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December 16, 2020
Pod Save The World
Barack Obama, Worldo-in-Chief

In This Episode

Tommy and Ben talk with former President and current Worldo Barack Obama about some of the biggest foreign policy challenges and accomplishments addressed in his book, A Promised Land. Those include the financial crisis and the rise of nationalism, the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan and tensions with the Pentagon leadership, the Cairo speech, dealing with Russia and Vladimir Putin, the politics of terrorism, including GITMO and the drone program, the rise of China and climate change, and some of the absurdities of traveling abroad as President.

Transcript

 

Tommy Vietor: We are thrilled and honored to welcome on our guest today, President Barack Obama, the author of the new book A Promised Land. President Obama, it’s great to see you.

 

President Barack Obama: It is great to see you. More importantly, the guy who launched Podcast the World. Let’s face it, I get no royalties, but I am proud of you guys.

 

Tommy Vietor: Sir, the check is in the mail. So I just wanted to, first of all, tell listeners…. So, you and Ben have been writing together forever and so you’ve been reading each other’s work. I binged most of A Promised Land over the weekend and look, without blowing any smoke up either of your asses, it’s a great read, right? I was along for the ride for a lot of this journey, but the detail of exactly what you talked about during your dinner with Dmitry Medvedev is fascinating. The consistently hilarious and insightful comments from Sasha and Malia just make the thing a joy to read. So I really think people will like it. And then, look for listeners of the show who like foreign policy, the cool thing is you do a lot of basic history on big issues in a digestible way. Right? So if you want to understand why Israel and Palestine don’t get along, there’s a primer in there on the conflict before the talks. So just just a plug for why people will learn a lot from this book, because it’s really great.

 

President Barack Obama: I appreciate that. Thank you, Tommy. Yeah. I mean, one of the goals was obviously to make it readable. Right? You want to make it a story so people want to turn the page, especially when you’re writing about something that most people can look up. You want to make it a compelling narrative. But part of my goal was to, for a lay reader who’s interested in some of the global forces that are shaping our world, I wanted them to have some context as I said in the preface, without having to refer to endnotes or footnotes. Right? And to give people a little bit of background; you know, why is it that the Gulf Arabs don’t get along with the Iranians? Right? Even though they’re both Muslim. And you know, what is it about, you know, some of the changes after the Berlin Wall that might lead some in Eastern and Central Europe to be skeptical about the EU and, you know, liberalism? And so I’m glad you picked up on that, because my hope is that, not everybody’s going to be following all of this, but it’s actually a lot more coherent and understandable than I think sometimes news stories make it out to be. You know, that if you just go back in some cases 20 years or 50 years or 100 years, you can kind of see the outlines of what is it that’s shaping a lot of foreign policy conflicts that seem like they’ve been around forever.

 

Tommy Vietor: Yeah, agreed. Yeah. So there is a lot of great characters. And so, you know, Václav Havel is a surprise star in this book. And for those who don’t know, Havel is a playwright. He’s a dissident. He became the first president of the Czech Republic. And in the book, we first encounter him during this stop in Prague. On one of your foreign trips, you guys have a brief meeting. And I remember I was on that trip and I remember that meeting so well because I had read Summer Meditations in college and I brought along my copy of the book – right here – with me on the trip because I naively thought that spokespeople on foreign trips with the president have time to read books. That is not how it works. But Havel is prescient in the way he warns you about the double edged sword of high expectations, and then how autocrats had evolved and how the economic crisis was strengthening the forces of nationalism. And then you mentioned him again in the context of the Cairo speech and then again after your conversation with Prime Minister Singh about Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment in India. And so I guess my question to you is just what drew you to Havell? And did you find it depressing talking with him about the rise of nationalism and how easy it was to predict and yet so difficult to prevent?

