Highlights of an interview with President Obama for New York Times 8 August 2014

Mr President, are we in a time of disintegration with so many States collapsing and the level of disorder we see around the world?

You can’t generalise across the globe because there is a bunch of places where good keeps coming. Asia continues to grow; we’re starting to see democracies in places like Indonesia solidifying – and that’s a huge part of the global population; the trend lines in Latin America are good. (In Central America we’ve got some real problems.) Overall I think there is still cause for optimism.

The cold war has gone and with it the proxy battle between the West and the Soviet system that propped up a lot of governments that weren’t very strong. It left authoritarian regimes that weren’t producing the growth and civic and political hope that allowed them to sustain themselves. You combine that with globalisation, technology and all the forces we’re familiar with – and the Arab spring was going to come sometime. We didn’t know what the spark would be.

Now what you have is the end of the old order but a very rocky path to a new order being built. You have old autocratic systems and you have new systems but no civic traditions there, no economic framework that can sustain itself.  So the populist mob gets channelled into some very negative ways, particularly around extremist and fundamentalist ideologies that have no chance of delivering for the people in these countries in the 21st century but are simple organising principles that allow people to recruit and gravitate towards them. So it’s a very dangerous time for that reason in the Middle East and North Africa and parts of the Muslim world.

The other trend that you see is that great power competition is lessened. The United States militarily is so dominant that the likelihood of a face-to-face standoff between the big countries has been reduced, partly because of global or economic integration. What you see are a lot of regional contests between those like the United States who believe in an international set of rules that can underwrite prosperity, and a more traditional view of “spheres of influence” – big countries wanting to muscle small countries to gain advantages with respect to trade or maritime rules or what have you.

Our goals should be to help usher in a new order in places like the Middle East and North Africa, but also to recommit countries to a broader project of setting up international rules and norms that can serve everyone. But that is a big long term challenge and when you combine it with things like climate change, it’s not surprising that what you are seeing right now is a lot of chaos in various places.


Should we have kept 10,000 troops in Iraq?

Well just look at the facts.

My predecessor, regardless of what you thought about the original decision to invade Iraq, through the heroic efforts of our military, was able to pass on to the Iraqis a democratic system and a sovereign State. For reasons of politics that would be familiar to every politician in the United States, they decided it wasn’t good politics to sign an agreement that would allow the United States’ troops to stay there in the middle of the Arab Spring. And the notion that somehow we could force them to do that ran contrary to the very objective that the Bush administration had laid out which was that Iraqis were to make their own decisions.

The Iraqis have squandered an opportunity, and I’ve been pretty clear about the fact that had the Shia majority seized the opportunity to reach out to the Sunnis and the Kurds in a more effective way it would have made a difference. The flip side of it is that if they had done what they have done and we had 10,000 troops there, that would not have prevented the kind of problems we see there now. The only difference would be that we would have 10,000 troops in the middle of this chaos!


Should we have armed the Syrian rebels?

It’s always been a fantasy that if we had provided some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to an opposition that was essentially made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth - how were they going to be able to battle, not only a well-armed State backed by Russia, and backed by Iran with a battle-hardened Hezbollah? That was never on the cards. There was not as much capacity as you would hope.

One advantage that places like Iran have in the region is that they have been playing the proxy game for a long time. They are not constrained by congress, and basic norms and international law and budgets, so if you have a 30 year ramp to build up a force like Hezbollah, it can be somewhat effective.

The broader point is that what we have is a disaffected Sunni minority in the case of Iraq and Sunni majority in the case of Syria, stretching from Baghdad to Damascus. Unless we can give them a formula that speaks to the aspirations of that population, we are inevitably going to have problems. Assad hasn’t learned that lesson. There was a period of time in Iraq where the Shiite majority didn’t fully understand that. They’re starting to understand it now.


How does ISIL [Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] fit into the picture?

Unfortunately we now have ISIL which has very little appeal to ordinary Sunnis; they are filling a vacuum. The question for us is not simply how can we counteract them militarily but how are we going to speak to a Sunni population in that area and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa? They are detached from the global economy, they feel no stake in it, and they don’t see any prospects for themselves. That’s a dangerous situation and it’s going to require a whole of government effort – not just our military, but our diplomacy, our economic and cultural and social and civic power and we’ve got to stitch together coalitions. That’s going to be our main task over the next several years.


