U.S. President Barack Obama in an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya
Friday, 15 May 2015
U.S. President Barack Obama hailed on Friday the success of a summit held the day before with six Gulf leaders in his Camp David compound, saying that the aim of the meeting was to “deepen and broaden” the “excellent relationship” between Washington and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies, he told Al Arabiya News Channel.
INTERVIEW OF THE PRESIDENT
BY NADIA BILBASSY-CHARTERS, AL-ARABIYA
2:22 P.M. EDT
Q Mr. President, thank you very much for your time.
THE PRESIDENT: It’s great to be with you. Thank you.
Q You concluded the summit. Was it successful? Were there any sticking points that either you or your government did not achieve?
THE PRESIDENT: I think it was very successful. And the intentions here were to deepen and broaden what is already an excellent relationship between the GCC countries and the United States.
Obviously, we have a whole range of bilateral security arrangements with the various GCC countries. We’ve consulted and worked with them on a range of regional challenges. But I thought the time was ripe for us to be able to come together as a group, to talk face-to-face about a wide range of these issues, and then to put forward very specific plans in terms of how we can address them.
So the joint statement that we issued I think reflected the wide range of topics that were discussed. We discussed the important security assurances that I had delivered publicly in venues like the United Nations and had discussed privately, but I think it was important for them, at a time when there’s so much chaos in the region, for the GCC members to hear that the United States is committed, if they are subject to external attack or the threat of attack, to work with the GCC to deter such attacks and to defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the GCC countries.
We also talked about the joint work that we have to do to counter violent extremism in a whole range of areas, from ending the financing of terrorist organizations to improving intelligence, to what kinds of capabilities -- for example, maritime security or cybersecurity -- that are needed. And some of these areas are ones where it’s better if we do them together in integrated fashion.
And we discussed Iran and why it is my firm belief that Iran cannot get a nuclear weapon and that the best way to achieve it is if we are able to accomplish a verifiable deal. But what I wanted to emphasize, because I think there’s been concerns in the region about Iran’s destabilizing activities, is that even if we get a deal on the nuclear issue we are still concerned with some of those activities by not only Iran and the Quds Force and the IRGC, but also proxies like Hezbollah.
And so I reaffirmed with them the interest in working to strengthen their defenses, strengthen our joint positions, and then hopefully we’ll be in a position of strength in terms of expressing to the Iranians a desire for good relations, but also a insistence that they stop with some of those activities.
So, overall, I thought it was very successful. And the best part about it was there was a very frank and honest conversation, the kind that you can only have when you’re face to face.
Q I'm going to pin you down on a few of the points that you just mentioned. When you said that you would use military power to protect your ally, what does that mean? And what do you --
THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, I think that we’ve seen in the past what happened in Kuwait when Saddam Hussein invaded. I think it is U.S. policy that in the Gulf, because of the wide range of interests and the deep friendship and security relations that we have with those countries, that if there was an external threat, our military would be working with the GCC, and hopefully a broad range of other international actors, to prevent that kind of violation of the basic norms of international behavior.
I think that there are concerns among some of the GCC members in how do we deal with not the traditional conventional threats, but asymmetric threats -- terrorist activity, or the financing of violent activities in various countries’ borders. And part of the point that I made to them is that those kinds of asymmetric threats are best dealt with through increasing capacity of training special forces, improving the interdiction of arms flowing in, better intelligence cooperation.
So some of the issues that we discussed had to do with very traditional military issues. And we’ll be extending additional exercises, as I said, trying to help them evaluate where various GCC members are weaker and where they’re stronger in their defense capabilities on, let’s say, ballistic missile defense, for example. But some of these are less traditional issues that have to be addressed -- how do we identify potential terrorist activity that may be taking place? How do we distinguish that from legitimate political activities that are taking place? I think those are issues that we’ll continue to work on.
And the goal here is not that we’ve solved all these problems in one day-and-a-half summit, but rather that we created a framework, a set of intentions, and now we have a series of steps that we’re going to have to take through our foreign ministers, our defense ministers, and they’ll be reporting back to us so that when we meet again next year we will be able to see the progress that’s been made.
Q Right. But in this case, why can’t you give them a written agreement to reinforce the Eisenhower understanding?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, the statement is a written agreement. If you’re asking why not provide a formal treaty, the truth of the matter is, is that the treaty process is very cumbersome, requires congressional approval, and it’s not necessary in this situation in order for us to be able to accomplish the goals that we wanted to meet.
