January 19th, 2012
11:44 AM ET

Zakaria: My interview with President Obama

Christopher Morris—VII for TIME

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.

We still have a lot of work to do, but if you look at the pivot from where we were in 2008 to where we are today: the Iraq war is over, we refocused attention on al-Qaeda, and they are badly wounded. They’re not eliminated, but the defeat not just of bin Laden, but most of the top leadership, the tightening noose around their safe havens, the incapacity for them to finance themselves, they are much less capable than they were back in 2008.

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.

(MORE: Read TIME’s Cover Story on Obama, Now Available to Subscribers)

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.”

Ah, yes.

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.

(MORERead TIME’s Interview with Hillary Clinton on Libya, China, the Middle East and Barack Obama)

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.

(PHOTOS: Political Pictures of the Week)

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.

Read more the rest of my interview with President Obama here. 


soundoff (381 Responses)
  1. Randy

    Since he's a known Obama suck-up, was Fareed wearing his knee pads during the interview?

    January 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Reply
    • skytag

      Just because you wear some while listening to Rush Limbaugh doesn't mean everyone has a pair.

      January 20, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Reply
  2. skytag

    The Obama attack bots are doing their usual bang up job of belittling Fareed and parroting the current popular sound bites they've been given to attack our president. Good luck getting any of these trolls to intelligently discuss any issue.

    January 20, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Reply
  3. dick long

    Zakaria the only reason why anybody would read or listen or put a value on your comments, is because they are
    also ignorant and not qualified to know anything better. What are your qualifications for all these comments you
    distribute throughout the media. From where do you get your expertise??? If you are a reporter then simply report
    .

    January 20, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  4. talshar

    Mitt Romney says that you are “timid, indecisive, and nuanced.”

    ^ Flip Flop Willard's right. Obama needs to learn from Mitt how to be on *all sides* of any given issue at any time. :)

    January 20, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Reply
  5. SoundsBogus

    What about defeating Al-Qaeda? It doesn't make sense. The CIA created Al-Qaeda. They are a group trained by Americans - foreigners sent back to their own countries after training, to cause disruption and bring about the CIA/Obama/Rothschild nwo agenda. What happened? Did they go rogue? C'mon, Al-Qaeda works for Obama/Rothschild elite. And there are sooo many of them now, causing havoc all over the world. Defeat them? But they're doing your will! It doesn't make sense. If they're running amok, I'm sure Obama could just hit the kill switch. Naw, he doesn't want to defeat them. They are doing his bidding, and are willing to lay down their lives and take the blame, just like Osama. Fareed, please. You're amazing. You can suss-out the truth. Tell me. Who are Al-Qaeda exactly.

    January 22, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Reply
  6. Sun Sherman

    If Obama & Democrats in Congress & Senate Vote on reversing Universal Healthcare , over turn Roe V/s Wade, throw every illegal Immigrant, Continues the War in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Privatize Health Care, Education, Shut down EPA, Dept of Energy, goes along with No Taxes for Billionaires because they are Job Creators, if the unemployment was 2% and go along with EVERY Agenda proposed by GOP, Republicans will still find a reason for hating Barack Obama and 51% Democrats who are fellow Americans..... You Know Why ? .. Because the Republicans love hating and they are good at it.

    January 22, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Reply
  7. Muin

    The president did say why he doesn't support simpson-bowl because CEO's, republican presidential candidates and most of GOP would not let capital gain tax gain tax go up to 39%. They want to do simpson-bowl without closing that loophole. Specially many CEO's would not allow it because they use this as a technique to avoid pay tax over 15%. Many people who are slow to comprehend things still don't understand why he doesn't support simpson-bowl.

    January 25, 2012 at 1:38 am | Reply
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