wherever possible, we should first and foremost try to get other countries to work with us to see if we can solve the problem, where the costs of our military intervention are manageable and the benefits are potentially high, then I think it makes sense. We saw this in, you know, the Balkans.
The President. Where you have a situation —
Rose. Using economic power.
The President. Where you have a situation where you've got a much deeper structural problem and dynamics, as occur in the Middle East where you're seeing the kind of changes you only see every 50, 100 years. And that we have already extended ourselves greatly because we have already made massive commitments in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and where there is suspicion of U.S. motives, and there are other parties and players involved, then I think you make a different decision. So you look at each situation differently. This is part of the reason, going back full circle, to why I don't tend to label these things as doctrines. I think if you have some set, rigid theory by which you're approaching these problems, you're going to end up making mistakes because the world is messy and complicated.
Rose. Let me turn to the issues that have been in the news recently which is the 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission Report. Have you read it?
The President. You know, I have a sense of what's in there, but this has been a process which we generally deal with through the intelligence community, and Jim Clapper, our director of National Intelligence, has been going through to make sure that whatever it is that is released is not going to compromise some major national security interest of the United States, and my understanding is that he is about to complete that process. We will get a sense from him about what is appropriate. I try not to —
Rose. I hear you.
The President. — make decisions, you know, personally get engaged in each and every decision that's being made about classification —
Rose. Bob Graham said that he talked to the White House, and they said they would be releasing those 28 pages sometime in the near future.
The President. Well, I'm going to wait for the recommendation from Jim Clapper because that's the only way in an orderly fashion we can make sure that we are being as open as possible while, at the same point, maintaining basic national security interests.
Rose. As you know the 9/11 Commission Report basically said, we have no evidence that the Saudi government or prominent members of the Saudi royal family were involved in this, yet at the same time there this lingering notion that there were people on the ground in the United States that helped those people, and they could not have done it without. It seems to me, for the families, that's a very important thing to know.
The President. Look, I've met with 9/11 families repeatedly during my presidency, and the heartache that they're going through, and the insistence on understanding the truth and getting justice is critical. So this is something that I'm very sympathetic to. What is also true is that there are just reams of intelligence that are coming through constantly. Some of them are raw and not tested, some of them are —
Rose. And some of that may be in the 28 pages.
The President. Some of that may be in the 28 pages, I don't know. But the point is that it's important for there to be an orderly process where we evaluate this because what can end up happening is if you just dump a whole bunch of stuff out there that nobody knows exactly how credible it is, was it verified or not, it could end up creating problems.
Rose. But the point is, it's been a long time.
The President. Yeah, it has.
Rose. It's a long time.
The President. That I will acknowledge, and hopefully that this process will come to a head fairly soon.
Rose. And what about this legislation in the Congress that will allow families to sue the Saudi government? I know the government's in different circumstances.
The President. Exactly. I'm opposed because of that second clause in your sentence and that is this is not just a bilateral U.S./Saudi issue. This is a matter of how generally the United States approaches our interactions with other countries. If we open up the possibility that individuals in the United States can routinely start suing other governments, then we are also opening up the United States to being continually sued by individuals in other countries, and that would be a bad precedent because we're the largest super power in the world. And we are everywhere and we are in people's business all the time and, you know, if we are in a situation where we're suddenly being hauled in to various courts because of the claim that some individual has been harmed, then that will tie us up and it could harm U.S. servicemen, U.S. diplomats, a whole bunch of stuff. So, as a matter of policy, this is just not something that we have ever done. This is not unique to this administration, and I think it's important for us to maintain that principle.
Rose. When you walked in, I said this has been a very interesting news day. You said every day here at the White House is an interesting news day, but let me talk about two aspects of it.
The President. Sure.
Rose. Number one, the announcement by Ash Carter about 200 special forces going to Iraq.
The President. Yes.
Rose. My question is as you've added more to that, and do you — what do you think can be accomplished in the battle against ISIS in Iraq before your term of office ends? I'm thinking of the recapture of Mosul, specifically.
The President. Well, we've made significant progress. You know, talking to you and others a year ago...
The President. And looking at what's happening over the course of this year, there was a question as to whether we'd not only get an Iran nuclear deal but more importantly would they actually start getting rid of their nuclear materials.
The President. And a year later, even the head of the Israeli defense forces have indicated that in fact, Iran has abided by that deal and Iran's nuclear program has been greatly constrained and the deal's working as it's supposed to.
Rose. But also behavior.
