In an interview with NPR, President Obama says now is an appropriate time to step up aid to moderate Syrian rebels. But most of his foreign policy aims are geared toward expanding diplomatic efforts in a host of regional disputes.
Obama has come under fire from critics who say he has failed to show American leadership on issues ranging from Syria's civil war to Ukraine's crisis to China's growing clout in Asia.
After delivering a major foreign policy address Wednesday to graduating cadets at West Point, the president sat down with NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep and defended his foreign policies.
U.S. military might is only one measure of defining America's global leadership, the president said.
"American leadership in the 21st century is going to involve our capacity to build international institutions, coalitions that can act effectively and the promotion of norms, rules, laws, ideals and values that create greater prosperity and peace, not just in our own borders, but outside as well," the president said.
Here are highlights of the interview:
1. On why he's increasing help to Syrian rebels today, rather than two years ago:
"Well, I wouldn't say that conditions are better. I think in many ways, the conditions are worse. But the capacity of some of the opposition is better than it was before, which is understandable.
"Think — think about who this opposition is. The moderate opposition is opposed to the jihadists that have seen the chaos there as an opportunity to gain a foothold. Those are hardened fighters.
"When you talk about the moderate opposition, many of these people were farmers, or dentists or maybe some radio reporters who didn't have a lot of experience fighting. What they understood was that they had a government that was killing its own people and violating human rights in the most profound way. And they wanted to do something about it."
The situation: The president's decision to ramp up aid to moderate rebel groups is something his critics said he should have done a couple of years ago when President Bashar Assad's regime appeared more vulnerable. Today, Assad clearly has the upper hand and appears in no imminent danger of being ousted. The rebels are badly fractured. Islamic radicals have been doing most of the fighting recently, while the moderate groups that Obama seeks to help have been playing a smaller role in the war.
2. On what Russia's Vladimir Putin should take away from the president's West Point speech:
"When you look at events in Ukraine over the last two months, there is no doubt that our ability to mobilize international opinion rapidly has changed the balance and the equation in Ukraine. I just spoke yesterday to the newly elected president of Ukraine. Mr. Putin has just announced that he is moving his troops back from the borders of Ukraine. And that's an application of American leadership that's sustainable, consistent, and is most likely to produce the kind of results we want."
The situation: The election of Petro Poroshenko on Sunday marks a new chapter in a crisis that began last year with street protests that ultimately toppled the previous Ukrainian president. Russia says it will respect the victory of Poroshenko, the candy tycoon known as the "chocolate king," who already has a working relationship with Moscow. However, there's still fighting in eastern Ukraine, the country's economy is a mess, and Ukraine has been riddled with corruption and poor governance since it gained independence in 1991.
3. On China's expanding role in Asia and beyond:
"Just the bottom line here is China is going to be a dominant power in Asia, not the only one, but by virtue of its size and its wealth, it is going to be a great power in Asia. We respect that. And we're not interested in containing it because we are in any way intimidated by China. We're concerned about it because we don't want to see constant conflicts developing in a vital region of the world that also we depend on in terms of our economy being successful."
The situation: China has been playing a more assertive role in the region, and many U.S. allies would like a strong American presence in Asia as a counterbalance. The president's call for a U.S. "pivot to Asia" has been widely discussed but is still considered a work in progress. The U.S. and China are major economic partners who shape the global economy yet are also potential rivals who disagree on many international issues.
4. On his foreign policy goals before leaving office:
"I'm going to keep on pushing because I want to make sure that when I turn the keys over to the next president, that they have the ability, that he or she has the capacity to — to make some decisions with a relatively clean slate.
"Closing Guantanamo is one. Making sure that we have the right legal architecture for how we conduct counterterrorism and that there's greater transparency, as I discussed today, that's another.