How close is Iraq to getting the kind of government so we can intervene non-militarily?

I am more optimistic about it than a month ago. They have now elected a president and a speaker of the house. Now they have to elect a prime minister and allow that prime minister to form a government. They are close. It has been encouraging to see key figures in the Shia Iraqi population recognising that they have to make accommodations in order to hold the country together. When a key figure says a government has to abide by a constitution and recognise diverse interest of the country, that helps.


Has Iran been helpful?

Iran has finally realised that a maximalist position by the Shiities inside of Iraq, over the long term, is going to fail.

That’s a broader lesson for every country. If you want just 100% and the notion of “the winner takes all the spoils” then sooner or later that government is going to break down and the society will break down, especially when you have sharp ethnic divisions.  I think we have a chance to get a government in place that in the abstract recognises that compromise is necessary. Now getting them to actually compromise and actually function is going to take some time. It’s a lot tougher to do it now than it might have been back in 2006 or 2008-9-10. So we’ve lost a big chunk of time here.


It always seems to come back to what President Obama did do or didn’t do!

We are the sole super power in the world and we remain the one indispensable nation. There is no issue in which our leadership is not critical. What the American people get, what the military understands and anybody involved in these problems recognises is that we cannot do for them what they are unwilling to do for themselves.

We can do it temporarily; that is essentially what the American military did after 2006-7 in Iraq. Our military is so capable that if we put everything we have into it we can keep the lid on a problem for a time. But for a society to function long term, the people themselves have to make decisions about how they are going to live together, how they are going to accommodate each other’s interests and how they are going to compromise. When it comes to things like corruption, the people and their leaders have to hold themselves accountable for changing those cultures. When it comes to making investments and education and the next generation, they have to decide that this is more important that a Swiss bank account or more important than some big status building that they want to build. Those are all decisions that folks have to make.

What we can do is present to them a vision that would allow them to succeed. We can help them and partner with them every step of the way but we can’t do it for them.


Regarding Iraq, what was it that made you involve the military now?

What I announced yesterday is actually an extension of what I said back in June when ISIL started on the march and entered into Mosul: I, as Commander in Chief, will always do what is necessary to protect our men and women around the world. We have an embassy in Baghdad, we have a consulate in Irbil and we have to make sure they are not threatened. Part of the rationale for my announcement yesterday was that an encroachment to Irbil  is close enough to justify us taking shots, just for pure protection of U.S. personnel and facilities.

With respect to Mt Sinjar and the men, women and children who are trapped on top of that mountain, I’ve always said that we can’t solve every problem but when you have a unique circumstance in which genocide is threatened and a country is willing to have us in there and you have a strong international consensus that these people need to be protected and we have a capacity to do so, then we have an obligation to do so.


Is Kurdistan tending in the right direction?

I do think the Kurds used the time that was given by our troops’ sacrifices in Iraq. They used that time well and the Kurdish region is functional the way we would like to see it. It is tolerant of other sects and religions in a way that we’d like to see elsewhere. So we do think it is important to make sure that space is protected.

But more broadly, what I’ve indicated is that I don’t want to get into the business of being the Iraqi air force, or for that matter the Kurdish air force, in the absence of a commitment of the people on the ground to get their act together and do what is necessary politically to start protecting themselves and to push back against ISIL.

We do have a strategic interest in pushing back ISIL.  We’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq. But we can only do that if we know we have partners on the ground capable of filling the void. We can run them off for certain period of time but as soon as our planes are gone, they will come back in. So if we are going to reach out to Sunni tribes and local governors and leaders, they’ve got to have some sense that they are fighting for something. And as horrible as ISIL is we should be able to offer them some inducement to peel them away but not if we see the same kind of dysfunction in Baghdad that we’ve seen for too many years.


Mr President, are you worried about Israel today and about their long term survival?