Q I see. As you know, as you mentioned, it is a great concern about Iran’s activities -- in Lebanon, in Syria, in Yemen, and all of these Arab countries. And it’s equal to kind of the worry from the nuclear threat for most Arab countries. Yet, the security arrangement that you have talked about does not address this.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, actually it does, in the sense that when we talk about the need for us to have joint capabilities to address destabilizing activities and conflicts in the region, some of those are directly related to the concerns surrounding Iran. And that was --
Q Can you give me an example?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, a very good example is making sure that Iran is not pouring in arms to Houthis inside of Yemen. Obviously, there’s a long history of political instability inside of Yemen. And the Houthis have their own indigenous history inside of Yemen. But if the IRGC is sending significant weapons into Yemen right on the Saudi border, that becomes then a source of concern.
And part of our goal here is to make sure that we are able to identify these problems, to highlight them, and then to deter them. And that was a major topic of discussion throughout the summit.
Keep in mind that the United States has been very clear that a nuclear-armed Iran would be potentially even more reckless and dangerous. And so it’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon and that we provide a pathway for Iran to engage in positive behavior -- in commerce, in trade, in education, in scientific exchange. That’s the path that we hope they take.
But I’ve been very clear that just because we are able to resolve the nuclear issue does not negate the very real problems that we’ve had with their past state sponsorship of terrorism, with the potential for mischief in the region. And that’s something that we will continue to address jointly with our GCC partners.
Q Right. So will we see an increased military -- U.S. military presence in the area of the Gulf, for example, on the Red Sea, around the Red Sea?
THE PRESIDENT: You know, the truth is that our military presence there is extremely robust. And we have thousands of ships -- or thousands of troops. We have the Fifth Fleet. Our military assets in the region are very significant and ready to respond to a whole range of contingencies. And in addition, the GCC countries have significant capabilities, as well.
One of the things that we discussed was that the issue is not necessarily if we have enough military hardware, but are we using it properly? Are we coordinating it properly? Are we identifying the right tools for the specific challenges that we have today?
Q On the deal with Iran, some say it’s a political gamble to have this deal because 10 to 15 years is a short period. And if they’re going to use this money from the sanction relief to better the life of the Iranian people, it’s kind of a wishful strategy. How do you respond to that?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don’t think it’s a wishful strategy. The sanctions that we’ve imposed have been a brutal imposition of costs on Iran. So when they receive money, they’re going to have to do things just to shore up their economy, which has collapsed drastically during the course of my administration and the international sanctions that we’ve imposed.
So what is true is that we cannot simply trust the Iranians to abide by a deal. It has to be verifiable. And so part of what we did during this summit was to lay out the unprecedented steps to verify and inspect and monitor nuclear activity inside of Iran. And under the framework that we are now trying to memorialize, Iran would be subject to the kinds of inspections that have never been put in place before.
So we are confident that we can cut off the four pathways to Iran getting a nuclear weapon. And that verification process doesn’t extend simply 10 years, or 15 years; it extends for a very, very long period of time.
The first phase -- for 10 years -- they would be severely restricted in their activities around any kind of nuclear power. In the subsequent decade, they would still be under the inspections regime that we are discussing, but they would be able to do more around peaceful nuclear power. And so they would have to, essentially, earn -- re-earn the trust of the international community around these issues.
The alternative is to not have any idea what’s taking place inside of Iran. And that, I think, is a much more dangerous situation for everyone in the region.
Q Right. Let me just ask you this. Often you talk about Iran with admiration and you always praise the Iranian people. But somehow it’s perceived in the region that you’re putting down the Sunni Arabs, that somehow you link them to extremists. And I just want you to correct this, if this is the case, because that’s the impression.
THE PRESIDENT: I think that would be a mistaken impression so Al-Arabiya is going to have to do a better job delivering my message. Our closest friends in the region are the Gulf countries, and that relationship dates back for decades now.
And when I have spoken directly to the Iranian people, essentially what I’ve said to them is, you have the opportunity to restore traditions that would allow you to be a full-fledged and admired member of the international community. I want to encourage that. But I’ve been extraordinarily critical of the Iranian regime’s ideology and the approach that they’ve taken to international affairs, as well as how they’ve dealt with their own people.
