Barack Obama photo

Interview with Steve Kroft of CBS

October 11, 2015

Kroft: The last time we talked was this time last year, and the situation in Syria and Iraq had begun to worsen vis-a-vis ISIS. And you had just unveiled a plan to provide air support for troops in Iraq, and also some air strikes in Syria and the training and equipping of a moderate Syrian force. You said that this would degrade and eventually destroy ISIS.

The President: Over time.

Kroft: Over time. It's been a year, and --

The President: I didn't say it was going to be done in a year.

Kroft: No.

The President: OK.

Kroft: but you said --

The President: There's a question in here somewhere.

Kroft: There's a question in here. I mean, if you look at the situation and you're looking for progress, it's not easy to find. You could make the argument that the only thing that's changed really is-- is the death toll, which has continued to escalate, and the number of refugees fleeing Syria into Europe.

The President: Syria has been a difficult problem for the entire world community and, obviously, most importantly, for the people of Syria themselves that have been devastated by this civil war. Caught between a brutal dictator who drops barrel bombs on his own population, and thinks that him clinging to power is more important than the fate of his country; and a barbaric, ruthless organization in ISIL and some of the al Qaeda affiliates that are operating inside of Syria.

And what we've been able to do is to stall ISIL's momentum, to take away some of the key land that they were holding, to push back, particularly in Iraq, against some population centers that they threatened. And in Syria, we've been able to disrupt a number of their operations.

But what we have not been able to do so far-- and I'm the first one to acknowledge this-- is to change the dynamic inside of Syria. And the goal here has been to find a way in which we can help moderate opposition on the ground. But we've never been under any illusion that, militarily we ourselves can solve the problem inside of Syria.

Kroft: I want us to take some of these things one by one. You mentioned an awful lot of things. One, the situation with ISIS is you've managed to achieve a stalemate. But what's going to happen to ISIS? I mean, they have to -- somebody has to take them on. I mean, what's going on right now is not working. I mean, they're still occupying big chunks of Iraq. They're still occupying a good chunk of Syria. Who's going to get rid of them?

The President: Over time, the community of nations will all get rid of them, and we will be leading getting rid of them. But we are not going to be able to get rid of them unless there is an environment inside of Syria and in portions of Iraq in which local populations, local Sunni populations are working in a concerted way with us to get rid of them.

Kroft: You have been talking a lot about the moderate opposition in Syria. It seems very hard to identify. And you talked about the frustrations of -- of trying to find some and train them. You got a half a billion dollars from Congress to train and equip 5,000. And at the end, according to the commander of CENTCOM, you got 50 people, most of whom are -- are dead or deserted. He said four or five left.

The President: Steve, this is why I've been skeptical from the get-go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria. My goal has been to try to test the proposition: can we be able to train and equip a moderate opposition that's willing to fight ISIL? And what we've learned is that, as long as Assad remains in power, it is very difficult to get those folks to focus their attention on ISIL.

Kroft: If you were skeptical of the program to find and identify, train and equip moderate Syrians, why did you go through the program?

The President: Well, because part of what we have to do here, Steve, is to try different things. Because we also have partners on the ground that are invested and interested in seeing some sort of resolution to this problem and --

Kroft: And they wanted you to do it.

The President: Well, no, that's not what I said. I think it is important for us to make sure that we explore all the various options that are available.

Kroft: I know you don't want to talk about this --

The President: No, I -- I'm happy to talk about it.

Kroft: I want to talk about this program, because it would seem to show -- I mean, if you expect 5,000 and you get five, it shows that somebody someplace along the line made some sort of a serious miscalculation.

The President: You know, the -- Steve, let me just say this --

Kroft: It's an embarrassment.

The President: Look, there's no doubt that it did not work. And one of the -- one of the challenges that I've had throughout this heartbreaking situation inside of Syria is -- is that you'll have people insist that, you know, all you have to do is send in a few, truckloads full of arms and people are ready to fight. Then, when you start a train-and-equip program and it doesn't work, then people say, well, why didn't it work? Or, if it had just started three months earlier, it would've worked --

Kroft: But you said yourself you never believed in this.

