On Syria, Obama Warns Against ‘Costly Interventions’

The president took on Syria, Egypt, Congress, puppies, and more.

President Barack Obama at Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y., Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013.
National Journal
Matt Berman
Aug. 23, 2013, 3:37 a.m.

If your idea of a fun time, or if your em­ploy­er’s idea of a fun time, is be­ing awake at 6 a.m. to watch cable news, you ac­tu­ally got something in­ter­est­ing this morn­ing. On CNN’s New Day, Pres­id­ent Obama sat down for a lengthy, pre-re­cor­ded in­ter­view with Chris Cuomo. And, in cov­er­ing a wide stretch of ground, Obama touched on some par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing is­sues. 

First, on Syr­ia: Cuomo asked Obama about what he made of the most re­cent re­ports of chem­ic­al at­tacks, and if he feels the U.S. needs to do more. The pres­id­ent said the re­ports in­dic­ate “that this is clearly a big event of grave con­cern,” and that the U.S. is “mov­ing through the U.N. to try to prompt bet­ter ac­tion” and that “this is something that is go­ing to re­quire Amer­ica’s at­ten­tion and hope­fully the en­tire in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity’s at­ten­tion.” 

At the same time, Obama pushed back a bit on the idea that there is much that the U.S. can do, say­ing that the situ­ation there is “very dif­fi­cult and the no­tion that the U.S. can some­how solve what is a sec­tari­an, com­plex prob­lem in­side of Syr­ia some­times is over­stated.”

Obama also ex­pressed re­luct­ance about get­ting too in­volved in Syr­ia, cit­ing the bil­lions of dol­lars spent on the war in Afgh­anistan, and the many cas­u­al­ties that war has brought. But he did, again, say that the U.S. will “work with­in an in­ter­na­tion­al frame­work to do everything we can to see As­sad ous­ted.”

On Egypt and Syr­ia, Cuomo asked Obama to ad­dress his crit­ics — par­tic­u­larly Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz. — who think that Amer­ica’s cred­ib­il­ity has been hurt. That brought this re­sponse from the pres­id­ent: “I am sym­path­et­ic to Sen­at­or Mc­Cain’s pas­sion for help­ing people work through what is an ex­traordin­ar­ily heart­break­ing situ­ation.” The “I’m sym­path­et­ic to your pas­sion” line is the new “good job, good ef­fort, please go away.”

In his re­sponse, Obama also said he wor­ries that “jump­ing in­to stuff” can get the U.S. “mired in very dif­fi­cult situ­ations,” and that “costly in­ter­ven­tions” can “breed more re­sent­ment in the re­gion.” 

But it’s not just big in­ter­ven­tions that bring re­sent­ment. One of the biggest cri­ti­cisms of the U.S. drone-strike pro­gram is that it can help breed more anti-U.S. sen­ti­ment in places like Ye­men and Pakistan. Re­tired Gen. Stan Mc­Chrys­tal, who helped lead U.S. coun­ter­insur­gency strategy in Afgh­anistan, told Re­u­ters in Janu­ary that “the re­sent­ment cre­ated by Amer­ic­an use of un­manned strikes … is much great­er than the av­er­age Amer­ic­an ap­pre­ci­ates.”

Obama backed up re­cent state­ments from the White House on Egypt, say­ing that his ad­min­is­tra­tion is “do­ing a full eval­u­ation of the U.S.-Egypt re­la­tion­ship,” in­clud­ing pos­sibly mil­it­ary aid, al­though Obama ad­ded that “the aid it­self may not re­verse what the in­ter­im gov­ern­ment does.” But on both Syr­ia and Egypt, Obama said that the U.S. has a short­er time frame now to act.

On the NSA sur­veil­lance pro­grams, Obama ad­dressed last week’s re­port that the NSA over­stepped its bound­ar­ies and in­ter­cep­ted the e-mails of thou­sands of Amer­ic­ans in re­cent years. What Obama took from that is that, “all these safe­guards, checks, audits, over­sight worked.” But he said that his ad­min­is­tra­tion is still look­ing to “im­prove the safe­guards,” and that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is re­leas­ing doc­u­ments and has set up “an en­tire web­site” for the sake of trans­par­ency. An en­tire web­site! That should be the end of that.

On the do­mest­ic front, Obama ad­dressed con­gres­sion­al grid­lock. He went back to ba­sics:

OBAMA: There is a very simple way of do­ing this, which is the Sen­ate passed a budget and the House passed a budget. And, you know, maybe you’re not old enough to re­mem­ber “School­house Rock,” but…

CUOMO: Oh, I re­mem­ber it.

OBAMA: … You re­mem­ber — you re­mem­ber how the bill gets passed? You know, the — you know, the House and the Sen­ate try to work out their dif­fer­ences. They pass something. They send it to me, and po­ten­tially I sign it.

He also, again, called a gov­ern­ment shut­down “bad for the eco­nomy,” and said that “Re­pub­lic­ans, after hav­ing taken 40 votes to try to get rid of Obama­care, see this as their last gasp.”

Oh, and in the truly im­port­ant news: The pres­id­ent ad­dressed the dog situ­ation. “Bo was get­ting lonely be­cause the two oth­er pup­pies are grown up.” And how’s the new dog, Sunny, work­ing out so far? “Right now Michelle is in full par­ent­ing mode and really fo­cused on get­ting Sunny to sit and catch. And, also there have been a couple ac­ci­dents.”

You can watch the in­ter­view be­low and read the full in­ter­view tran­script from CNN here.

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