On foreign policy and national security, President Obama’s first news conference knocked down conspiracy theories and scandal-mongering over the David Petraeus affair, raised a glimmer of hope on talks with Iran, and—thankfully—refused, so far at least, to join France in recognizing the cobbled-together Syrian opposition bloc as a government-in-exile.
The Petraeus affair—and that, apparently, is all it was, namely, an affair—didn’t compromise national security, it seems, though Obama shifted responsibility for the mess to the FBI, and quite properly. Said Obama, according to a rush transcript compiled by The New York Times:
I have no evidence at this point, from what I’ve seen, that classified information was disclosed that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security. Obviously, there’s an ongoing investigation. I don’t want to comment on the specifics of the investigation. The FBI has its own protocols in terms of how they proceed. And you know, I’m going to let Director Mueller and others examine those protocols and make some statements to the public generally.
The absurd, salacious details involved in the scandal that forced Petraeus to resign as director of the CIA and supposedly “engulfed” General Allen, the US commander in Afghanistan, are simply not relevant to national security. The news, especially cable news, is obsessed with the story, hashing and rehashing—and re-rehashing—the story of two women and two generals. But rather than worry about whether Chinese or Russian intelligence might have been able to blackmail Petraeus if they’d found out about his affair—and that’s a ridiculous idea—it’s more appropriate to ask if the FBI overstepped its bounds by diving so enthusiastically into a simple case of cyberstalking. Personally, I don’t care if Petraeus, Allen and even Wolf Blitzer have affairs.
I’m no fan of Petraeus, the hawk who pushed two surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I’m with Obama when he said on Wednesday: “And my main hope right now is—is that he and his family are able to move on and that this ends up being a single side note on what has otherwise been an extraordinary career.” If I never hear the name Paula Broadwell again, it will be too soon.
Meanwhile, when he was asked, “On Iran, are you preparing a final diplomatic push here to resolve the nuclear program issue, and are we headed toward one-one- one talks?” Obama said this:
With respect to Iran, I very much want to see a diplomatic resolution to the problem. I was very clear before the campaign, I was clear during the campaign and I’m now clear after the campaign—we’re not going to let Iran get a nuclear weapon. But I think there is still a window of time for us to resolve this diplomatically. We’ve imposed the toughest sanctions in history. It is having an impact on Iran’s economy.
There should be a way in which they can enjoy peaceful nuclear power while still meeting their international obligations and providing clear assurances to the international community that they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapon. And so yes, I will try to make a push in the coming months to see if we can open up a dialogue between Iran and not just us but the international community, to see if we can get this thing resolved. I can’t promise that Iran will walk through the door that they need to walk though, but that would be very much the preferable option.…
I won’t talk about the details of negotiations, but I think it’s fair to say that we want to get this resolved and we’re not going to be constrained by diplomatic niceties or protocols. If Iran is serious about wanting to resolve this, they’ll be in a position to resolve it.
He added that a New York Times story reporting that talks with Iran were “imminent” wasn’t true, and no talks are scheduled “as of today.”
Personally, I’d prefer that Obama stop using phrases such as “we’re not going to let Iran get a nuclear weapon,” since there’s nothing that the United States can do about it, short of going to war, if Iran chooses to go that route. But his comment that he is “not going to be constrained by diplomatic niceties or protocols” in order to find a diplomatic solution is an important signal that the White House is ready for one-on-one talks with the Iranians, if they are.
And finally, here’s the exchange on Syria:
Q: Thank you. Mr. President, the Assad regime is engaged in a brutal crackdown on its people. France has recognized the opposition coalition. What would it take for the United States to do the same, and is there any point at which the United States would consider arming the rebels?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, I was one of the first leaders, I think, around the world to say Assad had to go in response to the incredible brutality that his government displayed in the face of what were initially peaceful protests.
Obviously the situation in Syria’s deteriorated since then. We have been extensively engaged with the international community as well as regional powers to help the opposition. You know, we’ve committed hundreds of millions of dollars of humanitarian aid to help folks both inside of Syria and outside of Syria. We are constantly consulting with the opposition on how they can get organized so that they’re not splintered and divided in the face of the onslaught from the Assad regime.
We are in—in very close contact with countries like Turkey and Jordan that immediately border Syria and have an impact, and obviously Israel, which is having already grave concerns as we do about, for example, movements of chemical weapons that might occur in such a chaotic atmosphere and that could have an impact not just within Syria but on the region as a whole.
I’m encouraged to see that the Syrian opposition created an umbrella group that may have more cohesion than they’ve had in the past. We’re going to be talking to them. My envoys are going to be traveling to, you know, various meetings that are going to be taking place with the international community and the opposition.
We consider them a legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people. We’re not yet prepared to recognize them as some sort of government in exile.
But we do think that it is a broad-based, representative group. One of the questions that we’re going to continue to press is making sure that that opposition is committed to a democratic Syria, an inclusive Syria, a moderate Syria.
We have seen extremist elements insinuate themselves into the opposition. And you know, one of the things that we have to be on guard about, particularly when we start talking about arming opposition figures, is that we’re not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks who would do Americans harm or do Israelis harm or otherwise engage in—in actions that are detrimental to our national security. So we—we’re constantly probing and working on that issue. The more engaged we are, the more we’ll be in a position to make sure that—that we are encouraging the most moderate, thoughtful elements of the opposition that are committed to inclusion, observance of human rights and working cooperatively with us over the long term.
In fact, the president bears a great deal of the blame for the worsening crisis in Syria, ever since he prematurely called for Assad to quit. “I was one of the first leaders, I think, around the world to say Assad had to go,” said Obama on Wednesday. But it’s a plus that, so far at least, Obama refrained from recognizing the rebels as “some sort of government in exile.” (I like the use of “some sort.”) It’s encouraging, too, that Obama cited the presence of “extremist elements” in the opposition, perhaps a lesson learned from Libya and the murder of the American ambassador there. But it seems like the United States is on an inexorable, slippery-slope slide toward giving the rebels more lethal weapons, even though more and more Syrians seem dismayed by the civil war and by the brutal tactics employed by the opposition.
As most media outlets clamor for updates on the Petraeus affair, they forget the general's real legacy: the militarization of the CIA. Check out Jeremy Scahill's take here.