Well it is amazing to see what Israel has become over the last several decades. You think about the dream of the early Zionists. To have scratched out of rock this incredibly vibrant, successful and wealthy and powerful country is a testament to the ingenuity and the energy and vision of the Jewish people. And because Israel is so capable militarily, I don’t worry about Israel’s survival.

Others can cause Israel pain – it’s a really bad neighbourhood and they can inflict casualties and destruction in parts of Israel -  but Israel is going to survive. That’s not the issue.

I think the question really is, how does Israel survive? How can you create a State of Israel that maintains its democratic and civic traditions? How can you preserve a Jewish State that is also reflective of the best values of those that founded Israel? In order to do that, it is consistently my belief that they have to find a way to live side by side in peace with Palestinians. They have to recognise their interests. They have to recognise that they have legitimate claims and this is their land and neighbourhood as well. And so this is why we have worked so hard, against the advice of realists who have said we are wasting our time, to move the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government closer together to an agreement on a two-State solution.

And I will tell you, at this point the problems are not technical. I mean they are difficult challenges. How can Israel be sure it is secure from the Jordan Valley on in? Anybody who has been to Jerusalem understands how approximate the West Bank is to Jewish population centres. And in today’s world with the kind of weaponry that’s available, it’s understandable that Israel needs to have a lot of confidence in the security system if we had an independent West Bank.

But I sent one of our top Generals, General Alan, to talk to the Israelis about what their security needs were in their own terms. And solutions are obtainable.

The challenge now is political. It’s a question of will. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said he believes in a two-State solution and has said he wants to bring that about. When it comes to nitty-gritty though, the politics in Israel has shifted pretty heavily towards the right and the settler movement coming out of Israel has made it much more difficult to shape a serious compromise.

On the Palestinian side I think Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) is genuine in his belief in a two-State solution and peace. He has recognised Israel. If you look at the security forces in the Palestinian Authority and their cooperation with IDF, they have performed pretty admirably. But he has also been unwilling to seize the moment all too often.


Is it time to bring them both here and for you to “play the heavy”?

Well, we have been doing that behind the scenes. I’ve had some pretty tense conversations with both sides throughout this process. But you can lead folks to water – they’ve got to drink. And so far they haven’t been willing to because the politics in their societies are working in the opposite directions. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s poll numbers are a lot higher than mine! So if he doesn’t feel some internal pressure it’s hard to see him being willing to make very difficult compromises including taking on the settler movement.

With respect to Abbas, it’s a slightly different problem. In some ways Bibi (Yetanhahu) is too strong, and in some ways Abbas is too weak to bring them together and make bold decisions.

It’s going to require leadership among both the Palestinians and the Israelis to look beyond tomorrow, or next year or even five years from now. Look at 20 years from now –  the hardest thing for politicians to do is to take the long view on things.


Regarding Vladimir Putin – did something snap with him? Is there any way out of this?

We had a very productive relationship with Russia in my first term. But when Putin ran for the presidency the second time he was challenged politically and we started seeing this anti-American and anti-Western sentiment and a pro-Russian and almost Tsarist attitude early in his campaign. There were protests in the street and it seemed, from his perspective, that he was losing control. It proved successful for him politically and so he kept playing that game. I think he does have genuine concerns about NATO expansion and missile defence, our decision to go into Iraq the first time, for us to work with a coalition to go into Libya – he sees these as examples of the U.S. throwing its weight around in ways that are contrary to Russian interests. In some of those things he could make a rational argument, although I disagree with him.


But I actually think the situation in Ukraine caught him by surprise. This wasn’t some grand strategy. What happened was that his crony, Yanukovych was so corrupt and had made promises to sign a European agreement, then had to go back on it. Suddenly you’ve got these protests in Ukraine with people saying, Look at Poland - they’ve shot up into a genuinely prosperous country and we’re still stuck with this kleptocracy.

I actually spoke to Putin and tried to broker an agreement that would quell the violence and allow Yanukovych to see out his term, but Yanukovych took off because what he realised was that if Parliament had more power they would start looking into the stuff that he’d been doing. Putin was caught flat-footed on that and improvised himself into Crimea. Now what you see is a smaller and smaller circle around him – fierce Russian nationalists suddenly having his ear and the escalation of Russian State media cranking up this jingoism. I am not sure that this was all planned but he now finds himself in a position with his poll numbers very high; he has stirred Russians into a frenzy (the majority of them believe the Ukrainians shot down the Malaysian Airlines plane) and so finding an off-ramp for him becomes more challenging.