The President: Well -- but Steve, what I have also said is that, surprisingly enough, it turns out that in a situation that is as volatile and with as many players as there are inside of Syria, there aren't any silver bullets. And this is precisely why I've been very clear that America's priorities has to be number 1, keeping the American people safe. Number 2, we are prepared to work both diplomatically and where we can to support moderate opposition that can help convince the Russians and Iranians to put pressure on Assad for a transition.

But that what we are not going to do is to try to reinsert ourselves in a military campaign inside of Syria. Let's take the situation in Afghanistan, which I suspect you'll ask -- Ask about. But I -- I wanted to use this as an example.

Kroft: All right. I feel like I'm being filibustered, Mr. President.

The President: No, no, no, no, no. Steve, I -- I think if you want to roll back the tape, you've been giving me long questions and statements, and now I'm responding to them. So let's --

Kroft: OK.

The President: So if you ask me big, open-ended questions, expect big, open-ended answers.

Let's take the example of -- of Afghanistan. We've been there for 13 years now, close to 13 years. And it's still hard in Afghanistan. Today, after all the investments we have there, and we still have thousands of troops there. So the notion that after a year in Syria, a country where the existing government hasn't invited us in, but is actively keeping us out, that somehow we would be able to solve this quickly is --

Kroft: We didn't say quickly.

The President: -- is an illusion and --

Kroft: Nobody's expecting that, Mr. President.

The President: Well, the -- no, I understand, but what I'm -- the simple point I'm making, Steve, is that the solution that we're going to have inside of Syria is ultimately going to depend not on the United States putting in a bunch of troops there. Resolving the underlying crisis is going to be something that requires, ultimately, the key players there to recognize that there has to be a transition into new government. And in the absence of that, it's not going to work.

Kroft: One of the key players now is Russia.

The President: Yeah.

Kroft: A year ago when we did this interview, there was some saber-rattling between the United States and Russia on the Ukrainian border. Now, it's also going on in Syria. You said a year ago that the United States -- America leads. We're the indispensable nation. Mr. Putin seems to be challenging that leadership.

The President: In what way? Let -- let's think about this --

Kroft: Well, he's moved -- he's moved troops into Syria, for one. He's got people on the ground. Two, the Russians are conducting military operations in -- in the Middle East for the first time since World War II --

The President: So that's -- so that's --

Kroft: -- bombing the people that we are supporting.

The President: So that's leading, Steve? So let me ask you this question. When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin. Syria was Russia's only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they've had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally. And in Ukraine --

Kroft: He's challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He's challenging your leadership.

The President: Well, Steve, I've got to tell you, if -- if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in, in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we've got a different definition of leadership. My definition of leadership would be leading on climate change, an international accord that potentially we'll get in Paris. My definition of leadership is mobilizing the entire world community to make sure that Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon. And with respect to the Middle East, we've got a 60-country coalition that isn't suddenly lining up around Russia's strategy. To the contrary, they are arguing that, in fact, that strategy will not work.

Kroft: My point is -- was not that he was leading; my point is that he was challenging your leadership. And he has very much involved himself in the situation. Can you imagine anything happening in Syria of any significance at all without the Russians now being involved in it and having a part of it?

The President: But that was true before. Keep in mind that, for the last five years, the Russians have provided arms, provided financing, as have the Iranians, as has Hezbollah.

Kroft: But they haven't been bombing, and they haven't had troops on the ground.

The President: And the fact that they had to do this is not an indication of strength. It's an indication that their strategy did not work.

Kroft: You don't think --

The President: You don't -- You don't think that Mr. Putin would have preferred having Mr. Assad be able to solve this problem without him having to send a bunch of pilots and money that they don't have?

Kroft: Did you know he was going to do all this when you met with him in New York?

The President: Yeah, well, we had seen -- we had pretty good intelligence. We watch --

Kroft: So you knew he was already planning to do it.

The President: We knew that he was planning to provide the military assistance that Assad was needing because they were nervous about a potential imminent collapse of the regime.

Kroft: You say he's doing this out of weakness. There is a perception in the Middle East among our adversaries, certainly, and even among some of our allies that the United States is in retreat. That we pulled our troops out of Iraq, and ISIS has moved in and taken over much of that territory. The situation in Afghanistan is very precarious, and the Taliban is on the march again. And ISIS controls a large part of Syria.