So what is true -- and this was a topic of discussion -- is that given the extraordinary history of the Gulf countries and the culture, and the fact that, for example, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the guardian of and the foundation stone for so much in the Muslim tradition and Muslim heritage -- including, of course Mecca and Medina -- that we do have to work together to make sure that youth in not just Gulf countries, but places like Iraq, Syria, Yemen -- that they feel a sense of opportunity, and that we are not allowing them to be recruited into organizations like Daesh and previously al Qaeda that lead to a dead-end.
And that is as significant a danger as any that are faced by the GCC countries. If that continues, then that can end up being a cancer that eats away at the great nation states and traditions inside of the Gulf.
And I think we have to be honest about that, and I’ve had very straightforward conversations about that. This is something that all the GCC members agree -- which is why part of our emphasis during this summit was not just weapons and strategies. It was also how do we encourage entrepreneurship through things like the Global Entrepreneurship Forum that we’ve initiated? How do we use social media so that we are reaching young people with a positive message that is as effective and as rapid as the use that ISIL is making of social media, that Daesh is making of social media?
So these are also part of the cooperation that we want to try to bring about over the coming year.
Q Talking of young leadership, you met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman here. What’s your assessment of the young leadership of Saudi Arabia? And also you met the King himself.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q This is a new transition in the Kingdom.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, obviously, we have extraordinary respect for His Majesty and his leadership. I had a great relationship with King Abdullah, who is deeply missed. And Mohammed bin Nayef has been a partner with us on counterterrorism work and security work for a very long time. So we have great admiration for him.
This is the first time that we had had a chance to work closely with the Deputy Crown Prince, and I think he struck us as extremely knowledgeable, very smart, I think wise beyond his years.
And throughout the Gulf, what you're seeing I think is more young leadership moving into positions of authority and decision-making. And I think that's a positive thing.
When I came in, I was a relatively young man, as President. I’m not as young now. I’ve got some gray hair. But the world moves so quickly now and is so sophisticated, and there’s so much information that is having to be processed, that for us to be able to see that next generation move in, in an effective and decisive way I think will ultimately be very good for a region of the world that is young.
The truth is, is that the Gulf countries, and the Middle East and North Africa generally, those populations are all extraordinarily young. And we have to be able to speak and reach to those young people, and to adapt to the new circumstances of today’s world.
Q My time is running out, but I want to ask you about Syria and Iraq, quickly. Many people believe that Syria is your Rwanda. It might haunt you for years to come -- 200,000 dead; 9 million people displaced; the worse humanitarian crisis in the 21st century. Are we going to see the end of all bloodshed before you leave office, Mr. President?
THE PRESIDENT: I’ll be honest, probably not. Because the situation in Syria is heartbreaking, but it’s extremely complex. And I am haunted by the hardships and the deaths. It’s something I take very seriously. But when the analogy is used of Rwanda it presumes that some sort of swift U.S. intervention would have prevented these problems.
You have a civil war in a country that arises out of long-standing grievances. It wasn’t something that was triggered by the United States; it wasn’t something that could have been stopped by the United States. And one of the things that I’ve said in this summit -- and I was very blunt -- is that all too often, I think in the Middle East region, people attribute everything to the United States. There are conspiracy theories everywhere. If something wrong happens, well, it must be the United States. If something --
Q They look to the U.S. for leadership.
THE PRESIDENT: -- if something -- if we did something, then why didn't the United States meddle in our affairs. If we don't do something, then, well, why isn’t the United States doing something. I think that's a common theme. And I was very frank with the GCC leaders. I said, look, we're partners; we can do these things together. But the United States ultimately can only work through Arab countries who are also working on their own behalf to deal with these issues.
And part of our goal here is to build capacity. This is why in Iraq, for example, I have been fully prepared to support a legitimate, constitutionally appropriate Iraqi government. But what I’ve said is we will work through the Iraqi government and the Iraqi military and we will support them.
And in Syria, our efforts have to be as part of a broader international coalition, and ultimately a military solution is not going to be the solution. If the United States simply sent in troops into Syria -- our military is very effective, and for a short period of time, we potentially could come down on the side of the opposition against Assad. But in terms of governance, in terms of keeping the peace, in terms of working through some of the sectarian issues that have plagued that country as well as the region for such a long time, those would still be there.
And so we're prepared to work not just with the GCC, but with countries like Turkey -- which has a very powerful military, are right on the border. They’ve got 2 million people who they have very generously, I think, accepted from Syria. But ultimately, it makes more sense for us to work with them, rather than unilaterally, in order to resolve what is a very serious humanitarian issue.
