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The following is an interview with President Obama conducted by NBC's Savannah Guthrie. The topic: Syria.
Foreign Minister said to today that Syria would consider placing international
inspections around its chemical arsenal. Do you believe it? Are you skeptical?
Do you think it might be a stalling tactic?
think you have to take it with a grain of salt initially. But between the
statements that we saw from the Russians-- the statement today from the
Syrians-- this represents a potentially positive development. We are going to
run this to ground. John Kerry will be talking to his Russian counterpart.
We're going to make sure that we see how serious these proposals are.
preference consistently has been a diplomatic resolution to this problem. But
what we have to also keep in mind is that Syria has large chemical weapon
stockpiles-- they have been in denial mode for quite some time-- we have been
in discussions for a long time now about trying to do something about these
chemical weapons with the Russians as well as the Syrians and we haven't gotten
it feel like a ploy?
you know, I think what we're seeing is that a credible threat of a military
strike from the United States, supported potentially by a number of other
countries around the world has given them pause and makes them consider whether
or not they would make this move. And if they do, then this could potentially
be a significant breakthrough. But we have to be skeptical because this is not
how we've seen them operate-- over the last couple a years.
that these strikes, if they take place, will be limited.
question to you is how could you possibly know that? If we strike and Assad
retaliates or Iran does or Hezbollah, they strike U.S. interests or even strike
U.S. citizens at home, what then? You may want limited action, but can you
really promise it?
look, nothing is 100% guaranteed in-- in life. But I think it's fair to say
that our military is outstanding, our intelligence is outstanding, and we have
shown ourselves capable of taking precision strikes on military installations
in ways that would degrade Assad's capabilities to deliver chemical weapons--
that would have a significant impact. But that would not lead to escalation.
know, when we went into Libya, I indicated that these were going to be limited
strikes as part of a broader NATO effort. And in fact, they were. There was no
sense of a slippery slope. There was no boots on the ground. There was no-- you
know, continuation beyond the narrow mission that had been set.
but Syria is different--
(UNINTEL) it's poss--
know, and Assad today, when asked if he would retaliate, had a message. He
said, "Expect everything." And members of Congress are saying,
"We're skeptical because we don't think the administration has a strategy
for day two, day three, day four"--
and I have to say that that's just not the case. First of all, Syria doesn't
have significant capabilities to retaliate against us. Iran does. But Iran-- is
not going to risk a war with the United States over this. Particularly given
that our goal here is to make sure that chemical weapons are not used on
know, we have seen consistently that-- when it comes to Iran, when it comes to
Hezbollah, those that could potentially engage in asymmetrical strikes against
us that they would only do so if they thought that the threat was
extraordinarily significant towards them and their interests. And chemical
weapons are not something that they-- in fact are deeply invested in.
Assad's tactic. Even his allies, I think, disagree with the use of chemical
weapons. We know that the Iranians, for example, having had experience with
Saddam Hussein gassing their own people don't-- think that it's a good thing to
use chemical weapons. And so it-- it is very unlikely that we would see the
kinds of retaliation that would have a significant impact-- on U.S. interests
in the region.
chief of staff called these strikes "limited and consequential."
Which in a way, seemed almost a contradiction in terms to me. Today, Secretary
of State Kerry said, "The strikes would be unbelievably small." What
does that mean? I mean, are we talking a pinprick?
knockout blow? A punch in the gut?
the U.S. does not do pinpricks. Our military is the greatest the world has ever
known. And when we take even limited strikes, it has an impact on a country
like Syria. But does not have-- a tremendous military capability. They have a
tremendous military capability relative to civilians.
have-- they have a significant military capability relative to children who are
being gassed. But they don't have a military that matches up with ours in any
kind of way. So for us to take actions that degrade his military capabilities,
that is limited in time and scope, still has a significant effect on their
calculation about using chemical weapons.
just have to emphasize, Savannah, what's at stake here. The chemical weapons
ban that has been in place is not something that only protects civilians. It
also protects our own troops. You know, they don't have to wear gas masks even
in tough battlefields because there is a strong prohibition and countries
generally don't stockpile them. And if we see that ban unravel, it will create
a more dangerous world for us and for our troops when they're in theater as
well as for civilians around the world. It is worth preserving.
saw those videos, and I assume you have, can you tell me your reaction to them
not just as a president, but as a father?
heartbroken. And-- and I think anyb-- I-- I would recommend everybody look at
these videos. Look, horrible things happen around the world all the time.
Horrible things happen inside of Syria every day. And you know-- all of us, I
think, recognize that America cannot try to solve every problem around the
world or stop every terrible thing from happening.
whether a few things that we know are important to humanity, when 98% of the
world says, "These are the worst kinds of weapons," because they're indiscriminate.
They don't differentiate between somebody in uniform mother, or the child. And
as a consequence, you have a treaty that was ratified by the United States,
overwhelmingly in the United States Senate by countries representing 98% of the
world's populations, there's a reason for that.
have to make sure that that ban does not erode. Because when that ban starts
eroding, then other weapons of mass destruction start looking more acceptable
because the international community's not willing to stand up on their behalf.
Now, last point I'll make on this. You know, when we talk about limited
strikes, no boots on the ground, limited in time and scope-- I have to
emphasize that over the last four and a half years, I've shown great restraint
when it comes to using military power.
know how tired the American people are of war generally. And particularly war
in the Middle East. And so I don't take these decisions lightly. But if we are
going to have any kind of serious-- enforcement of this international ban on
chemical weapons, then ultimately the United States has to be involved. And a
credible threat may be what pushes the kind of political settlement that I
think we'd all prefer.
have much time, I know you've been asked this and-- I'll just try to pin you
down a little bit. If this resolution fails in Congress, would you act without
Congress? Be it-- the answer could be, yes, no, or, "I haven't
I-- I think it's fair to say that I haven't decided. I am taking this vote in
Congress and what the American people are saying very seriously. I knew by
bringing this to Congress that there was a risk that the American people-- you
know, just could not arrive at a consensus around even a limited strike.
Because if you ask somebody, you know, I read polls like everybody else.
you ask somebody, if you ask Michelle, "Do we-- do we want to be involved
in another war?" The answer is no. People are-- are-- wary about it,
understandably. They have seen the consequences of this last decade. They think
in terms of blood and treasure it has not been worth it. It's not what they
expected when they signed onto the Iraq War back in 2003.
And so I
recognize how important that debate is. And it's my belief that for-- for me,
the president-- to act without consensus in a situation where there's not a
direct imminent threat to the homeland or interest around the world. But that's
not the kind of precedent I want to set. I think it's important for me to
listen, to-- to engage in Congress, we're going to spend this week talking to
members of Congress, answering their questions, and I'm going to speak to the
American people tomorrow night directly.
evaluate after that whether or not we feel strongly enough about this that
we're willing to move forward. And-- and I-- I've made my decision about what I
think is best for America's national interests, but this is one where I think
it's important for me to play close attention to what Congress and the American
you're confident you're going to get the vote?
know, I-- I wouldn't say I'm confident. I'm confident that the members of
Congress are taking this issue very seriously and-- and they're doing their
homework and I appreciate that.
you so much, Savannah--
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