Having said that, I think it is still possible for us, because of the organisation we have  done with the Europeans with Ukraine and the genuine bite that the sanctions have had on the Russian economy, for us to arrive at a fair accommodation in which Ukrainian sovereignty and independence is still recognised but also recognition that Ukraine does have historic ties to Russia, the majority of their trade goes to Russia, a huge portion of the population are Russian-speaking, and so they are not going to be severed from Russia. If we do that, a deal should be possible.

But one thing I have discovered during the course of my presidency is that just because something makes sense, doesn’t mean it actually happens! This is true domestically and in foreign policy. And so I think we are in a dangerous time, in part because the position of the separatists has weakened, and I think Putin does not want to lose face. So the window for that compromise is being lost.

He could invade Ukraine, and if he does, that would set us on a course – not to a new cold war – but trying to find our way back to a cooperative, functioning relationship with Russia during the remainder of my term would be much more difficult.


What’s the biggest thing you have learned in foreign policy since you were President?

There are a couple of things: What we’ve done well and what I push my team to build on is recognising, not just problems, but opportunities. The African summit we just had didn’t get a lot of coverage here – it was dominated by the ebola scare. But we had fifty countries show up. You had a continent that 20 years ago was perceived as falling off a cliff. Now it has six of the ten fastest growing economies. Because of the work that, not just my administration, but the Bush and Clinton administration had done along with our international partners and the countries themselves, you see an interest not in aid but in markets and reform and private sector investment that is remarkable. What we are seeing is that we are as well positioned in Africa as China, which has made a lot of investments because they want to get natural resources. We are positioned to partner with a young vibrant continent that has huge geo-political implications.

It is the same with our pivot to Asia. A lot of people question, What does this really mean concretely? Is this just for show? But the truth is we have been showing up in Asia the way we haven’t done for a decade and now our traditional alliances with places like Japan, Korea, the Phillipines and Thailand have never been stronger. We have a deeper relationship with the ASEAN countries in South-East Asia than we’ve ever had before. They are wanting us to be in there and as a consequence there are great commercial opportunities as well as strategic possibilities that didn’t exist before.

The same is true in Latin America - Countries like Chile, Peru and even Columbia.

I guess the point is we have been looking at opportunities even as we have been trying to manage problems.

I have learned, however, and I think this is a lesson American Presidents have to learn over and over again, is that when we intervene militarily there are unintended consequences. Sometimes it is necessary for us to do it, but we have to think those consequences through. An example which still has ramifications today is our part with the coalition that overthrew Gaddafi in Libya. I absolutely believe it was the right thing to do. When people say, Look at the chaos, you should have let Gaddafi stay there, they forget that the Arab Spring had come in full force to Libya and had we not intervened it’s likely that Libya would have become another Syria because Gaddafi was not going to be able to contain what had been unleashed there.

But what is also true is that I think we underestimated, and our European partners underestimated, the need to come in full force if you are going to do this; that it’s the day after Gaddafi’s gone, when everyone is feeling good and they are holding up posters saying,Thank you America, there has to be a much more concerted effort to build societies that didn’t have any civic traditions. You’ve had a despot for 40 years – there are no traditions there to build on. In Tunisia there was a civil society and that’s why they have been more successful in transitioning.

So that’s a lesson I now apply every time we ask the question, Should we intervene militarily? Do we have an answer the day after? We have an obligation to think it through.

The last thing I’ve learned – and I want to be sure I get this in. As Americans we have what I think is a valuable trait which is “self-doubt”. So every so often we wonder, Are we in decline? What’s happening to American leadership? Are we going to be overtaken by somebody – the Russians or the Japanese or Chinese?

But you go around the world and you find things don’t run unless we’re there. In any multi-lateral forum, we set the agenda. Everybody is looking to us. They ask, How should we make this work? Sometimes people resent it or resist it because of their own interests.

