MER – Obama’s interview with Tom Friedman

Obama’s interview with Tom FriedmanUS President Barack Obama doesnand#39t give many interviews to journalists. When he sat down to talk to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, he explained the logic and strategy behind his foreign policy in a calm and confident manner The interview raised many eyebrows among his critics who believe his inaction in places like Syria and Ukraine projects a very feckless and weak image of the United States.

But Obamaand#39s interview gave a unique insight into how the most powerful man in the world is conscious of the limits of American power Perhaps this was most obvious when he explained his concerns about Russian action in Ukraine. Despite Western sanctions, he cautioned, President Vladimir Putin of Russia andldquocould invadeandrdquo Ukraine at any time, and, if he does, andldquotrying to find our way back to a cooperative functioning relationship with Russia during the remainder of my term will be much more difficult.

andrdquoFriedman pressed Obama hard on Iraq and Syria, saying that American inaction in the last two years made things much more difficult. On these two contentious issues Obamaand#39s minimalist approach was evident.

He argued that ultimately it is up to Iraqis to unite and fight for their country. andquotThe United States military cannot do for the Iraqis what they wonand#39t do for themselves.

andquot It was evident from his tone that he blames the Shiite leadership for squandering an opportunity to embrace the Sunnis and Kurds as members of the Iraqi nation. And with respect to Syria, Obama pushed back hard on the notion that America could have done things differently.

andquotThe notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms, or even more sophisticated arms, to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.

andrdquoFor those who are puzzled as to why America intervened militarily to protect a small minority in northern Iraq in the Kurdish region of the country, Obama explained his logic in terms that combine both idealism and realism andldquoWhen you have a unique circumstance in which genocide is threatened, and a country is willing to have us in there, 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.andrdquo For me, the most interesting part of the interview was when Obama created a fascinating linkage between the domestic and foreign policy challenges his administration is facing.

It was obvious from his comments that Obamaand#39s top priorities are still domestic. He linked Americaand#39s influence in the world to its domestic consensus and economic power in a seamless and creative fashion.

When asked by Friedman to define the single most important national security threat to America, here is what he had to say: andquotAt the end of the day, the biggest threat to America, the only force that can really weaken us, is us. We have so many things going for us right now as a country, from new energy resources to innovation to a growing economy, but we will never realize our full potential unless our two parties adopt the same outlook that weand#39re asking of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds or Israelis and Palestinians: No victor, no vanquished and work together Our politics are dysfunctional.

We should heed the terrible divisions in the Middle East as a warning to us: Societies donand#39t work if political factions take maximalist positions. And the more diverse the country is, the less it can afford to take maximalist positions.

andrdquoThese words of wisdom about politics in general could serve the current leadership of Turkey well at a time when the newly elected Turkish president makes no effort to hide his maximalist vision of an executive presidency where all powers are concentrated. Not taking maximalist positions and the need to work together with the opposition is aice that would serve President-elect Recep Tayyip ErdoIan well.