President Obama defended his administration’s uneven public message on Syria, saying that his shifting response to the violence there was less important than getting the policy correct.
“I’m less concerned about style points, I’m much more concerned about getting the policy right,” Obama said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week.” “What I’ve said consistently throughout is that — the chemical weapons issue is a problem. I want that problem dealt with.”
Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, announced a pact Saturday that calls on the Syrian government to turn over its chemical weapons to international control. The leaders said the initial agreement would have the backing of a United Nations resolution.
Obama taped the interview with ABC on Friday, a day before the deal with the Russians was announced. Still, he said Washington was too focused on the optics of chaotic negotiations surrounding a volatile civil war.
“Folks here in Washington like to grade on style,” Obama said. “Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear they would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy.”
The president argued that Washington was originally receptive to the Iraq War, due in part to the glossy messaging ahead of the conflict.
Obama was on the verge of a unilateral military strike in Syria before deciding to consult Congress on the issue. As congressional opposition hardened, the president decided to delay a vote on the use of force.
The White House and its supporters on Capitol Hill now see the deal struck with Russia as a way to avoid an unpopular military conflict altogether.
The president said his immediate aim in Syria was to ensure that strongman Bashar Assad doesn’t again deploy chemical weapons against his own people, not regime change.
“My entire goal throughout this exercise is to make sure what happened on Aug. 21 does not happen again,” Obama said, pointing to the chemical weapons attack in Damascus that killed about 1,400 people.
“We have the possibility of making sure it doesn’t happen again,” he added.
Under the U.S.-Russian agreement, the first international inspection of Syria’s chemical weapons is scheduled for November and destruction of the arsenal is set for next year.