Barack Obama photo

Interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News

September 09, 2013

SAWYER: If Bashar al-Assad yields control of his chemical weapons to international authority, are we back from the brink? Is military strike on pause?

THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely, if, in fact, that happened. I don't think that we would have gotten to this point unless we had maintained a credible possibility of a military strike. And I don't think now's the time for us to let up on that.

I want to make sure that that norm against use of chemical weapons is maintained. That's in our national security interest. If we can do that without a military strike, that is overwhelmingly my preference. And now the key is, can we see, with a sense of urgency --

SAWYER: Urgency meaning how long does he have to show this is real? A week? A month?

THE PRESIDENT: This is one of those situations where the stakes are high, but they're long term. They're not immediate. They're not imminent. But they are serious. I don't anticipate that you would see a succession of votes this week or, you know, any time, you know, in the immediate future.

And so I think there will be time, during the course of the debates here in the United States, for the international community, the Russians and the Syrians, to work with us to see is there a way to resolve this. But I want to make sure --

SAWYER: So we are talking weeks?

THE PRESIDENT: -- that we don't take pressure off. I'm not going to put a particular time frame on. I think that we know what's at stake here. We know that the international community, even Assad's allies, like Iran, agree that chemical weapons use is abhorrent.

SAWYER: You still want Congress to vote authorization? And do you still reserve the right to strike if they say no?

THE PRESIDENT: Strikes may be less effective if I don't have congressional support and if the American people don't recognize why we're doing this. So I haven't made a final determination in terms of what next steps would be. My hope would be that I can persuade Congress that this is important. My hope is that I can persuade some of the American people that this is important.

But ultimately I understand why a lot of Americans are resistant. I think the polls are clear. I read them. This is not Iraq. This is not Afghanistan. This is not Libya. The goal would be to degrade the capacity of Assad to carry out the specific chemical weapons attacks.

SAWYER: And Bashar al-Assad has said everything is possible in terms of retaliation. Do you feel at this moment, looking at everything that's possible --


SAWYER: -- that the American people should brace for retaliation?

THE PRESIDENT: No. Look, we take all precautions. But understand, Assad's capabilities are not significant compared to ours. They're significant compared to an opposition that are not professional fighters.

SAWYER: But they have allies; Iran, Hezbollah.

THE PRESIDENT: They're significant relative to 400 children that they gassed. They're not significant relative to us. Iran is not going to war with the United States over the use of weapons that they themselves object to.

But I think it is important for us to understand that if, in fact, the choice is between a world in which dictators and other countries start believing it's acceptable to use chemical weapons on civilians and children, that will make it more dangerous for us. It means our troops, when they're in theater, all start having to wear gas masks because they don't know whether or not chemical weapons would be used.

If we can resolve this without military conflict, that is my great preference, because I have to tell you that I would much rather be talking about how we can provide early childhood education to our kids and create more jobs and focus on all the things that I really think the American people care deeply about.

But as -- my responsibility as commander in chief is to make sure that I think about our long-term national security interests. And the use of chemical weapons threatens that in a significant way.

SAWYER: Thank you, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT: I appreciate it, Diane. Thank you so much.

Barack Obama, Interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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