In Afghanistan, we've made very tough decisions because we felt it was very important in order for an effective transition out of Afghanistan to take place for us to be pushing back against the Taliban's momentum.
So aside from the usual politics, I don't think this is an argument that has a lot of legs. And by the way, it's not an argument that the American people buy. They may have complaints about high unemployment still, and that the recovery needs to move faster, but you don't hear a lot of them arguing somehow that I hesitate to make decisions as commander in chief when necessary.
GOLDBERG: Can you just talk about Syria as a strategic issue? Talk about it as a humanitarian issue, as well. But it would seem to me that one way to weaken and further isolate Iran is to remove or help remove Iran's only Arab ally.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Absolutely.
GOLDBERG: And so the question is: What else can this Administration be doing?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, look, there's no doubt that Iran is much weaker now than it was a year ago, two years ago, three years ago. The Arab Spring, as bumpy as it has been, represents a strategic defeat for Iran because what people in the region have seen is that all the impulses towards freedom and self-determination and free speech and freedom of assembly have been constantly violated by Iran. [The Iranian leadership is] no friend of that movement toward human rights and political freedom. But more directly, it is now engulfing Syria, and Syria is basically their only true ally in the region.
And it is our estimation that [President Bashar al-Assad's] days are numbered. It's a matter not of if, but when. Now, can we accelerate that? We're working with the world community to try to do that. It is complicated by the fact that Syria is a much bigger, more sophisticated, and more complicated country than Libya, for example -- the opposition is hugely splintered -- that although there's unanimity within the Arab world at this point, internationally, countries like Russia are still blocking potential UN mandates or action. And so what we're trying to do - and the secretary of state just came back from helping to lead the Friends of Syria group in Tunisia -- is to try to come up with a series of strategies that can provide humanitarian relief. But they can also accelerate a transition to a peaceful and stable and representative Syrian government. If that happens, that will be a profound loss for Iran.
GOLDBERG: Is there anything you could do to move it faster?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, nothing that I can tell you, because your classified clearance isn't good enough. (Laughter.)
This is part of, by the way, the context in which we have to examine our approach toward Iran, because at a time when there is not a lot of sympathy for Iran and its only real ally is on the ropes, do we want a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as a victim, and deflect attention from what has to be the core issue, which is their potential pursuit of nuclear weapons?
That's an example of factors that -- when we are in consultation with all our allies, including the Israelis, we raise these factors, because this is an issue of many dimensions here, and we've got to factor all of them in to achieve the outcome that hopefully we all want.
GOLDBERG: Do the Israelis understand that? There have been disagreements between Israel and the U.S. before, but this is coming to a head about what the Israelis see as an existential issue. The question is: In your mind, have you brought arguments to Netanyahu that have so far worked out well?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think that in the end, Israel's leaders will make determinations based on what they believe is best for the security of Israel, and that is entirely appropriate.
When we present our views and our strategy approach, we try to put all our cards on the table, to describe how we are thinking about these issues. We try to back those up with facts and evidence. We compare their assessments with ours, and where there are gaps, we try to narrow those gaps. And what I also try to do is to underscore the seriousness with which the United States takes this issue. And I think that Ehud Barak understands it. I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu, hopefully when he sees me next week, will understand it.
And one of the things that I like to remind them of is that every single commitment I have made to the state of Israel and its security, I have kept. I mean, part of your -- not to put words in your mouth -- but part of the underlying question is: Why is it that despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they've had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?
GOLDBERG: That's a good way to phrase it.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: And my answer is: there is no good reason to doubt me on these issues.
Some of it has to do with the fact that in this country and in our media, this gets wrapped up with politics. And I don't think that's any secret. And if you have a set of political actors who want to see if they can drive a wedge not between the United States and Israel, but between Barack Obama and a Jewish-American vote that has historically been very supportive of his candidacy, then it's good to try to fan doubts and raise questions.
But when you look at the record, there's no "there" there. And my job is to try to make sure that those political factors are washed away on an issue that is of such great strategic and security importance to our two countries. And so when I'm talking to the prime minister, or my team is talking to the Israeli government, what I want is a hardheaded, clear-eyed assessment of how do we achieve our goals.
And our goals are in sync. And historically, one of the reasons that the U.S.-Israeli relationship has survived so well and thrived is shared values, shared history, the links between our peoples. But it's also been because it has been a profoundly bipartisan commitment to the state of Israel. And the flip side of it is that, in terms of Israeli politics, there's been a view that regardless of whether it's a Democratic or Republican administration, the working assumption is: we've got Israel's back. And that's something that I constantly try to reinforce and remind people of.
GOLDBERG: Wait, in four words, is that your message to the prime minister -- we've got Israel's back?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: That is not just my message to the prime minister, that's been my message to the Israeli people, and to the pro-Israel community in this country, since I came into office. It's hard for me to be clearer than I was in front of the UN General Assembly, when I made a more full-throated defense of Israel and its legitimate security concerns than any president in history. Not, by the way, in front of an audience that was particularly warm to the message. So that actually won't be my message. My message will be much more specific, about how do we solve this problem.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. Author of the book Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, Goldberg also writes the magazine's advice column.