The President. We also said that we were going to go after ISIL on every front and that is, in fact, what we've done. This is a long, hard fight as I just said last week, but what we've seen is they've lost territory and, as we get closer to Mosul in Iraq, and Raqqa in Syria, they're two primary strongholds. What I've said to our Secretary of Defense and our generals is, let's continue to resource what works and, as we see the Iraqis willing to fight and gaining ground, let's make sure that we're providing them more support. We're not doing the fighting ourselves but when we provide training, when we provide special forces who are backing them up, when we are gaining intelligence, working with the coalitions that we have, what we've seen is that we can continually tighten the noose. My expectation is that by the end of the year, we will have created the conditions whereby Mosul will eventually fall.
Rose. Created the conditions?
The President. But I don't know yet because we don't know what's going to be the actual situation on the ground as to whether something will have been launched. And I think it's important, and this is based on constant consultations with the Iraqi government and Iraqi military, with our own military, with our coalition members. What we've tried to do is let's make sure that we're being very methodical. Let's make sure that across the board if we say we're going to get something done that we've done it in the right way. Because what we don't want is to start something and then give ISIL some sort of P.R. victory because they've been able to beat back an Iraqi force that wasn't adequately equipped.
Rose. When you arrived in office, I think one of the early things you said to the CIA director is I want to get Osama Bin Laden.
The President. Yes.
Rose. And you did.
The President. Yes.
Rose. I assume you feel the same way about Baghdadi.
The President. I feel the same way about the entire ISIL leadership structure, which is as wicked and as destructive as any group of individuals on this planet.
Rose. I know you do.
The President. Yes.
Rose. But you've got — you've got Osama Bin Laden, Do you think you will be able to get Baghdadi by the end of your term? Because I would assume that would be very, very comforting for you.
The President. Well, you know — My goal is to make sure we're doing things right, and we got a plan and we execute. You take Bin Laden as an example, I would have liked to have gotten him the first year.
The President. But you don't have that luxury as president. What you have the ability to do is put and train all the pieces, the intelligence, military, diplomatic, and you just keep on grinding it out. And one of the things about — people always ask me what have you learned, what advice will you give? A guy with no grey hair who came into office.
Rose. Can I tell you how many people that I talked to before I did this interview and the question of what has he learned and what is his advice for his successor came up all the time.
The President. Right. And so, one of the things that I've learned is that the big breakthroughs are typically the result of just a lot of grunt work. There is a lot of just blocking and tackling. We have incredible members of our military and our intelligence, and they are just dogged, but they are putting together the pieces of all these things, whether it's the Iran nuclear deal, whether it's the breakthrough to Cuba, whether it is advances on something like Ebola or whether it is dealing with Al Qaeda and these terrorist organizations. What is important is making sure that you've got an organization that has integrity, that is clear about its mission, that is doing things the right way and not taking short cuts, that you're not thinking in terms of short-term politics or P.R., but you're in it for the long haul. And when you do that then, ultimately, you're going to get the good outcome. But sometimes it's not on your timetable and that can be frustrating and I guarantee you it's frustrating to Josh Earnest, my Press Secretary and the folks who have to think about our politics because sometimes things don't happen on schedule. I'll give you a great example, our Ebola response was one of the singular, most effective international public health responses in history. The American people, through our doctors, our diplomats, our scientists, the CDC, we saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But it took about eight weeks longer than the news cycle that occurred. And so as a consequence, Americans may not fully appreciate what a historic, effective response that was because when we were seeing Ebola scares on television every single night, you know, things don't happen in two weeks. They happen over the course of months, and it's hard work.
Rose. Telephone conversation today with President Putin.
The President. Yes.
Rose. What did you agree on, is there a coming together in terms of ideas about peace and the ceasefire and who can do what to make Syria a better place?
The President. The cessation of hostilities has now held roughly for seven weeks. There have been a lot of breaches to it. It's a messy environment. But there's no doubt that violence has been reduced and that's helped people who have been caught in the crossfire. My call today to him was to indicate that we're starting to see it fray more rapidly. And if the United States and Russia are not in sync about maintaining it and getting a political track and transition moving, then we could be back in a situation we were three, four weeks ago, and that would serve neither of our interests. In theory, he agrees. Whether in practice, we'll actually see results as it remains to be seen. I think that Russia recognizes that it does not want another Afghanistan, where they are continually spending money and potentially losing lives, trying to prop up —
Rose. And lost the war.
The President. — an Assad regime. But I think they are also very much committed to maintaining the structure of the Syrian state which, in theory, we don't object to either. Where we have continually butted heads — and this has been true for six years now, is his insistence that he cannot back unilaterally the removal of Assad, that that's a decision that Assad and the Syrians have to make.
Rose. But he said that to me, too, in two forums I've had with him.
The President. Right.
Rose. That very thing.
The President. Right.
Rose. But my impression is that he's not committed to Assad, he's just committed to a reasonable government in Syria, as he defines it and as you define it.
