Politics

06.18.13

That Fascinating Obama–Charlie Rose Interview

Barack Obama’s Charlie Rose interview was kind of amazing. A president who rarely says anything interesting in an interview said a number of pretty fascinating things, speaking for the first time in an in-depth way on the NSA program and a host of other issues.

Here are some of the key quotes, which The Washington Post and others rounded up.

On NSA: “Some people say, ‘Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before. Now he’s, you know, Dick Cheney.’ Dick Cheney sometimes says, ‘Yeah, you know? He took [the Bush-Cheney approach] all lock, stock, and barrel.” My concern has always been not that we shouldn’t do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism, but rather: Are we setting up a system of checks and balances?”

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Also: “… They’ll say … when you start looking at metadata, even if you don’t know the names, you can match it up … and you can yield all this information. All of that is true, except for the fact that for the government, under the program right now, to do that it would be illegal. We would not be allowed to do that.”

Obama also denied that he is “Bush-Cheney lite.”

This is what I would call a half-throated defense of the program. I say in for a penny in for a pound. He supports these programs, and he ordered them, and he ought to just come out with a guns-blazing, f--k you ACLU, smackdown defense of the whole thing. Maybe an interview isn’t the place for that, and a speech or address is. He owns the program, so he might as well really own it.

More than that, I’d imagine he has interesting thoughts on national security and civil liberties, and it would be nice if we could hear our president go into some detail on questions like this instead of speaking in guarded and defensive soundbites. Even so, the comments were illuminating in that they show that Obama is of no frame of mind to change the current policy a whit.

On Syria and Bashar al-Assad, Obama said: “…This argument that somehow we had gone in earlier or heavier in some fashion, that the tragedy and chaos taking place in Syria wouldn’t be taking place, I think is wrong … The fact of the matter is, the way these situations get resolved is politically. 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].”

And: “But what’s been clear is that 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 mindset, it’s going to be very difficult to resolve the situation there.”

And finally, this rather amazing quote: "What I’m saying is, that if you haven’t been in the Situation Room, poring through intelligence and meeting directly with our military folks and asking what are all our options and examining what are all the consequences, and understanding that for example, if you set up a no-fly zone, that you may not be actually solving the problem on the zone. Or if you set up a humanitarian corridor, are you in fact committed not only to stopping aircraft from going [into] that corridor, but also missiles? And if so, does that mean that you then have to take out the armaments in Damascus and are you prepared then to bomb Damascus? And what happens if there’s civilian casualties. And have we mapped all of the chemical-weapons facilities inside of Syria to make sure that we don’t drop a bomb on a chemical-weapons facility that ends up then dispersing chemical weapons and killing civilians, which is exactly what we’re trying to prevent. Unless you’ve been involved in those conversations, then it’s kind of hard for you to understand the complexity of the situation and how we have to not rush into one more war in the Middle East.”

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These are fascinating remarks. They are pretty frank and as close as we’re likely to get to getting inside a president’s head and seeing his logic for some time. There was no way, he seems to be saying, to do what we’re doing now any earlier. There’s a process that has to play out, and it’s a political process, and the rebels didn’t have it together.

That final comment reads to me like the words of a guy who’s pretty concerned about the step he’s just taken. “Are you prepared then to bomb Damascus?” In his mind, is he or isn’t he? I would tend to infer that I guess he is, however reluctantly. Yikes.

I don’t know how Charlie pulled all this out of him, but kudos.