But the thing I’d like Americans to recognise and understand is that we hold the best cards. There has been improvement in every economic indicator. We are the only power in the world, other than Russia  (but economically I don’t reconsider Russia a major power) that are as close to being energy independent as you can be for an economy of our size and wealth. In clean energy we have opportunity to lead. We have the ability to train people through our universities. In immigration we still attract the best and brightest. When people speak to me about Russia, I tell them that nobody’s trying to migrate to Moscow – nobody thinks that’s the place of opportunity and that if I’ve got a good idea I’ll be able to make something happen there. They want to go to Silicon Valley or one of our leading universities to do their research and get things going.

The biggest impediment to American leadership is not external. We have the strongest military and the most dynamic economy. What will be the measure of success in the 21st century is all our stuff – it’s knowledge, it’s innovation, it’s openness, it’s the ability to blend cultures.

The thing that is going to hold us back is “us”. If we make good decisions we will continue to be, not only the dominant power, but a benevolent force around the world.


But are we saying to the world, “Do as I say, not as I do.”?

I would distinguish between American society and American politics. Look at our private sector, how our universities operate, how our non-profits operate. We are still a pretty good example. You think how the American people responded after 9/11. I give someone like President Bush enormous credit for it. There wasn’t suddenly a huge surge of anti-Muslim sentiment in this country. I don’t worry too much about the health of American society – I mean, I worry about our eating habits and watching too much TV! But I think we’re in a pretty good place.

But our politics are dysfunctional and something I said earlier is a warning to us and that is that societies don’t work if political factions take maximalist positions. The more diverse a country is, the less it can afford to take maximalist positions. One of the great benefits of America is that we are not ideological, we’re not utopian. We’re visionary, we’re optimistic but we’re also practical.

Politicians are often rewarded for taking the most extreme maximalist positions. Sooner or later that catches up with you so we are not able to move forward where we should in things which historically have not been controversial. But because of this maximalist, ideological position, we’ve been blocked.

That position is much more prominent in the Republican Party than the Democrats. The Democrats have problems but overall they are pretty common sense and fact based and reason based. I’m optimistic that that these things go in cycles and that the Republican Party will eventually free itself from this kind of extremist ideology. But it’s necessary for it to happen soon.


Going back to the issue with Iran – if we could somehow end the Iran-U.S. “cold war” would that open other areas of opportunity?

No doubt the opportunity is there. Whether we can get it done I would put it at a little less than 50-50. But the logic of it is compelling. We are a very different society to Iran. The supreme leader of Iran has a very different world view than I have. The state sponsorship of terrorist organisations like Hezbollah means we should be very suspicious of how they operate regionally.

But they are a big, sophisticated country with a lot of talent. If they opened up and grew, they could naturally assume leadership in the region rather than depending on undermining other countries for leadership.

The problem is that would threaten certain interests inside Iran, so this is not likely to happen.

The only way you can prevent a country getting nuclear weapons is that it decides not to do it. If North Korea can get nuclear weapons, there is no country that can’t get them! They can’t even feed their people.

We don’t want a nuclear arms race in the Middle East – that’s dangerous


Why couldn’t we say to China, “It’s time you became a stakeholder in this system.”

I do say that to them. But they are free riders. They’ve been that for the last 30 years and it’s worked really well for them!

I’ve joked sometimes when my inbox starts stacking up, I say, Can’t we be a little more like China? Nobody ever seems to expect them to do anything! People look to America - they don’t look to China.

In the annals of human history, it’s been pretty rare for a super power to, yes, act in its own self-interest, yes, occasionally make mistakes, yes, occasionally think in terms of What’s in it for us? but also, more often ask, What’s in it for everybody? How does this help other people? How should we react in a way that is reflective of our values?

That’s not how the Chinese operate. That’s a disadvantage for us in many ways, but it’s also an advantage. It’s the reason why we’re exceptional and why I am glad I am President of the United States of America.


Thank you for your time, Mr President. We appreciate it.

Taken from New York Times 9 August 2014

(These excerpts are published for general interest. They are not necessarily the views of UBT or its management.)