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President Obama: ‘I Have Not Made a Decision’ on Syria

August 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Barack Obama said he had not yet made his decision regarding a U.S. strike on Syria during an interview with Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Mr. Obama reflects on the challenges Americans still face over jobs, health care, education and voting rights.

GWEN IFILL: Hello, Mr. President. Thank you so much for joining us.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Really appreciate it. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And welcome to the NewsHour.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Great to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. President, you’ve just come from making a speech at – celebrating a nonviolent event, the March on Washington, Martin Luther King’s speech 50 years ago. We’re going to get to that in just a moment. But first, we want to ask you about a place where there’s been too much violence: Syria. How close are you to authorizing a military strike? And can you assure the American people that by doing so, given Iraq and Afghanistan, that the United States will not get bogged down in yet another war halfway around the world?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, first of all, I’ve not made a decision. I have gotten options from our military, had extensive discussions with my national security team.

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So let me talk about what’s at stake here. I think we all understand terrible things have been happening in Syria for quite some time, that the Assad regime there has been killing its own people by the tens of thousands, that there are sectarian arguments that have spilled over into bloodshed and have escalated over the last couple of years. And although what’s happened there is tragic, and although I have called for Assad to leave and make sure that we got a transitional government that could be inclusive in Syria, what I’ve also concluded is that direct military engagement, involvement in the civil war in Syria, would not help the situation on the ground. And so we’ve been very restrained, although diplomatically, we’ve been very active; we’ve been providing a lot of humanitarian aid to people who’ve been displaced by the war.

But what I also said was that if the Assad regime used chemical weapons on his own people, that that would change some of our calculations. And the reason has to do with not only international norms but also America’s core self-interest. We’ve got a situation in which you’ve got a well-established international norm against the use of chemical weapons. Syria has one of the largest stockpiles in the world of chemical weapons.

This is a volatile country in a very volatile region. We’ve got allies bordering Syria. Turkey is a NATO ally, Jordan a close friend that we work with a lot. Israel is very close by. We’ve got bases throughout the region. We cannot see a breach of the nonproliferation norm that allows, potentially, chemical weapons to fall into the hands of all kinds of folks.

So what I’ve said is that we have not yet made a decision, but the international norm against the use of chemical weapons needs to be kept in place. And nobody disputes – or hardly anybody disputes that chemical weapons were used on a large scale in Syria against civilian populations.

We have looked at all the evidence, and we do not believe the opposition possessed nuclear weapons on – or chemical weapons of that sort. We do not believe that, given the delivery systems, using rockets, that the opposition could have carried out these attacks. We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out. And if that’s so, then there need to be international consequences.

So we are consulting with our allies. We’re consulting with the international community. And you know, I have no interest in any kind of open-ended conflict in Syria, but we do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Mr. President, with all due respect, what does it accomplish? I mean, you’re – the signals the American people are getting is that this would be a limited strike or of limited duration. If it’s not going to do that much harm to the Assad regime, what have you accomplished? How – what – what’s changed?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, Judy, again, I have not made a decision, but I think it’s important that if, in fact, we make a choice to have repercussions for the use of chemical weapons, then the Assad regime, which is involved in a civil war, trying to protect itself, will have received a pretty strong signal, that in fact, it better not do it again. And that doesn’t solve all the problems inside of Syria, and, you know, it doesn’t, obviously end the death of innocent civilians inside of Syria.

And we hope that, in fact, ultimately, a political transition can take place inside of Syria, and we’re prepared to work with anybody – the Russians and others – to try to bring the parties together to resolve the conflict, but we want the Assad regime to understand that by using chemical weapons on a large scale against your own people – against women, against infants, against children, that you are not only breaking international norms and standards of decency, but you’re also creating a situation where U.S. national interests are affected, and that needs to stop.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. President, with all of the mayhem in the Middle East involving allies like Israel and Jordan and refugees on the border and potential action in Syria and the collapse of the government in Egypt, do you worry at all that your administration underestimated what the toll would be of an Arab Spring?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I don’t – I think we anticipated this would be a really difficult process. I mean, you’ve got a region that, for decades, has basically been under autocratic rule. And people have been suppressed, and there were no traditions of civil society. There were no traditions of political freedom. And then suddenly, folks are allowed to express themselves, but a lot of their organizing principles end up being around extremist agendas, in some cases; more moderate forces sometimes haven’t get got their act together. So we anticipated that this was going to be a very difficult path. We’re not surprised by that.

