The PJ Tatler

Obama Grilled on His Rwanda, Says He Didn't Want to Violate International Law

President Obama got slammed on his Syria inaction — with an Al Arabiya interviewer asking if it will go down as his Rwanda — and claimed yet again that he disposed of Assad’s chemical weapons in a sit-down interview after his Camp David summit with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

When asked exactly what he meant by vowing to come to the military aid of Gulf countries if needed, Obama went straight to citing an action of President George H.W. Bush: “We’ve seen in the past what happened in Kuwait when Saddam invaded.”

Obama divided the aid into “traditional” military assistance, such as joint exercises and assessing military capability, and non-traditional issues such as distinguishing terrorism from “legitimate political activities.”

When asked why he wouldn’t put his assurances to the Gulf countries in writing, Obama replied that “the treaty process is very cumbersome.”

“It requires congressional approval and it’s not necessary in this situation,” he said.

Al Arabiya Washington correspondent Nadia Bilbassy noted that the security arrangement discussed with the GCC does not confront the true nature of the Iranian threat, to which Obama told her, “Well, actually it does.”

He offered as an example “making sure Iran is not pouring arms into Yemen …obviously there’s a long history of political instability inside of Yemen and their own indigenous history inside of Yemen,” but if Iran starts threatening the Saudi border “that then becomes a source of concern.”

“Keep in mind the United States has been very clear that a nuclear-armed Iran would be potentially even more reckless and dangerous and so it’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon and that we provide a pathway for Iran to engage in positive behavior, commerce and trade and education and scientific exchange. That’s the path that we hope they take,” Obama said.

He added that “just because we’re able to resolve the nuclear issue” doesn’t mean there isn’t the problem of Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism and “their potential for mischief.”

Bilbassy asked if Obama was just engaging in a “wishful strategy” with the Iran deal.

“I don’t think it’s a wishful strategy,” he replied. “… We cannot simply trust the Iranians to abide by the deal, it has to be verifiable.” He said the verification process “extends for a very, very long period of time.”

“Often you talk about Iran with admiration,” his interviewer noted, asking him if he’s thus putting down the Sunni countries in the region.

“Al Arabiya’s going to have to do a better job delivering my message,” Obama shot back. “Our closest friends in the region are the Gulf countries.”

“Many people believe that Syria is your Rwanda, it might haunt you for years to come — more than 200,000 people dead, 9 million people displaced, the worst humanitarian crisis in the 21st century. Are we going to see the end of the bloodshed before you leave office, Mr. President?” Bilbassy asked.

“I’ll be honest, probably not,” Obama responded, calling “the situation in Syria… heartbreaking, but it’s extremely complex.”

“I am haunted by the hardships and that’s — it’s something I take very seriously. But when the analogy is used with Rwanda it presumes that some sort of swift U.S. intervention would have prevented these problems.”

He called it a “civil war that arises out of long-standing grievances.”

“It wasn’t something that was triggered by the United States, it wasn’t something that would have been stopped by the United States,” Obama continued, adding that he told GCC representatives in “very blunt” terms that “all too often I think in the Middle East region people attribute everything to the United States — conspiracy theories everywhere. If something wrong happens it’s the fault of the United States –”

“But they look up to you for leadership,” Bilbassy interjected.

Obama said that in Syria, “our efforts have to be part of a broader international coalition, and ultimately a military solution is not going to be the solution.”

The interviewer kept pressing Obama, noting his red line on the use of chemical weapons and reminding him that “the civil war did not start on Day One.”

People, she said, “felt you could have done something in the beginning and you didn’t.”

Obama then argued that intervening in Syria “would have been a violation of international law, and undoubtedly we would then be criticized for that as well.”

“So what I think we have tried to do is be very clear about principles, what we believe in. With respect to the chemical weapons issue, my principle was that chemical weapons should not be used. People may criticize us for not having launched missiles at Assad after chemical weapons had been used, but keep in mind why we didn’t. We didn’t because they got rid of their chemical weapons!”

Reuters reported a week ago that Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons inspectors found traces of sarin and VX nerve agent at a military research site that was not declared as a chemical weapons storage or production facility. In his press conference at Camp David on Thursday, Obama only acknowledged Assad’s deadly chlorine gas use, claiming “chlorine itself historically has not been listed as a chemical weapon, but when it is used in this fashion, can be considered a prohibited use of that particular chemical. And so we’re working with the international community to investigate that.”

The president told Al Arabiya that Secretary of State John Kerry has been “tireless” in trying to “arrive at a diplomatic solution to this problem.”

Asked about the now-defunct Middle East peace process, Obama called himself a “deep supporter” of Israel and “deeply committed to a Palestinian state.”

“But frankly, the politics inside of Israel and the politics, uh, among the Palestinians as well made it very difficult for each side to trust each other enough to make that leap,” he said, adding a “big, overarching deal” is probably not within reach soon “given the makeup of the Netanyahu government, given the challenges for President Abbas.” He suggested baby steps such as humanitarian outreach, business opportunities and jobs in Gaza following the “devastation” there from Hamas’ latest battle with Israel.

“I continue to believe the logic of a two-state solution will reassert itself. I said to the Israelis, you cannot remain a state that is both a democracy and Jewish if you continue to have this problem unresolved.” He said he’s told the Palestinians, “Israel’s not going anywhere.”

“Unfortunately the politics of fear have been stronger than the politics of hope.”