The President: I think it -- I think it's fair to say, Steve, that if --

Kroft: They -- let me just finish the thought.

The President: OK.

Kroft: They say your -- they say you're projecting weakness, not a strength.

The President: You're - you're saying they, but you're not -- you're not citing too many folks. But -- but here --

Kroft: No, I'll cite -- I'll cite if you want me to.

The President: Here -- Yes.

Kroft: I'd say the Saudis, I'd say the Israelis. I'd say a lot of our friends in the Middle East. I'd say everybody in Eur - everybody in the Republican Party.

The President: [laughs]

Kroft: Well, you want me to keep going?

The President: Yes. If you are -- If you're citing the Republican Party, I think it's fair to say that there is nothing I've done right over the last seven-and-a-half years. And I think that's right. It -- and I also think what is true is that these are the same folks who were making an argument for us to go into Iraq and who, in some cases, still have difficulty acknowledging that it was a mistake.

And Steve, I guarantee you that there are factions inside of the Middle East, and I guess factions inside the Republican Party, who think that we should send endless numbers of troops into the Middle East. That the only measure of strength is us sending back several hundred thousand troops. That we are going to impose a peace, police the region, and that the fact that we might have more deaths of U.S. troops-- thousands of troops killed, thousands of troops injured, spend another trillion dollars-- they would have no problem with that. There are people who would like to see us do that. And unless we do that, they'll suggest we're in retreat.

Kroft: They'll say you're throwing in the towel.

The President: No. Steve, we have an enormous presence in the Middle East. We have bases and we have aircraft carriers, and our pilots are flying through those skies. And we are currently supporting Iraq as it tries to continue to build up its forces.

But the problem that I think a lot of these critics never answer is, what's in the interest of the United States of America? And -- and at what point do we say that, here are the things we can do well to protect America. But here are the things that we also have to do in order to make sure that America leads and America is strong and stays number one.

And if in fact the only measure is for us to send another 100,000 or 200,000 troops into Syria or back into Iraq, or perhaps into Libya, or perhaps into Yemen, and our goal somehow is that we are now going to be not just the police, but the governors of this region. That would be a bad strategy, Steve. And I think that if we make that mistake again, then shame on us.

Kroft: Do you think the world's a safer place?

The President: America is a safer place. I think that there are places, obviously, like Syria that are not safer than when I came into office. But in terms of us protecting ourselves against terrorism, in terms of us making sure that we are strengthening our alliances, in terms of our reputation around the world, absolutely we're stronger.

[commercial break]

Kroft: After a short break for a few sips of water, our interview with President Obama resumed, turning to politics, Hillary Clinton's emails, and the president's thoughts about his last 15 months in office.

The President: What else you got?

Kroft: Okay. Mr. President, there are a lot of serious problems with the world right now, but I want to ask you a few questions about politics.

The President: Yes, go ahead.

Kroft: What do you think of Donald Trump?

The President: Well, I think that he is a great publicity-seeker, and at a time when the Republican Party hasn't really figured out what it's for as opposed to what it's against, I think that he is -- he has tapped into something that exists in the Republican Party that's real. I think there is genuine anti-immigrant sentiment in a large portion of at least Republican primary voters. I don't think it's uniform.

He knows how to get attention. He is, you know, the classic reality TV character. And, at this early stage, it's not surprising that he's gotten a lot of attention.

Kroft: You think he's running out of steam. I mean, you think he's going to disappear?

The President: You know, I'll leave it up to the pundits to make that determination. I don't think he'll end up being president of the United States.

Kroft: Did you know about Hillary Clinton's use of private -- private email server --

The President: No.

Kroft: -- while she was secretary of state?

The President: No.

Kroft: Do you think it posed a national security problem?

The President: I don't think it posed a national security problem. I think that it -- it was a mistake that she has acknowledged. And, you know, as a general proposition, when we're in these offices, we have to be more sensitive and stay as far away from the line as possible when it comes to how we handle information, how we handle our own personal data.

And, you know, she made a mistake. She has acknowledged it. I do think that the way it's been ginned-up is, in part, because of politics. And I think she'd be the first to acknowledge that maybe she could have handled the original decision better and the disclosures more quickly. But --

Kroft: What was your reaction when you found out about it?

