NSA leaker Edward Snowden summarized many people’s feelings toward President Obama when he said he had “believed in Obama’s promises,” but after the election, “He continued with the policies of his predecessor.” In a 45-minute interview with Charlie Rose on Monday night, Obama challenged the idea that he’s just “Bush-Cheney lite,” as Rose put it. The president suggests the biggest difference is that he’s more thoughtful than his predecessor; he’s not charging into Syria on skimpy evidence, and he’s added oversight to the NSA’s spy programs to protect civil liberties. “Some people say, ‘Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before. Now he’s, you know, Dick Cheney,’ ” Obama quipped. “Dick Cheney sometimes says, ‘Yeah, you know? He took it all lock, stock, and barrel.’”
In his remarks on the NSA, most of which were leaked this afternoon, Obama argued that unlike Bush, he’s ensured that all of the government spying on his watch was approved by Congress and the secret FISA court. “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?” said Obama. He added, “I think it’s fair to say that there are going to be folks on the left – and what amuses me is now folks on the right who are fine when there’s a Republican president, but now, Obama’s coming in with the black helicopters.”
The first half of the interview was devoted to Syria, and President Obama’s decision last week to arm the rebels for the first time, though he objected to the idea that this is a “new policy,” and pointed out that he’s only said he’s “ramping up” military support (officials say that means sending weapons). Still, Obama shot down the idea that he’s been too hesitant on Syria:
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].
Obama also noted that the U.S. has taken time to forge relationships with more moderate rebel groups, as opposed to those affiliated with Al Qaeda. “One of the challenges that we have is that some of the most effective fighters within the opposition have been those who frankly are not particularly [friendly] towards the United States of America, and arming them willy-nilly is not a good recipe for meeting American interests over the long term,” said Obama.
The president went on to address those who make the opposite argument, saying there should be more aggressive intervention. Obama rattled off a list of the potential consequences of making a bad call in Syria, and said that unless you’ve been poring over intelligence in the Situation Room, “it’s kind of hard for you to understand the complexities of the situation.” He added, “We know what it’s like to rush into a war in the Middle East without having thought it through.”
Despite the dig at John McCain and his hawkish brethren, Obama claimed that he embraces criticism, unlike our last president. “I think this is a healthy thing, because it’s a sign of maturity that this debate would not have been taking place five years ago. And I welcome it. I really do,” said Obama. “It’s useful to have a bunch of critics out there who are checking government power, who are making sure we’re doing things right, so that if we’ve triple checked how we’re operating any one of these programs, let’s go quadruple check it. And I’m comfortable with that, and I’m glad to see that we are starting to do that.”