President Obama defended the administration's decision to "ramp up" their support to Syrian rebel forces by, among other things, providing some lethal aid, during a sprawling interview with Charlie Rose that aired late Monday night on PBS. The president "rejected" the view that getting more involved in Syria is a bad idea because of America's previous experience in Iraq intervention, adding that he wants to frame the changes in our involvement in Syria as basically more of the same thing we've been doing all along.
Here's the key quote on the Iraq comparison:
"Now, on the other side there are folks who say, you know, ‘We are so scarred from Iraq. We should have learned our lesson. We should not have anything to do with it.’ Well, I reject that view as well, because the fact of the matter is that we’ve got serious interests there...we can’t have the situation of ongoing chaos in a major country that borders a country like Jordan which in turn borders Israel. And we have a legitimate need to be engaged and to be involved.”
"We have humanitarian interests," Obama added of the Syrian violence, citing a figure of over 100,000 slaughtered. "The United States always has an interest in preventing that kind of bloodshed when possible."
When addressing chemical weapons, Obama used almost the exact language he's used before on the issue, adding that the international community has a "strong taboo," against WMDs."I'd been very clear that if we saw the use of chemical weapons... then that would change my calculus, and it has," he said. As far as what's changed, he's not really saying. Obama essentially argued that every option was on the table, though he was mildly critical of the idea of a no-fly zone in the country: "[it] might not solve the problem on the ground," he said.
The president also addressed the superhawk call of "why weren't we involved earlier":
"And the people who are being suppressed inside of Syria who develop into a military opposition — these folks are carpenters and blacksmiths and dentists. These aren’t professional fighters. The notion that there was some professional military inside of Syria for us to immediately support a year ago or two years ago [is wrong].”
The president added that he now believes we have "better" or good enough information on who the moderates are among the rebel fighters, and who the extremists are. That presented another problem:
“And one of the challenges that we have is that some of the most effective fighters within the opposition have been those who frankly are not particularly [friendly] towards the United States of America, and arming them willy-nilly is not a good recipe for meeting American interests over the long term.”
Obama kept the door open, even, for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, arguing that his ultimate vision for Syria is a "stable, non-sectarian representative Syrian government that is addressing the needs of its people through peaceful processes."
And he walked close, but still around, the whole issue of Russia's support for the Assad regime:
"Assad, at this point — in part because of his support from Iran and from Russia — believes that he does not have to engage in a political transition, believes that he can continue to simply violently suppress over half of the population. And as long as he’s got that mind-set, it’s going to be very difficult to resolve the situation there.”
The 45-minute interview with the president was taped on Sunday, just before Obama left for the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland. According to a Gallup poll out Monday, 54 percent of Americans disapprove of the president's decision to send arms to the Syrian rebels. Democrats were slightly more likely to support the aid — 51 percent of Democrats approve, compared to 33 percent of independents and 29 percent of Republicans.
Earlier on Monday, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes addressed the difficulties between Russia and U.S. on Syria in a press briefing: "we’ve clearly had differences over Syria in the past and continue to have differences as it relates to principally the fact that the United States believes that any transition in Syria has to involve Bashar al-Assad leaving power," adding that both countries would prefer a diplomatic solution to the ongoing civil war. Earlier, Russia already indicated its stance against imposing anything approaching a no-fly zone over the country, something the U.S. is apparently considering. And they are very much not interested in seeing us arming the rebels.
Meanwhile, the U.S. promised $300 million for Syrian humanitarian aid on Monday. About half of it will go to Syria, with the rest aiding refugees in other countries.
As we noted earlier when a partial transcript leaked, Obama talked about the NSA with Rose, too.