The one thing, though, maybe implicit in your question, Gwen, is some suggestion that there was something we could do to prevent it –

GWEN IFILL: That was implicit in my question.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: – and I think if the idea is that what we should have done is done more to shore up autocratic governments, that we should have stood by while governments that we had relationships with killed their own people – peaceful, innocent protesters – then I suspect you’d have a different set of questions for me.

And so we don’t have good options, great options, for the region. But what I am clear about is that if the United States stands by its core values and its core interests; if we’re very clear about making sure that we’re stopping terrorist attacks against the United States; if we are very clear about our, you know, commitment to the safety and security of Israel; if we are clear about the free flow of energy throughout the region that affects the entire global economy; but also if we’re clear about our values and that we believe in inclusive governments, that we believe in the protection of minority rights, that we believe in women’s rights, that we believe that over time it’s better for governments to be representative of the will of their people, as opposed to being, you know, dictated to by authoritarian governments; if we are consistent in those principles, then eventually, I think, we’ll be better off. But it doesn’t mean that we’re not going to have some very difficult problems in – in the meantime.

GWEN IFILL: I do have one more brief question about Syria.


GWEN IFILL: For the American people who look at this and say, why are we getting involved, how do you justify taking action? I know you talked about international norms because of chemical weapon use, but not because of the 100,000 people who were killed there in the past, and the 2 million refugees who fled across the border.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, what’s happened has been heartbreaking, but when you start talking about chemical weapons in a country that has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world, where over time, their control over chemical weapons may erode, where they’re allied to known terrorist organizations that, in the past, have targeted the United States, then there is a prospect, a possibility, in which chemical weapons that can have devastating effects could be directed at us. And we want to make sure that that does not happen.

There is a reason why there is an international norm against chemical weapons. There’s a reason why consistently, you know, the rules of war have suggested that the use of chemical weapons violates Geneva Protocols. So they’re different, and we want to make that they are not loose in a way that ultimately, could affect our security.

And if, in fact, we can take limited, tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about – but if we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying, stop doing this, that can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term, and may have a positive impact on our national security over the long term and may have a positive impact in the sense that chemical weapons are not used again on innocent civilians.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s turn back to where you were earlier this afternoon, the Martin Luther King anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech, the anniversary of the – of the March on Washington. You have a reputation, Mr. President – Mr. President, for being pretty cool and detached. But standing there at the Lincoln Memorial, at the place where Dr. King stood, looking out over that big crowd, that had to be emotional. What were you thinking?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, there were a couple of things I was thinking. Certainly leading up to the speech, I was thinking that you generally should not try to follow one of the two greatest speeches in American history – (chuckles) – because it puts a little pressure on you.

But most of all, what I was thinking about was just what I talked about in the speech, all these ordinary folks who did extraordinary things. There aren’t that many examples in American history, maybe even world history, where you see maids and seamstresses and, you know, porters and laborers who are able to fundamentally transform the most powerful country on earth. And to do that with the kind of sacrifice and dignity and passion, but also discipline that they showed during the course of the movement is not just inspiring but gives you a sense of humility and a desire to do everything you can on behalf of the principles for which they fought.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why was it important to you to be there today, to be part of that?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I’ll be honest with you. I would have wanted to be there even if I wasn’t speaking just because I think that day is as important a day as any in our history. You know, we rightly celebrate the heroism of those who – who fought and died to protect us. We, you know, rightly celebrate things like the Moon landing that show the extraordinary creativity and innovation of America.