The President. And that's where there is a potential overlap in interests. Now, the challenge is that he's not the only person making the decisions. Assad himself has something to say about it and the Iranians have something to say about it.
Rose. And do the Iranians interest in Syria and the Russian interests in Syria differ?
The President. They don't perfectly overlap. They largely overlap, but the Iranians are concerned about maintaining their connection to Hezbollah in Lebanon, they see Syria as a vital mechanism whereby Hezbollah retains its influence in Lebanon. The Russians may be less concerned about that. The Russians share, I think, as much of a concern about ISIL and Nusra and other organizations because they've got a whole lot of Muslims in Russia who get radicalized and may be traveling back and forth through Syria. So, there is the potential for a convergence of interests, but it has not yet been realized. The other thing we talked about was Ukraine.
The President. And these are the two areas that have put an enormous strain on U.S./Russia relations, and what I've said to Putin before and I will continue to say to him as long as I'm president, is that we cannot ratify Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine, but that there is an opportunity through the Minsk process to resolve this peacefully. And if in fact, we can resolve that piece of business, then that clears out a lot of the underbrush and suspicion and tension that's existed between the United States and Russia, that would allow us to concentrate our efforts more on what's happening in Syria and what is happening around the world as well.
Rose. But do you consider Ukraine part of the Russian sphere of influence?
The President. You know, I don't believe that any country, any sovereign country should be subject in 18th century or 19thcentury terms to being a vassal state of somebody else's. Do I think that there is a deep, historical link between Russia and Ukraine? Absolutely. Do I think that Russia is going to have some influence on what happens in Ukraine? Of course. The same way that we have influence over Canada or Mexico and they have an influence over us. But there is a difference between that and them financing heavy weaponry that goes in and carves off big chunks of another country. So, what I've said to him is, if we can get that resolved, then there is the opportunity for the United States and Russia to concentrate on those areas where we have common interests. There are going to be some fundamental differences between the United States and Russia and between me and Putin. We are different — we have different values and different interests, but we do have the opportunity, I think, to solve some big pieces of business. Ukraine is an ongoing source of significant tension, not just between us and the Russians but also between the Europeans and the Russians.
Rose. I hear optimism in your voice.
The President. I think there is a chance of it getting done. But, look, Mr. Putin and I, when we have conversations, they tend to be businesslike and courteous and rational, but the actions don't always match up with the words.
Rose. Has he —
The President. And so, my hope is that here's a situation where they will.
Rose. Has Russia emerged as a global player?
The President. Well, Russia never stopped being a global player, but I think that what is true is that Mr. Putin has made the use of Russian military and a willingness to extend themselves, to protect their equities more of a priority than they had prior to him getting back in office as the president. One thing that I always try to remind people, though, is that the fact that Russia had to intervene militarily in Ukraine, the fact that Russia has had to spend billions of dollars sending military support to Syria, that's not a sign of Russian strength, it's a sign of Russian weakness. These were states that, up until recently, they had control over without having to send weapons.
Rose. But he —
The President. And — look, our influence is not based on us killing and muscling folks in order to cooperate with us. They cooperate with us because they see that their interests are best served by working with us. That's why we have all these alliances around the world. That's why we are a super power. The fact that we are very strong and have an extraordinarily effective military is obviously underpins a lot of what we do, just as the fact that we have the world's largest economy, and the fact that we have, you know, this incredible diplomatic apparatus, all those things make a difference. But ultimately, the best kind of power is the power that people consent to, that they say, we care about the United States and want to work with them because we actually think that when we work with the United States, they help meet our interests.
Rose. And they admire our values.
The President. And they admire our values.
Rose. OK, two questions.
The President. Last ones.
Rose. Yes, two last questions. One, what good has come out of the Iranian nuclear deal other than they have lived up to the provisions of the specific deal about eliminating nuclear facilities? Is there a change in behavior? Is there a relationship that has improved because you got past this nuclear deal and the drawing down of sanctions?
The President. Well, I'll answer your question, but I do want to just point out that, if you asked me what good has — what good have you done by, you know, protecting your family and making sure that your kids can go to college other than they can go to college and that they're safe. You know, you'd sort of say, well, I don't understand the question.
Rose. No, I'm trying to be generous about this.
The President. No, no, but I guess...
Rose. I would be generous about saying because they don't have this merit on its own, but beyond that, is there something else?
The President. I guess that's my point, right? The whole point of the deal was the deal.
The President. And making sure — hold on a second. Just making sure that Iran didn't have a nuclear weapon.
The President. Which —
Rose. Is important.
The President. Well, wasn't just important. I mean, according to — many of my opponents when I ran for the presidency, according to Prime Minister Netanyahu and many in the Gulf who oftentimes have been my critics, this was the single most important thing.