Q So forgive me, Mr. President, when people rise and they demand their rights, they look up to the United States.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q They don't look to any other country. And especially after President Assad used chemical weapons, people felt they’ve been let down. The civil war did not start from day one. They felt that you could have done something in the beginning and you didn't.
THE PRESIDENT: But if you look at the history of the process, essentially what they're arguing is that we should have invaded Syria and overthrown the Syrian regime -- which, by the way, would be a violation of international law, and undoubtedly we would then be criticized for that, as well.
And so what I think we have tried to do is be very clear about principles, what we believe in. With respect to the chemical weapons issue, my principle was that chemical weapons should not be used. People may criticize us for not having launched missiles against Assad after chemical weapons had been used, but keep in mind why we didn't. We didn't because they got rid of their chemical weapons.
And that, in fact, was very important. It didn't solve barrel bombs. It didn't solve the incredible hardships that all the Syrian people are going through. But to solve those larger problems, that requires the kind of international work in which we are obviously a very significant part and a very significant partner -- and my Secretary of State, John Kerry, has been tireless in trying to arrive at a diplomatic solution to this problem.
The problem we also have is that on the other side inside of Syria, we have extremists who may be opposed to Assad but also deeply opposed to the United States, are deeply opposed to the GCC countries; are interested in establishing a very destructive order and have engaged in the same kinds of brutality and violence that we don't want to see deeply entrenched.
So these are difficult times. These are difficult challenges. What I’m optimistic about is that the GCC countries represent stability and also I think an awareness of the need for us to be able to move together and create the framework so that young people -- instead of being attracted to violence, or not being able to go to school, or being victims in the crossfire of civil war -- are able to live peacefully. And I think they also understand the need for us to move beyond the sectarianism that is being fanned by extremists who just want power and use that as an excuse.
Q One last question. I was told it’s over. You're the second President I’m interviewing who is leaving office without realizing the vision of a Palestinian state. You had serious efforts in the first and second administration. Yet we receive -- we reached a dead-end. Why? Who is responsible for that?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, this is a very difficult challenge. On the one hand, I am a deep and strong supporter of Israel, and the connection between the United States and Israel is obviously powerful. And Israel has legitimate security concerns. There’s no doubt about it. And what is also true is I’m deeply committed to a Palestinian state.
In my visits to places like Ramallah, when I talk to young Palestinian students and I hear their sense that their world is shut off because of their circumstances in the West Bank, or when I hear some of the heartbreaking stories in Gaza, the only solution to me over the long term is a two-state solution.
And we worked very hard, but, frankly, the politics inside of Israel and the politics among the Palestinians, as well, made it very difficult for each side to trust each other enough to make that leap.
And what I think at this point, realistically, we can do is to try to rebuild trust -- not through a big overarching deal, which I don't think is probably possible in the next year, given the makeup of the Netanyahu government, given the challenges I think that exist for President Abbas -- but if we can start building some trust around, for example, relieving the humanitarian suffering inside of Gaza and helping the ordinary people in Gaza to recover from the devastation that happened last year; if we can do more to create business opportunities and jobs inside the territories -- if we can slowly rebuild that kind of trust, then I continue to believe that the logic of a two-state solution will reassert itself.
Because I’ve said to the Israelis you cannot remain a state that is both a democracy and Jewish if you continue to have this problem unresolved. And with respect to the Palestinians, I’ve said that you cannot expect to have a state of your own and the full dignity and respect that is inherent for all human beings if you also don't recognize Israel, because Israel is not going anywhere.
And I think that people of goodwill on both sides understand that. Unfortunately, the politics of fear has been stronger than the politics of hope over recent years -- partly because of the chaotic situation in the region overall. And it’s going to take some time to rebuild it.
But as I said yesterday at Camp David, nobody would have imagined that Israel and Egypt would remain at peace for decades until finally leadership seized the day. And the United States wants to be a strong partner in this. We can't do it for the Palestinians or the Israelis. But we can continue to push for what we believe is the truth and what we believe is right.
Q So no meeting between Netanyahu and Abbas?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, you never say never. So we’ll see how it unfolds. But the U.S.’s commitment to both a secure Israel and a sovereign Palestinian state, that remains our policy.
Q I have other questions about Yemen and Iraq, but time is running out. So thank you very much, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much.
Q I really appreciate it.
THE PRESIDENT: I appreciate it. Thank you.
END 2:49 P.M. EDT