 

President Barack Obama: Well, look, what drew me to him was what had drawn you to him. I had read his works in college. And as I write about, he was the example of someone who had grown out of a mass movement, a social movement from the bottom up, had then entered politics and his soul had remained intact. Right? So, you know, there were a handful of political leaders that I looked to as an example. Because as I describe, my inspiration wasn’t JFK or, you know, some other elected official. My inspiration was Gandhi and Lech Walesa and, you know, the civil rights workers in SNCC. And it took me a while to feel comfortable with the idea that you could bring about change through electoral politics. Because I had the sort of skepticism that I think a lot of young people, at least growing up in America, had towards politicians. And, so when I see Havel and Mandela, really those were the two where I thought, ‘oh, you can make that transition, retain some sense of connection to the mass movement that produced you and still enter into government.’ So that was why I was keen on meeting him. It’s interesting. When I met him, it was early enough in my presidency that I found the meeting inspiring, but not depressing. Because I thought that the caution he gave me, which was that: you’re going to be burdened by high expectations, people thinking that you’re going to wave a magic wand and suddenly a lot of these historical forces are going to go away. But also his warning that there was an illusion that somehow after the Berlin Wall came down, that somehow all issues of nationalism and, you know, conflict in Europe were gone. You know, those were things that I understood intellectually, but I think it was early enough in my presidency where I felt like ‘I see that, but I’ll be able to overcome those things.’ And the reason I think that it recurs as a theme throughout the book is because I keep on coming back to when I start saying, ‘yeah, this is harder and deeper and, you know, there’s more stubborn resistance to a vision of an inclusive, democratic, liberal order then maybe I had anticipated.’ And so that becomes sort of a marker for me that I, you know, find myself drawn back to in a number of circumstances throughout my presidency.

 

Ben Rhodes: Well, you know, one of the one of the areas where you mentioned Havel is the Cairo speech. And I thought it’d be a kind of a cool opportunity to talk to you about a speech that we worked on together. And you describe, you know, beautifully and perfectly kind of the objective of that speech after the difficulty of the Bush years and with all of the history that the US has had in the Middle East; of you know, speaking some hard truths, but allowing us to see each other, allowing Americans to see Muslims, particularly in that part of the world, and allowing them to see us. You have a great line. You say ‘hearing such basic history from the mouth of a US president, would catch people off guard.’ You know calling out, essentially, the indifference we’ve had to repression but also calling out the fact that, you know, the Islamic fundamentalism in the region wasn’t the answer to that. And obviously, you know, that speech in the moment, drew a lot of praise. I think there was a feeling that it was a different kind of message from a US president. And from you, someone who had a different perspective on power than anybody who’s ever held the office, not just as the first Black president, but as someone who lived in Indonesia and been on the other end of, you know, a CIA sponsored coup that had led to huge violence. But you posed this question. You know, I’ve got in miniature, what I’m sure you’ve gotten a lot, which is: well, look at the Middle East and, you know, wasn’t that speech naive to give? You know, some of the things you talked about actually, we did make progress on removing troops or an Iran nuclear deal, but obviously the Arab-Israeli conflict and the repression in the region continues. And you raised this question. How useful is it to describe the world as it should be when efforts to achieve that are bound to fall short? And you don’t really answer the question. You kind of leave it to the reader to answer themselves. But it’s interesting because, you know, at the same time that I can see the lack of progress, I still meet young people from time to time from that part of the world  who trace their founding of an NGO to hearing that speech or their entrance into movement politics to that. And I’m wondering how do you evaluate the impact of a speech like that? Is it something that is measurable by developments in countries? Is it something that’s measurable in the kind of intangible inspiration that you pass on to others? Do you regret any pieces of it? I mean, how do you judge something like the Cairo speech that is more a statement of belief than it is a policy?

