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Interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News "Special Report"

September 09, 2013

WALLACE: Mr. President, thanks for talking with us.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much.

WALLACE: Syrian President Assad says there will be repercussions if there is a U.S. military strike, that we should, quote, "expect everything." You keep talking about limited, targeted military action, but the fact is you don't know what happens after you order a strike.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, actually we know what Assad's capabilities are. And, you know, Mr. Assad's military capabilities are significant compared to a bunch of opposition leaders, many of whom are not professional fighters; they're significant relative to over 400 children that were gassed; they're not significant relative to the U.S. military.

Some of their allies -- Iran, Hezbollah -- do have capacity to carry out asymmetrical strikes, but keep in mind that even Assad's allies recognize that he crossed the line in using chemical weapons. Iran itself was subjected to chemical weapons used by Saddam Hussein. Their populations remember what terrible weapons these are.

There is a reason why almost the entire international community has signed a ban on chemical weapons, even during hot wars. And it's because they're indiscriminate. And so my narrow concern right now is making sure that Assad does not use those chemical weapons again.

And, you know, we've seen some indications from the Russians, as well as the Syrians today, that they may be willing to look at the prospect of getting those weapons under control, perhaps even international control, and getting them out of there where they could be vulnerable to use by anybody. And that's something that we're going to run to ground over the next couple of days.

WALLACE: Well, let me ask you about that because there has been this interesting development today. The Russians say they're going to push Syria to put chemical weapons under international control. The Syrian foreign minister says he welcomes that. Will you delay a strike to see how that plays out?

THE PRESIDENT: I think it's fair to say that we would not be at this point without a credible threat of a military strike, but I welcome the possibility of the development. And John Kerry will be talking to his Russian counterparts. I think we should explore and exhaust all avenues of diplomatic resolution of this.

But I think it's important for us to keep the pressure on. And to quote, or to paraphrase at least, a former U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, it's not enough just to trust; I think we're going to have to verify. So the question is, can we construct something that allows the international community to have confidence that these terrible weapons will not be used again?

WALLACE: So would you delay a congressional vote until you see where this goes?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that in discussions with members of Congress, what we've said to them is that -- there's a reason why I slowed this thing down to allow for a congressional debate.

Part of it was because given that the threat was not directed imminent to the United States, despite me believing I have the authority to take action, I thought it was best for us to actually have this debate, because we've gone through a lot of war and people are frankly suspicious of a lot of decisions --

WALLACE: Yes, but sir --


WALLACE: We have limited time. I just want to ask, will you delay a vote?

THE PRESIDENT: I am going to make sure that this does not change the calendar of debate in Congress, but there was no expectation that this would be -- that Congress would be finished with its deliberations over the next week or so. I mean, clearly it's going to take more time, partly because the American people aren't convinced.

So I'm doing interviews tonight. I'm going to speak to the American people tomorrow. A debate will begin in Congress over the last several days --

WALLACE: But you said deliberation will be over a couple of weeks.

THE PRESIDENT: I do believe that it's going to take some time. But look, you know, Chris, you -- you guys have polls and you do head counts. And right now the American --


THE PRESIDENT: Right now the American people are not persuaded. Right now members of Congress, who are just getting back, still have questions.

So we're going to have time to have a good deliberation in Congress. We will pursue this diplomatic track. I fervently hope that this can be resolved in a nonmilitary way. But I think it is important for us not to let, you know, the pedal off the metal when it comes to making sure that they understand we mean what we say about these international bans on chemical weapons.

WALLACE: Had you discussed this when you were in St. Petersburg with President Putin, the idea of Russia intervening to try to get them to turn over their chemical weapons? Or do you worry that this could be the Russians -- and they have a history of this -- trying to throw a monkey wrench into this whole process?

THE PRESIDENT: I did discuss this with President Putin. This is something that is not new. I've been discussing this with President Putin for some time now. The last time we were at a G-20 meeting in Los Cabos, last year, I suggested the need for the United States and Russia to work together to deal with this particular problem.

It doesn't solve the underlying Syrian conflict, but if we can solve this chemical weapons issue, which is a threat to us and the world, then it does potentially lay the groundwork for further discussions around how you can bring about a political settlement inside of Syria that would -- would provide relief to the people who right now are being displaced or killed on almost a continuing basis.

WALLACE: Would you set some kind of a deadline or a time frame for the Syrians to turn over their chemical weapons? You're not going to let this go on for months?

THE PRESIDENT: No. So I think that we should be able to get a fairly rapid sense of how serious they are. We have -- the U.N. inspectors are going to be issuing a report fairly soon, I think in parallel with some of the debate that's taking place in Congress. We are going to be immediately talking to the Russians and looking for some actual language that they might be proposing. The U.N. secretary general has expressed an interest in working with us on this.

And so we'll put this on a fast track. I am, in part, confident about our ability to thoroughly examine this because, in consultation with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they've assured me that when I make a decision to launch a strike, they can do it and it still be effective, whether it's today, tomorrow or a month from now.

WALLACE: Finally, sir, I want to talk -- you talk about the hole that you're in on Capitol Hill. The latest vote count shows 238 members either against or leaning against, 26 members in favor. A new Fox poll finds just 36 percent of Americans support a U.S. attack.

And I guess my question is, how much responsibility do you think you bear for the opposition? For two years you said we did not have a direct national security interest in Syria. You said that -- the White House said that they did not -- you did not seek congressional approval, until you decided that you did. You talk more about what you're not going to do in Syria than what you are going to do.

And today John Kerry said that any attack would be "unbelievably small. The chairman of House Intelligence, Mike Rogers, says that you have done -- the White House has done a bad job at explaining, that this has been a mess.

THE PRESIDENT: OK, that was a long question. Let's see if I can keep the answer shorter.

I think that this is a very difficult situation in Syria. Everybody understands that. I continue to believe that there is not a military solution to the underlying conflict, which is in part sectarian, and that the American people are right not to want to have us entangled in a sectarian civil war inside of Syria.

But I have also been consistent in saying that the ban on chemical weapons is something that does affect our interests directly. That has been a consistent position. I have not changed it. And I think that there is a tendency to say, if we are going to solve the chemical weapons ban, then that must mean we also have to take on and own the entire Syrian conflict. I reject that proposition.

I think that we -- as we're seeing now in these international discussions with the Russians and potentially the Syrians, there is a way for us to preserve a ban against the worst weapons that threaten our troops, that threaten people around the world, that threaten in terms of proliferation, you know, attacks -- threaten to lead to eventual attacks on us, while still recognizing that the only way we're going to solve the underlying Syrian conflict is through some sort of political settlement, and we're going to have to work through the international community in order to accomplish that.

We can't own that because we've been down that path and it's too costly in blood and treasure, and it is not something that we ultimately think would be effective.

WALLACE: Mr. President, thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you -- appreciate it.

Barack Obama, Interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News "Special Report" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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