"Making sure that people have a sense that when we use drones, we do so lawfully in a way that avoids civilian casualties and in ways that are appropriate. Making sure that our national security apparatus is — has, you know, enough legal checks and balances that ordinary folks, not just here in the United States but around the world, can feel assured that their privacy is being respected.
"You know, these are all parts of what I consider a — a major piece of business during my presidency, which is recognizing we've got very real threats out there and we can't be naïve about protecting ourselves from those threats."
The situation: The president came into office in January 2009 and promised to close Guantanamo within a year. More than 150 prisoners are still there, and closing the prison is not imminent. Obama dramatically increased the use of drones in several countries, but a backlash developed and they are being called into action less frequently. The Edward Snowden leaks and the NSA revelations are leading to changes and limits on some surveillance practices, but this remains a hot-button issue.
5. Is there an overarching theme to his foreign policy, like President Reagan's opposition to communism?
"I'm not sure I can do it in a sentence, because we're fortunate in many ways. We don't face an existential crisis. We don't face a civil war. We don't face a Soviet Union that is trying to rally a bloc of countries and that could threaten our way of life.
"Instead, what we have is, as I say in the speech, this moment in which we are incredibly fortunate to have a strong economy that is getting stronger, no military peer that threatens us, no nation-state that anytime soon intends to go to war with us. But we have a world order that is changing very rapidly and that can generate diffuse threats, all of which we have to deal with.
"And I think that the most important point of the speech today for me is how we define American leadership in part is through our military might, but only in part, that American leadership in the 21st century is going to involve our capacity to build international institutions, coalitions that can act effectively, and the promotion of norms, rules, laws, ideals and values that create greater prosperity and peace, not just in our own borders, but outside as well."
The situation: The president has wound down two wars, with all U.S. troops leaving Iraq in 2011 and the U.S. combat mission set to end in Afghanistan this December. The president says Americans are not in the mood for new military adventures after these long and costly conflicts. But critics say the president has let American influence wane and this has emboldened bad actors around the globe. Obama is facing multiple hot spots where diplomatic solutions have proved elusive and the use of U.S. force appears to be off the table.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene in Washington.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep in New York. We caught President Obama at a reflective moment yesterday. He was trying to define his foreign policy in the moment of change, something past presidents were able to do.
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INSKEEP: And a couple came to mind who were able to express what they were trying to in the world in about a sentence. Reagan wanted to roll back communism by whatever means. Lincoln has a famous letter, in which he says, I would save the Union by the shortest means under the Constitution. As you look at the moment of history that you occupy, do you think you can put into a sentence what you're trying to accomplish in the world?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm not sure I can do it in a sentence because we're fortunate in many ways. We don't face an existential crisis. We don't face a civil war.
INSKEEP: Rather than a single goal, the president spoke of promoting quote "norms, rules, laws, ideals and values leading to peace." He was, at the time, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. We spoke in the superintendent's house, where portraits of generals hang on the walls. He'd just given the graduation speech to Army cadets - stressing the value of using tools other than war. He said he is haunted by the memory of past cadets who were killed.
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INSKEEP: What should leaders, like Syria's Bashir al-Assad or Russia's Vladimir Putin, take away from the speech - in which you did speak passionately about not going to war unnecessarily and said you were haunted by the deaths of American soldiers?
OBAMA: Well, I think they can take away from it that they have to be on guard when they act outside of international norms, that we are going to push aggressively against them. We're not always going to push using military actions, initially. There may be circumstances in which we mobilize in the international community to take international action.
But as I spoke about, when you look at the events in Ukraine over the last two months, there is no doubt that our ability to mobilize international opinion are rapidly - has changed the balance in the equation in Ukraine. I just spoke yesterday to the newly elected president of Ukraine. Mr. Putin has just announced that he is moving his troops back from the borders of Ukraine. And that's an application of American leadership that is sustainable, consistent and is most likely to produce the kinds of results we want.
