I interviewed President Obama in the White House yesterday. Here's a partial transcript where Obama talks about George Bush, Mitt Romney and Iran:
Fareed Zakaria: So when we talked when you were campaigning for the presidency, I asked you what Administration’s foreign policy you admired, and you had said that you looked at Bush Sr.’s diplomacy, and I took that to mean the pragmatism, the sense of limits, good diplomacy, as you looked upon it favorably. Now that you are President, how has your thinking evolved? Do you still look at that as a hallmark of good diplomacy?
Barack Obama: It is true that I’ve been complimentary of George H. W. Bush’s foreign policy and I continue to believe that he managed a very difficult period very effectively. Now that I’ve been in office for three years, I think that I’m always cautious about comparing what we’ve done to what others have done, just because each period is unique. Each set of challenges is unique. But what I can say is that I made a commitment to change the trajectory of American foreign policy in a way that would end the war in Iraq, refocus on defeating our primary enemy, al-Qaeda, strengthen our alliances and our leadership in multilateral fora and restore American leadership in the world. And I think we have accomplished those principal goals.
Our alliances with NATO, Japan, South Korea, our close military cooperation with countries like Israel have never been stronger. Our participation in multilateral organizations has been extremely effective. In the United Nations, not only do we have a voice, but we have been able to shape an agenda. And in the fastest growing regions of the world in emerging markets in the Asia Pacific region, just to take one prominent example, countries are once again looking to the United States for leadership.
That’s not the exact same moment as existed post-World War II. It’s an American leadership that recognizes the rise of countries like China and India and Brazil. It’s a U.S. leadership that recognizes our limits in terms of resources, capacity. And yet what I think we’ve been able to establish is a clear belief among other nations that the United States continues to be the one indispensable nation in tackling major international problems.
And I think that there is a strong belief that we continue to be a superpower, unique perhaps in the annals of history, that is not only self-interested, but is also thinking about how to create a set of international rules and norms that everyone can follow and that everyone can benefit from. So you combine all those changes, the United States is in a much stronger position now to assert leadership over the next century than it was only three years ago.
We still have huge challenges ahead. And one thing I’ve learned over the last three years is that as much as you’d like to guide events, stuff happens and you have to respond. And those responses, no matter how effective your diplomacy or your foreign policy, are sometimes going to produce less than optimal results. But our overall trajectory, our overall strategy, I think has been very successful.
Mitt Romney says that you are “timid, indecisive, and nuanced.”
I particularly like the third one. What do you say?
I think Mr. Romney and the rest of the Republican field are going to be playing to their base until the primary season is over. Once it is, we’ll have a serious debate about foreign policy. I will feel very confident about being able to put my record before the American people and saying that America is safer, stronger and better positioned to win the future than it was when I came into office.
And there are going to be some issues where people may have some legitimate differences and there are going to be some serious debates just because they’re hard issues. But overall, I think it’s going to be pretty hard to argue that we have not executed a strategy over the last three years that has put America in a stronger position than it was when we, than when I came into office.
He says that if you get re-elected, Iran will get a nuclear weapon, and if he is elected, it won’t. Will you make a categorical statement like that: If you get re-elected, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon?
I have made myself clear since I began running for the presidency that we will take every step available to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. What I’ve also said is that our efforts are going to be… Excuse me. When I came into office, what we had was a situation in which the world was divided, Iran was unified, it was on the move in the region. And because of effective diplomacy, unprecedented pressure with respect to sanctions, our ability to get countries like Russia and China that had previously balked at any serious pressure on Iran to work with us, Iran now faces a unified world community, Iran is isolated, its standing in the region is diminished. It is feeling enormous economic pressure.
And we are in a position where, even as we apply that pressure, we’re also saying to them there is an avenue to resolve this, which is a diplomatic path where they forego nuclear weapons, abide by international rules and can have peaceful nuclear power as other countries do, subject to the restrictions of the NPT, the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But the way the Iranians might see it is that they have made proposals–the Brazilian-Turkish proposal–and that they never go anywhere. They aren’t the basis of negotiations.
Yes, I think if you take a look at the track record, the Iranians have simply not engaged in serious negotiations on these issues.
We actually put forward a very serious proposal that would have allowed them to display good faith. They need medical isotopes; there was a way to take out some of their low-enriched uranium, their LEUs, so that they could not — so that there was clarity that they were not stockpiling that to try to upgrade to weapons-grade uranium. In exchange, the international community would provide the medical isotopes that they needed for their research facility. And they delayed and they delayed and they hemmed and they hawed, and then when finally the Brazilian-Indian proposal was put forward, it was at a point where they were now declaring that they were about to move forward on 20-percent enriched uranium, which would defeat the whole purpose of showing good faith that they weren’t stockpiling uranium that could be transformed into weapons-grade.
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So, not to get too bogged down in the details, the point is, is that the Iranians have a very clear path where they say, we’re not going to produce weapons, we won’t stockpile material that can be used for weapons. The international community then says, we will work with you to develop your peaceful nuclear energy capacity, subject to the kinds of inspections that other countries have agreed to in the past. This is not difficult to do. What makes it difficult is Iran’s insistence that it is not subject to the same rules that everybody else is subject to.
Suppose with all this pressure that you have been able to put on Iran and the economic pressure, suppose the consequence is that the price of oil keeps rising but Iran does not make any significant concession, won’t it be fair to say that the policy will have failed?
It is fair to say that this isn’t an easy problem and anybody who claims otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Obviously, Iran sits in a volatile region during a volatile period of time, and their own internal conflicts makes it that much more difficult I think for them to make big strategic decisions. Having said that, our goal consistently has been to combine pressure with an opportunity for them to make good decisions, and to mobilize the international community to maximize that pressure.
Can we guarantee that Iran takes the smarter path? No. Which is why I have repeatedly said we don’t take any options off the table in preventing them from getting a nuclear weapon. But what I can confidently say, based on discussions that I’ve had across this government and with governments around the world, is that of all the various difficult options available to us we’ve taken the one that is most likely to accomplish our goal and one that is most consistent with America’s security interest.