President Barack Obama exchanged testy words with "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft on Sunday over Russian President Vladmir Putin and the Syrian conflict.
When asked about the effectiveness of his administration's strategy in the ongoing Syrian civil war, a defensive Obama admitted he was initially skeptical about training and arming moderate rebels against Syrian President Bashar al Assad -- a $580 million program the Pentagon pulled after generating only 60 trained fighters instead of the expected 5,400.
President Barack Obama: Steve, this is why I've been skeptical from the get go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria. My goal has been to try to test the proposition, can we be able to train and equip a moderate opposition that's willing to fight ISIL? And what we've learned is that as long as Assad remains in power, it is very difficult to get those folks to focus their attention on ISIL.
Steve Kroft: If you were skeptical of the program to find and identify, train and equip moderate Syrians, why did you go through the program?
President Barack Obama: Well, because part of what we have to do here, Steve, is to try different things. Because we also have partners on the ground that are invested and interested in seeing some sort of resolution to this problem. And--
Steve Kroft: And they wanted you to do it.
President Barack Obama: Well, no. That's not what I said. I think it is important for us to make sure that we explore all the various options that are available.
Steve Kroft: I know you don't want to talk about this.
President Barack Obama: No, I'm happy to talk about it.
After a tense back and forth with Kroft about the failed initiative, the interview went into another round about Putin.
"He's challenging your leadership," Kroft said referring to Putin's move to advance Russian troops in Syria.
A cantankerous Obama shot back by questioning the notion of leadership.
Steve Kroft: A year ago when we did this interview, there was some saber-rattling between the United States and Russia on the Ukrainian border. Now it's also going on in Syria. You said a year ago that the United States-- America leads. We're the indispensible nation. Mr. Putin seems to be challenging that leadership.
President Barack Obama: In what way? Let-- let's think about this-- let-- let--
Steve Kroft: Well, he's moved troops into Syria, for one. He's got people on the ground. Two, the Russians are conducting military operations in the Middle East for the first time since World War II--
President Barack Obama: So that's--
Steve Kroft: --bombing the people-- that we are supporting.
President Barack Obama: So that's leading, Steve? Let me ask you this question. When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin. Syria was Russia's only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they've had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally. And in Ukraine--
Steve Kroft: He's challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He's challenging your leadership--
President Barack Obama: Well Steve, I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we've got a different definition of leadership. My definition of leadership would be leading on climate change, an international accord that potentially we'll get in Paris. My definition of leadership is mobilizing the entire world community to make sure that Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon. And with respect to the Middle East, we've got a 60-country coalition that isn't suddenly lining up around Russia's strategy. To the contrary, they are arguing that, in fact, that strategy will not work.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the interview was when Obama admitted that he knew of Russia's intention to mobilize troops in Syria, even when the two leaders stood side by side during the United Nations General Assembly meeting two weeks ago.
Steve Kroft: Did you know he was going to do all this when you met with him in New York?
President Barack Obama: Well, we had seen-- we had pretty good intelligence. We watch--
Steve Kroft: So you knew he was planning to do it.
President Barack Obama: We knew that he was planning to provide the military assistance that Assad was needing because they were nervous about a potential imminent collapse of the regime.
Watch the full interview:
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