President Barack Obama gave an in-depth interview for the CBS news program 60 Minutes Sunday, which he used as an opportunity to defend his Syria policy and arguably rewrite the record in the process.
Obama’s interview was awkwardly timed for him, coming just days after Russia directly intervened in Syria’s civil war. His appearance also came shortly after the White House admitted that its efforts to train 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels have yielded just four or five trained fighters (the interview occurred before the White House announced an end to the $500 million training effort).
CBS’s Steve Kroft pushed Obama aggressively throughout the interview, at one point bluntly calling the effort to train Syrian rebels an “embarrassment.”
But Obama fought back just as hard, saying the failure to train Syrian rebels wasn’t a real setback because he never believed in that policy anyway.
“I’ve been skeptical from the get go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria,” Obama told Kroft. “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.” Obama later argued that arming Syria’s rebels was just a matter of “try[ing] different things.”
Obama’s rhetoric was significantly different a year ago, when Congress first gave him the money and authority to train anti-Islamic State forces. Far from describing the effort to train Syrian rebels as a “test,” Obama called it “a key element of our strategy,” critical to the goal of defeating Islamic State without committing U.S. forces.
Obama was similarly combative when Kroft suggested that Russia’s intervention in Syria suggested the U.S. was in retreat in the region. Russia’s aggressive posture, Kroft suggested, shows that Russian president Vladimir Putin is “challenging your leadership.”
“When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin,” Obama said. “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.”
As The Daily Beast reported just a few days ago, Russia’s actions appear to be substantially more than desperate flailing. One top defense official pointed out to the Beast that Russia’s cruise missile attacks on Syria from the Caspian Sea made no sense militarily (since simpler options were available), but served to show that both Iraq and Iran were willing to grant their airspace to Russian weaponry. The message, then, is ominous: The primary Middle Eastern powers battling against Islamic State are increasingly looking to Russia for leadership rather than the United States.
Obama says U.S. leadership is in no danger, though, partly because he simply defines it differently.
“My definition of leadership would be leading on climate change, an international accord that potentially we’ll get in Paris,” he told Kroft. “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.”
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