The President. And now that it's been accomplished suddenly everybody's, like, yes, what have you done for me lately?
Rose. Yes. They have to change their behavior.
The President. I tell you, it was a pretty big deal making sure that they don't have a nuclear weapon.
Rose. We give you that.
The President. OK. So, now that that's been established.
Rose. Yes, sir, you've done that.
The President. Look, I think that beyond that what we've done is we've created a conversation inside of Iran.
The President. How that conversation plays out, I don't know. And I always said that we would not do this deal premised on the notion that this transforms Iraq.
The President. There is —
Rose. But you hope it does.
The President. There is no doubt that there is a conversation inside of Iran between hardliners who want to preserve the old ways and those who want to open up to the world. This deal is a proof point potentially for those who want to open up to the world, which is why it's been resisted by the hardliners in Iran, and we're going to have to see who wins that argument. I think it is important for us to abide by our end of the deal, to make sure that Iran sees some benefit from the deal. In the meantime, we are going to continue to be very vigilant in monitoring those activities in terms of sponsoring terrorism or provocative activity outside of the region. We are continually concerned about the ballistic missile tests and other military actions that they may take. But the fact that there is that argument and that there is a channel between the United States and Iran for the first time since 1979, I think that is significant. It provides a possibility of additional changes in behaviors. In that sense, it's not perfectly analogous but similar to my trip to Cuba. Do I think that Cuba is going to change overnight? No. But do I think there is now a conversation in Cuba about how their society is organized, how their economy is organized and what their relationship should be with the outside world, and have we taken away an argument for not changing inside of Cuba? Absolutely. And this is part of going back to the question about an Obama Doctrine. Again, I don't subscribe to a single doctrine. What I do believe in is that the most powerful tools we have oftentimes in many of these situations are the power of our example, our economy, our culture, our values. And the fact that this internet-driven, innovation-driven, technologically-driven world that we live in is really our brain child, it's our creation. And so, if we can continue to create more space for people to see the benefits of that, that's not going to guarantee peace and prosperity and an end to violence and war, but it can make a big difference.
Rose. It's a fascinating model. You have said more than one time that we are the strongest military, we have the best economy, you've mentioned the culture, you look at the technological advantage we have...
The President. Right.
Rose. ... and all of that — America should own the 21st century, your words.
The President. Yeah.
Rose. What could stop us?
The President. Well, a couple of things could stop us. Number one is if our political system continues to be dysfunctional. It's fascinating the degree to which the single most important question I'm asked these days from other world leaders is, what's going on with your elections?
Rose. I was just in China, same thing.
The President. So, I think that — but in some ways, the current presidential election just is the tip of a broader iceberg of dysfunction that we've seen. Congress threatening the full faith and credit of the United States because they want to overturn ObamaCare, or, you know, our inability to make basic investments in infrastructure which are part of what's made us such this — such an incredible economic engine. There are basic things that we know if we do put us in a stronger position and, if we're not doing them, then it's not because of some technological issue, it's because of our politics.
Rose. Why can't we fix our politics?
The President. Well, that's probably for part two of the interview because that's going to take us a long time.
The President. The other thing that could threaten our position internationally is, I think, an unwillingness to engage in the world. Part of what you're seeing right now in some of the presidential debates is the notion of we engage only to blow somebody up or to build a wall to keep people out. But beyond that, worrying about foreign aid, trying to create a fair trading system with other countries, trying to lift other continents out of poverty or electrify them, you know, that's all a waste of time and we should be just focused on us. And that, by the way, gets some traction both in democratic and republican circles, and part of what I think we have to realize is the choice is not between us going around invading everybody and being the world's policeman or just pulling back and withdrawing from the world. The key is for us to recognize that we've built this international order with the help of our allies. It has to be nurtured, it has to be tended. There are times when military interventions are required to support it, but more often it is us being willing to organize trade deals like the trans- Pacific partnership that prevent China from imposing its rules throughout the fastest growing region in the world. More often, it is helping on Ebola so that the continent of Africa sees the benefits of working with the United States and those diseases don't end up spreading here, now Zika coming out of South America. More often, it has to do with us organizing the Paris framework for climate change. Because it turns out that the atmosphere doesn't have any borders and if the oceans rise anywhere, eventually Miami and New York and the West Coast and my home State of Hawaii are all affected. You know, that's the kind of engagement that we need. And I think that we will be doing ourselves a great disservice if we define our leadership too narrowly as just military or if we abdicate that leadership and discount the role that we play.
Rose. Or if we don't rise to the challenge when we are really challenged in a way that goes to the heart of who we are.
The President. That's exactly right. So, thank you, Charlie.
Rose. Thank you, Mr. President, a pleasure.
The President. I appreciate it.
Barack Obama, Interview with Charlie Rose Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/331731