Obama On Limitations He Faces In A Complicated World

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In his commencement address at West Point, President Obama laid out a range of goals. In an interview with Steve Inskeep, Obama discusses how he thinks he can use the time that he has left in office.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene in Washington.


And I'm Steve Inskeep in New York. Let's hear more of our talk with President Obama at West Point. We questioned the president on his foreign policy. He had just finished his speech to graduating army cadets.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.


INSKEEP: The president plans to drop the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan below 10,000 troops next year and to zero before he leaves office. The question for the president is what comes next? His speech laid out a range of goals, from chasing extremists in Africa to finally closing the prison at the Guantanamo Bay naval base.

When he continued the discussion of foreign policy with us, we asked this second term president how he thinks he can use the time he has left. In recent months, he has referred to limitations he faces in a complex world.

We talked about hitting singles and doubles on foreign policy. We talked about handing the baton from one president or one person in history to another. I wonder if you're at a point in your second term where even though there's well over two years to go, that you have to think about narrowing possibilities and a more limited legalistically accomplish type.

OBAMA: Well, I think that's always been the case. That was the case the first day in the Oval Office. You know, you don't walk into the presidency and completely remake the world and ignore history and ignore the problems that are already sitting there in the inbox. So you have to make choices about what's important and what's not.

It's interesting, though, you know, the comment I made about singles and doubles, I think, is only a partial quote. What I said was that when it comes to foreign policy, that oftentimes the United States has made mistakes - not by showing too much restraint, but by underestimating how challenging the environment is out there, not thinking through consequences. That there's a lot of blocking and tackling to foreign policy - to change sports metaphors - or if you want to stick to baseball, that a lot of what you want to do is to advance the ball on human rights, advance the ball on national security, advance the ball on energy independence - to put the ball in play.

And every once in a while, a pitch is going to come right over home plate that you can knock out for a home run, but you don't swing at every pitch. And we have opportunities right now, for example - and I talked about today, to advance an Iranian agreement on their nuclear program that could be historic. We may not get it, but there's a chance that it could still happen.

I have not yet given up on the possibility that both Israelis and Palestinians can see their self-interest in a peace deal that would provide Israel security that's recognized by its neighbors and make sure that Palestinians have a state of their own. So there are going to continue to be opportunities that come up, and what we want to do is make sure we're in position to seize those opportunities when they arise.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about one ball you've tried to advance your entire term. You wanted to close Guantanamo in your first year. About a year ago, you gave a speech in which you said you wanted to close Guantanamo. You referred to it again in this speech here at West Point.

OBAMA: Just chipping away at it.

INSKEEP: In the years since your last speech, in which you said you wanted to close Guantanamo, it's our understanding that only 12 - about 12 prisoners have been repatriated. The vast majority are still there. Has that problem proved to be so difficult there's a good chance you may hand Guantanamo over to your successor?

OBAMA: Not if I can help it. I think it is very important for us to close Guantanamo. I think it is very important as we end the war that originally gave life to Guantanamo, that we now wind it down.

INSKEEP: Could you not send more prisoners back now? Is that not possible?

OBAMA: Well, the - Congress has placed some restraints on us...

INSKEEP: But they've loosened those restraints.

OBAMA: ...And, well, I understand and I promise you that we're using every possible available avenue.

In some cases, it's hard to return prisoners because the countries where they come from don't want them or can't provide us assurances that they can control them. It is a hard problem. It's a tough legal problem. It's a tough security problem.

But what I know is that we cannot, in good conscience, maintain a system of indefinite detention in which individuals who have not been tried and convicted are held permanently in this legal limbo outside of this country. That is contrary to U.S. traditions, it feeds terrorist propaganda. It is not ultimately going to be effective. When it comes to dealing with the long-term terrorist threat, it makes it harder for us to get cooperation from our partners. And it is wildly expensive. I mean, we spend 10 - 15 times more, in many cases, for these prisoners than we would do in a normal supermax system - prison in our federal system.

So for all kinds of reasons it doesn't make sense. And I'm going to keep on pushing because I want to make sure that when I turn the keys over to the next president, that they have the ability - that he or she has the capacity to make some decisions with a relatively clean slate. Closing Guantanamo is one.

INSKEEP: And the president also said he wants to bring one of his signature policies more into the open. After taking office, the president dramatically increased the use of drone strikes. The U.S. employed them against suspected terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen. The practice drew sharper and sharper criticism.

He has no plans to end these operations but says he would like to make them more transparent. This one-time constitutional law professor is still trying to harmonize his view of the law with his actions.

OBAMA: Making sure that people have a sense that when we use drone, we do so lawfully in a way that avoids civilian casualties and in ways that are appropriate, making sure that our national security apparatus is - has, you know, enough legal checks and balances that ordinary folks - not just here in the United States, but around the world, can feel assured that their privacy is being respected.

You know, these are all parts of what I consider a major piece of business during my presidency, which is recognizing we've got very real threats out there, we can't be naïve about protecting ourselves from those threats. At times, we're going to have to take very tough actions to make sure that our people, our children are protected. But that there's a way of doing it that comports with our laws, our values, our ideals that gains legitimacy around the world and that is therefore, sustainable.

And, you know, we're not done yet, but we've made enormous progress in the same way that we've reduced the number of people in Guantanamo by half - in the same way that we're starting to constrain some of the other work that we've done in this area. I'm confident that by the time I'm leaving the presidency, the next president will still have some tough choices to make, but I think they'll have a basis for making them that is consistent with our best traditions.

INSKEEP: Mr. President, thanks very much.

OBAMA: I enjoyed it, thank you.

INSKEEP: That's President Obama who spoke with us yesterday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY. Elsewhere in today's program and at npr.org, we asked the president about Syria, Ukraine, China and more.

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