But that day captures something that is special about this place. And that is the capacity for ordinary people, for citizens, to change structures of – of – of oppression that had been in place for – for decades and to do it peacefully. It – it not only gives you a sense of the power of – of individuals, but it also said something about the power of America to transform itself, and, you know, we’re all beneficiaries of it.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. President, as we watch the way you take actions on these things that you – that you talk about – particularly legal means, legal actions, the attorney general suing the state of Texas over voter ID; he’s talking about rolling back mandatory minimum sentences – and at the same time the Supreme Court seems to be heading in the opposite direction, how do you get done what you say you want to get done and leveling that playing field?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I would distinguish between civil rights issues, voting rights issues – you know, some of the – the core legal protections that came about in 1964. You know, in those areas it’s true that we’ve had some opinions, the most prominent one being the case where the Roberts court struck down a key segment of the Voting Rights Act, where we just have to try a whole range of approaches to make up for those decisions. So I will be working with people like John Lewis in reaching out to both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to see if Congress is prepared to amend the Voting Rights Act to ensure that people are not being prevented from voting.

But Congress doesn’t move real quickly around here, and if we can go ahead and move administratively so that our attorney general can go ahead in jurisdictions that seem to be intent on preventing people from voting and that have a racial element to it, even though largely it’s probably for partisan reasons, then we need to go ahead and – and enforce the law. And the Voting rights Act has a number of tools. Section 4, which was struck down, was not the only tool available. So we’re going to do that.

As I said in the speech, though, the broader set of issues, that have to do with the economy and economic opportunity and the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and the continuing barriers that African Americans and Hispanics and increasingly, you know, working-class whites have in terms of living out the American dream – being able to get a job that pays a decent wage, and having health care, and making sure that their kids can get the education they need to compete – and on those issues it would be very helpful if Congress moved, but once again, we’re not going to wait for Congress.

So I want to get early childhood education done because we know that’s the single most important thing we can do to increase upward mobility and opportunity for disadvantaged kids. And if Congress isn’t willing to pass a law, then, you know, I’ll start meeting with mayors, and we’ll start meeting with governors, and we’ll start meeting with, you know, non-for-profits and philanthropies.

GWEN IFILL: Including mayors who pass things like “stop and frisk”?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, you know, the – just the fact that a mayor happened to have one policy I disagree with doesn’t mean that I can’t work with him on others. And so we’ll use the convening power of my office to try to move the ball down the field.

You know, there are some things that we can do on our own. I strongly believe that we should be passing an increase in the minimum wage that hasn’t, as a practical matter, really gone up in a very long time when you factor in inflation. That would make a difference for millions of people around the country. I think that it is important for us to make sure that we’re rebuilding the infrastructure of this nation. We could be putting people back to work right now, increasing the growth of the economy, reducing unemployment. Those things, I need Congress to do.

But there are other things – for example, we went ahead and are moving forward on something we call ConnectEd that makes sure that every classroom in America is connected to wireless Internet so that new technologies are accessible to every child in this country. And it turns out we can do that without congressional action. So where Congress is unwilling to move, we’ll move. Where it can’t, we can’t.

But the goal of my speech today, I think, was to just remind all of us that for all the victories that we won over the last 50 years, what you now have is a situation in which all working people, all middle-class families are under strain. And we have increasing inequality in this society, and we’ve got to do something about that. And we can do something about it as long as we keep our eye on the ball.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And let me just pick up on that, because you did tie Dr. King’s vision to your own agenda, and you’ve been able to do – help the country in many ways. We didn’t go into the economic abyss after the financial collapse; Wall Street’s booming. Corporations are making great profits. But as you pointed out today, average wages – the gap between the wealthy and those who are not wealthy has never been bigger than it is today. The wages – especially of African-Americans – haven’t improved. Mr. President, how much does it weigh on you that your policies haven’t made more of a difference in those areas?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, it certainly weighs on me. In my first term, essentially, my job was to make sure, as you said, that the economy didn’t just completely collapse. It collapsed, but it didn’t go into a deep depression. And the reason that had to be a top priority was because, if it did, the folks who would have been hurt even worse were those middle-class families and folks trying to get into the middle class, who would have lost even more than they did. And what we were also able to do, at least in my first two years, was to initiate expansions Pell Grant programs, or make sure that we were providing help to cities so that they could hire young people during the summers. But, you know, obviously, an agenda that puts more people back to work has met resistance from the Republicans in Congress, and I recognize that.

But the – what is both troubling but also, I think, gives me a greater sense of urgency is the fact that this is a trend that’s actually been going on for a couple of decades now. As I mentioned in the speech, you’ve got technology that has reduced manufacturing jobs that used to be a foothold into the middle class, that has reduced things like bank tellers or travel agents that used to provide a good middle-class livelihood, and the new jobs that have been produced don’t pay as much. You’ve got global competition, jobs being shipped overseas.