The President: This is one of those issues that I think is legitimate, but the fact that, for the last three months, this is all that's been spoken about is an indication that we're in presidential political season.

Kroft: Do you agree with what President Clinton has said and -- and Secretary Clinton has said, that this is not that big a deal. Do you agree with that?

The President: Well, I'm not going to comment on --

Kroft: You think it's not that big a deal?

The President: What I think is that it is important for her to answer these questions to the satisfaction of the American public. And they can make their own judgment. I can tell you that this is not a situation in which America's national security was endangered.

Kroft: This administration has prosecuted people for having classified material on their private computers.

The President: Well, I -- there's no doubt that there had been breaches, and these are all a matter of degree. We don't get an impression that here there was purposely efforts in -- to hide something or to squirrel away information. But again, I'm going to leave it to --

Kroft: Okay, if she had come to you --

The President: I'm going to leave it to Hillary when she has an interview with you to address all these questions.

Kroft: Right now, there's nobody on either side of the aisle that is exactly running on your record. Do you want Joe Biden to get in the race and do it?

The President: You know, I am going to let Joe make that decision. And I -- I mean what I say. I think Joe will go down as one of the finest vice presidents in history and one of the more consequential. I think he has done great work. I don't think there's any politician at a national level that has not thought about being the president. And if you're sitting right next to the president in every meeting and, you know, wrestling with these issues, I'm sure that, for him, he's saying to himself, I could do a really good job.

Kroft: I do want to talk a little bit about Congress. Are you going to miss John Boehner?

The President: John Boehner and I disagreed on just about everything. But the one thing I'll say about John Boehner is he did care about the institution. He recognized that nobody gets a hundred percent in our democracy.

I won't say that -- that he and I were ideal partners, but he and I could talk, and we could get some things done. And so, I am a little concerned that the reason he left was because there are a group of members of Congress who think having somebody who is willing to shut down the government or default on the U.S. debt is going to allow them to get their way a hundred percent of the time.

Kroft: Do you think you're going to be able to get anything through Congress?

The President: Well, given that this Congress hasn't been able to get much done at all over the last year-and-a- half, two years-- for that matter, for the last four-- it would be surprising if we were able to make huge strides on the things that are important. But I have a more modest goal, which is to make sure that Congress doesn't do damage to the economy.

KROFT (voice-over): The president says that means avoiding another budget crisis and another round of threats to shut down the government, which could happen as early as December. Even with congressional Republicans in disarray, he's hoping to reach a deal with Congress, as he did two years ago, to lift some spending caps in defense and other areas while continuing to reduce the deficit.

The President: Right now, our economy is much stronger relative to the rest of the world. China, Europe, emerging markets, they're all having problems.

And so, if we provide another shock to the system by shutting down the government, that could mean that the progress we have made starts going backwards instead of forwards. We have to make sure that we pass a transportation bill. It may not be everything that I want. We should be being much more aggressive in rebuilding America right now. Interest rates are low, construction workers need the work, and our economy would benefit from it. But if we can't do a big multiyear plan, we have to at least do something that is robust enough so that we are meeting the demands of a growing economy.

Kroft: A few months back at a fundraiser, you made a point of saying that the first lady was very pleased that you can't run again.

The President: Yes, she is.

Kroft: Do you feel the same way?

The President: You know, it's interesting. I -- You go into your last year, and I think it's bittersweet. On the one hand, I am very proud of what we've accomplished. And it makes me think, I'd love to do some more.

But by the time I'm finished, I think it will be time for me to go. Because there's a reason why we consider George Washington one of our greatest presidents. He set a precedent, saying that, when you occupy this seat, it is an extraordinary privilege. But the way our democracy is designed, no one person is indispensable. And ultimately, you are a citizen. And once you finish with your service, you go back to being a citizen.

And I -- I think having a fresh set of legs in this seat, I think having a fresh perspective, new personnel and new ideas and a new conversation with the American people about issues that may be different a year from now than they were when I started eight years ago, I think that's all good for our democracy. I think it's healthy.

Kroft: Do you think if you ran again, could run again, and did run again, you would be elected?

The President: Yes.

Kroft: You do?

The President: I do.

Barack Obama, Interview with Steve Kroft of CBS Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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