INSKEEP: It's interesting about Ukraine, though, Mr. President, because a lot of analysts have looked at that situation and said, this is an area where Putin may have had a weak hand, but he gained. He gained Crimea. He asserted his influence over Ukraine. You speak of Ukraine, though, as a success. Do you feel that you've been successful in achieving your aims?
OBAMA: You know, I think it's a mistake to think that somehow Mr. Putin reflected strength in this situation. Ukraine is not just next door to Russia. Ukraine, in the minds of most Russians, has been a central part of Russia for decades, for centuries. And from Mr. Putin's perspective, he was operating from a position of weakness. He felt as if he was being further and further surrounded by NATO members, folks who were looking West economically, from a security perspective.
And even in Ukraine, the crown jewel of the former Soviet system outside of Russia, a oligarchy that was corrupt was rejected by people on the streets. And so what you saw was a scrambling - a reaction to people in the Ukraine saying, we want a different way of life. The fact that Crimea, which historically is dominated by native Russians and Russian speakers, was annexed illegally does not, in any way, negate the fact that the way of life, the systems of economic organization, the notions of rule of law; those values that we hold dear are ascendant.
INSKEEP: Let me ask about Syria, Mr. President. White House officials have said that you are reviewing the possibility of military training for Syrian rebels. There has been, it's said, limited training by intelligence agencies up to now. This seems to fit with something you described in your speech when you talked about a $5 billion counterterrorism fund, which would affect places including Syria.
I'd like to understand what you think has changed in Syria. What, if anything, is different about the situation in Syria as opposed to a couple of years ago, when some of your advisers wanted large-scale training of the rebels and, I believe, you declined?
OBAMA: Well, I think that's not an accurate betrayal of either what we have done or what the debate's been about.
OBAMA: The issue has always been in Syria. How do we most effectively support a moderate opposition, recognizing that there are going to be limits to how rapidly we can ramp up the capacity of that opposition? And what we don't want to do is set folks up for failure. What we don't want to do is make promises that we cannot keep. I can't speak to all the work that has been done - whether in respect to both the political opposition, as well as the armed opposition that are fighting against Mr. Assad. But I think it's been stated publicly. We have been supporting them.
Ultimately, I did not think then, and I still do not believe, that American military actions can resolve what is increasingly a sectarian civil war. And I also believe that, ultimately, the only way you're going to get a resolution that works for the Syrian people in the region is going to require some sort of political accommodation between the various groups there.
But what we can do is to work with the neighbors in the region - Jordan, Turkey, the Gulf states, Lebanon - to deal with the refugee flows that are coming out of Syria, to deal with the humanitarian crisis that exists there, and to build on the framework - the progress that we have made over the last couple of years. We've seen some success in the Syrian opposition gaining more capacity, gaining more training, gaining more of effectiveness and building on some of that success. It is conceivable that, in combination with the other work that is done on the diplomatic front, that we're able to tip what happens in Syria so that it's more likely that we can arrive at a political resolution.
INSKEEP: Are conditions better there now then for a more robust aiding of the rebels and training of the rebels?
OBAMA: Well, I wouldn't say that the conditions are better. I think in many ways the conditions are worse. But the capacity of some of the opposition is better than it was before, which is understandable. Think about who this opposition is - the moderate opposition, as opposed to the jihadists that have seen the chaos - there isn't an opportunity to gain a foothold. Those are hardened fighters.
When you talk about the moderate opposition, many of these people were farmers or dentists or maybe some radio reporters who didn't have a lot of experience fighting. What they understood was that they had a government that was killing its own people and violating human rights in the most profound way. And they wanted to do something about it. But creating a capacity for them to hold around, to be able to rebuff vicious attacks, for them to be able to also organize themselves in ways that are cohesive, all that takes unfortunately more time than, I think, many people would like.
INSKEEP: That's President Obama, who spoke with us yesterday at West Point. Now, elsewhere on today's program, the president reflects on problems he does not want to leave for his successor to have to solve. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.