All these things reduce the leverage that workers have, and as a consequence, it’s a lot harder for every worker – black, white, Hispanic, Asian – to ask for a raise. And employers know that. And companies are making great profits, but they’re not reinvesting.

So what we need to do is to go back to that principle that, if you look at our economic history, has always been the case. When we have broad-based growth, when the middle class does well, when people at the bottom have a shot, it turns out that’s good for everybody. It’s good for folks at the top. It’s good for businesses, because now they’ve got consumers who are spending more money.

And you know, a lot of what I’m going to be talking about over the next several months is specific steps, whether it’s helping keep down the cost of college or helping to do more to spur on the recovery in the housing industry or, as I’ll be talking about probably in the next several weeks, specific tools that we know work, proven practices that we know work to get more ladders of opportunity for people who are poor to be able to succeed.

GWEN IFILL: Final question, Mr. President. You said in your speech – you talked about the arc of the moral universe, quoting – a moral arc of the universe, quoting Dr. King, and you said it doesn’t bend on its own.


GWEN IFILL: I interviewed Taylor Branch, the civil rights historian, for part of our series on the March on Washington yesterday, and one of the things he said was that you suffer – you are a victim of partisan racial gridlock. That’s the way he put it. And you talked a moment ago about that a little bit. I wonder whether you think that’s true, and if so, what, if anything, the first African-American president can do to break through that kind of motivated gridlock.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, you know, I was on stage with President Clinton, and I remember him having a pretty hard time with the Republicans as well. There does be a habit sometimes of just Democratic presidents generally being – efforts being made to delegitimize them in some fashion. And that’s fine because, you know, politics is – is not – is not bean bag, as they used to say – it’s not a noncontact sport. And – and I don’t worry about it personally.

I do think what – what you’ve seen – and I – I touched on this theme during the speech – I think it has less to do with my – my race, but there is an argument that was made in 1964, 1965 on through the ’80s and ’90s in which those who resisted any change in the status quo, particularly when it came to economic opportunity, made two big arguments.

Argument number one was, any efforts by government to help folks who were locked out of opportunity, whether it was minorities or the poor generally, unions, any effort by government to help those folks is bad for the economy. And that became a major argument. And if, in fact, people start thinking the government’s the problem instead of the solution, then what that leaves you is whatever the marketplace does on its own. And what we’ve seen is a marketplace that increasingly produces very unequal results. And it – so it – it disempowers our capacity for common action to do something about poverty, to do something to help middle-class families.

And I think the second element to that argument that has been made, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly, is that government has hurt middle-class families or hurt white working-class families, because, you know, pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington are just trying to help out minorities or trying to give them something free.

And you know, there’s a line that’s drawn between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. And you know, that, I think, has been a fairly explicit politics in this country for some time. And it’s directed at Bill Clinton or Nancy Pelosi just as much as it’s directed at me. I – I think it – it doesn’t have to do with my race in particular; it has to do with an effort to make sure people who might otherwise challenge the existing ways that things work are divided.

And so part of what Dr. King talked about, part of what I think we have to get back to is the recognition that, you know the – the working man in Arkansas who happens to be white and the white woman in Philadelphia who wants to work, but is having a tough time finding a job, that they’ve got things in common that, in fact, they can work together. And if they both got kids, we want to make sure both of the – those kids are able to get the training they need and go to college and succeed in this – in this economy.

And there are certain things that only government can do to get there, like rebuilding our roads and our bridges and putting people back to work, you know, creating the kind of energy that will allow our economy to succeed in the future. And so I’m less concerned about the short-term politics and tactics that you kind of see and get debated a lot on cable television, and I’m much more interested in figuring out how do we create common cause for the overwhelming majority of Americans who are decent, hardworking, I think just want to do right by their kids and their families and their communities. They’ve lost trust in the capacity of government to help them even though they’re hurting. Are there things we can do to bring about that kind of coalition of – of conscience, as I said? And I think there are. I’m an eternal optimist.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you, Mr. President. It’s good to have you with us on the NewsHour.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: It was wonderful to be here.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you, Mr. President.