Barack Obama photo

Interview with Gwen Ifill of PBS "NewsHour"

September 09, 2013

IFILL: Mr. President, thank you for speaking with us again.

THE PRESIDENT: Great to see you.

IFILL: Ten days ago in this very room, Judy Woodruff and I spoke with you about Syria.


IFILL: And you said you were hoping to make a shot across the bow. John Kerry talked today about a limited, targeted, unbelievably small effort. And now we're hearing news that Russia has a plan -- a solution, perhaps -- which would allow Syria to take all of its weapons --


IFILL: -- and put it under international control. Is that something that you've had any conversations at all with President Putin about when you were in St. Petersburg last week?

THE PRESIDENT: I did have those conversations. And this is a continuation of conversations I've had with President Putin for quite some time.

As I said to you the last time we spoke, this chemical weapons ban matters to us, to the United States. It is a ban on the worst kinds of weapons, that are indiscriminate, that don't distinguish between somebody in uniform and an infant child. And for that reason, the overwhelming majority of the world has said you can't use these.

And my intentions throughout this process has been to ensure that the blatant use of chemical weapons that we saw doesn't happen again. If, in fact, there's a way to accomplish that diplomatically, that is overwhelmingly my preference. And, you know, I have instructed John Kerry to talk directly to the Russians and run this to ground. And if we can exhaust these diplomatic efforts and come up with a formula that gives the international community a verifiable, enforceable mechanism to deal with these chemical weapons in Syria, then I'm all for it.

But we're going to have to see specifics. And I think it is reasonable to assume that we would not be at this point if there were not a credible military threat standing behind the norm against the use of chemical weapons.

IFILL: Charlie Rose had a conversation in Damascus today, as I'm sure you're aware, with Bashar al-Assad. And one of the things he said is that there might be repercussions if there were a U.S. attack.


IFILL: Do you worry at all that a U.S. attack could backfire?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I -- I think you always have to take all precautions and recognize that any military action, even a limited one, is a significant piece of business. And you know, we have looked very carefully at all the possibilities.

I think it's important to recognize that Assad does not have significant military capabilities relative to us. He has significant capabilities relative to, you know, nonprofessionals, soldiers in the opposition. He has obviously significant capabilities relative to those women and children who were gassed, but not with respect to us.

His allies do, though -- Iran, Hezbollah. They could carry out asymmetrical attacks against our embassies, for example, in the region. But we don't actually think that they want to do something like that. Keep in mind that Iran was the country probably last subjected to large-scale chemical weapons use, by Saddam Hussein. So there's a real aversion to chemical weapons inside of Iran.

I don't think either Iran or Hezbollah thought that what Assad did was a good idea. And, you know, for us to take a limited, proportional, although significant strike on Assad's capabilities to degrade them, I don't think would prompt them to get involved.

Having said that, you know, we take all precautions and, you know, we don't go into anything without having thought through the various measures that are required.

IFILL: Assad says the U.S. is lying about his possession -- or if not his possession, his use of chemical weapons.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you know, I think that Mr. Assad has been making claims that proved to be untrue for quite some time. There's nobody in the international community who credibly thinks that chemical weapons were not used on August 21st.

IFILL: By the Syrian government?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, period. And there is very -- there are very few folks out there who seriously think that the opposition had the capabilities to kill over a thousand people using rockets that came from regime-controlled areas into areas that were opposition- controlled.

So, you know, we have made a very compelling case about Assad's use. I don't think people consider Assad to be a real credible person on the international stage.

But, you know, as I've said before, if there are ways for us to resolve the situation so that nobody's using chemical weapons on the ground in Syria, that's the goal that we want to accomplish. And what is true is that the longer this conflict goes on with chemical weapons on the ground, after having seen the barbaric attacks that took place, you could end up with a situation where some of the more dangerous and unsavory members of the opposition, you know, got their hands eventually on these chemical weapons.

Now, I'm pleased to say that the opposition that we work with, that we've been in conversations with, the international community supported, they've been very clear, in statements, they don't want chemical weapons. They don't believe in them. They think it's a terrible crime to have used them.

And -- and so I think that if we can come up with a mechanism to get these under control, verify and enforce that they are not being used, then we should do everything we can to pursue that. But we're -- that's not going to happen if Assad thinks that he can lie his way through this and eventually the world forgets the images of those children who were gassed.

IFILL: How do you persuade members of Congress -- and the American people, who are overwhelmingly, in new polls out today, not in favor of this idea?

THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely.

IFILL: Deb Fischer, the Republican senator from Nebraska, who you met with last night --


IFILL: -- said that she doesn't see the end of this. She doesn't know what the purpose of it is. And Democrats like Jim McGovern say you should withdraw your request for an authorization.


IFILL: How -- I know there's a full-court press under way. How do you change their minds?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you know, I'm not sure that we're ever going to get a majority of the American people, after over a decade of war, after what happened in Iraq, to say that any military action, particularly in the Middle East, makes sense in the absence of some direct threat or attack against us. And that's understandable. You know, if you -- if you talk to my own family members, or Michelle's, you know, they're very wary and suspicious of any action.

So tomorrow I'll speak to the American people. I'll explain this is not Iraq; this is not Afghanistan; this is not even Libya. We're not talking about -- not boots on the ground. We're not talking about sustained air strikes. We're talking about a very specific set of strikes to degrade his chemical weapons capabilities in terms of delivery. And you know, I will continue to brief Congress on this.

But I knew, when I said I was going to present this to Congress, that this would be challenging. I also want to make the case, though, that it is in our long-term national security interest to make sure that this chemical weapons ban is enforced. I do --

IFILL: Don't regret taking it to Congress?

THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely I do not, because I -- you know, I believe that every president has the authority to act on behalf of the national security interests of the country and that, under the War Powers Act, we have to consult with Congress and inform them after actions are taken.

But I also believe that when it comes to an issue like this -- and these are going to be the kinds of issues we have going forward; not direct attacks, necessarily, against the United States, not some state wanting to start a war with us, because nobody can have a direct war with us, at least without inflicting enormous damage on themselves, but these kinds of issues like chemical weapons use, terrorists being -- operating out of certain areas -- in these kinds of situations, for us to start having a clearer conversation about what we're willing to do is the right thing to do.

And so I'm glad we're having this debate. I don't think that I'm going to convince, you know, the overwhelming majority of the American people to take any kind of military action, but I believe I can make a very strong case to Congress, as well as the American people, about why we can't leave our children a world in which other children are being subjected to nerve gas, and that it is in our interest, if we can take a limited step that has a -- makes a meaningful difference, it's worth it for us to do that. And I firmly believe that.

I -- I've said before, I got elected to end wars, not start them. I, over the last four and a half years, have done everything I could to limit our military footprint around the world, and to ramp up our diplomatic efforts. But there are times where, if the choice is do nothing or stand up to a terrible wrong that could lead to a more dangerous world down the road, then it's appropriate for us to take proportional measures. And that's what we're talking about here.

IFILL: Mr. President, thank you very much for joining us today.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.

Barack Obama, Interview with Gwen Ifill of PBS "NewsHour" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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