 

President Barack Obama: Yeah, I think I think these are a couple of separate issues involved in this that I struggle with. One is, when you deliver a speech, are you – and you paint a portrait of what’s possible, is that useful if you know that you’re not likely to get there to arrive at the promised land, is the vision itself worthwhile? And then the second question is: the work that comes behind the speech, right, and how well does it match up to what you said? And I think it remains useful to paint a vision. You know, what scripture says ‘without a vision the people will perish.’ For me, at least, I continue to believe that people need to hear some image out there of what might be possible. And what we tried to describe in the Cairo speech was a circumstance in which the United States and by extension, the West, appreciates Muslim culture, can understand the angers and resentment that might exist on the street of Muslim countries in terms of how in a blunderbuss fashion we’ve sometimes operated. And at the same time, the Muslim youth in particular can say to themselves: ‘look, we are in possession of what’s necessary to change our countries. We can be allies with, you know, NGOs and folks from the outside and multilateral organizations, but at the end of the day, it’s our responsibility to face up to some hard truths inside our own country.’ Which would include, I think, trying to reconcile modernity with their religious faith and the faith of their countries. Right? Which so that, for example, in my mind at least, and I say in the speech, it is time to update certain practices that would allow women to fully participate in Muslim societies. And that side of it I don’t make any apologies for. I think when you’re the President of the United States, though, you are then tested by the work that’s done afterwards. And you are always going to take a risk by saying, ‘all right, here’s where we need to go.’ No matter how many caveats you set up that, look, we’re not going to get there all the way; we’re not going to resolve every, you know, conflict that may exist between Sunni and Shia; or, you know, we’re not going to be able to completely undo the corruption and challenges to the economy in a place like Egypt that’s been stagnating for decades; we’re not going to be able to unravel that entirely in a few years. You know, you’re always then going to be subject to the accusation potentially that, well, big talk but look, nothing happened. And I guess that’s sort of a risk that you have to take, knowing that it will then subject you to possibilities of accusations that you fell short, you didn’t follow through, or you’re potentially hypocritical. The one thing I felt good about, and I thought I made this clear in the Cairo speech, is that we set a course for what we thought US policy should be. I don’t feel any– I don’t feel as if we did not shoot for that vision in all of our policies. We genuinely did try to take the interests of the Muslim population into account. We did try to promote human rights in the region where we could. We did do our best to try to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And for that matter, we tried to get the Iranians to talk to the Saudis in a way that would lessen sectarian conflict in the region. What we could not do, I think, is overcome all the deep rooted fears and interests that existed and had preceded us and would continue on after I left office. That doesn’t mean, though, that the effort wasn’t worth it. And I, I am skeptical of– typically, I guess I think the criticism of something like the Cairo speech comes from two places. Either from the left, in which case they’ll point to: well, the fact is, is that you were still carrying on counterterrorism or you were still doing business with the Saudis despite what they were doing in Yemen or right on and on. And that criticism I take to heart. But I try to explain in the book that we couldn’t remake US policy out of whole cloth. There are still factors that we had to take into account in terms of our own security interests and so forth. But that doesn’t mean we were ignoring everything we said or we didn’t believe what we said. The criticism of the right, which is essentially that we shouldn’t even try to promote human rights, for example, because that lets the lid off things and makes our authoritarian allies nervous. That I do not buy. And there’s nothing that happens subsequently where I said, ‘oh, you know what? We should have let Mubarak roll tanks into Tahrir Square and kill a whole bunch of kids the way they did in Tiananmen, and that would have resulted in a better outcome.’ You know, ‘we should have never said anything about the Arab Spring because, the fact of the matter is that it was never possible for us to have a pluralistic democracy in the region.’ That kind of cynical take, when I look at the sweep of history, I don’t get any sense that the outcomes end up being better.

 

Ben Rhodes: Yeah, yeah.

 

President Barack Obama: If you foreclose the possibility of greater freedom, greater equality, greater prosperity and so forth.

 

Tommy Vietor: Speaking of, you know, deep-rooted conflicts that predated you, I mean, you spend a lot of time in the book talking about the war in Afghanistan. You spent a lot of time in your first term, you know,  working on the war in Afghanistan. In 2009 in particular the White House conducted two separate reviews of the policy, one of which was quite extensive. It was chaired by you personally and you ended up sending additional troops to Afghanistan twice that year. So two questions for you. I mean, first, you’re very candid in the book about tensions that developed between you and the White House and Pentagon leadership during that process, especially Bob Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen. And I was hoping you could tell the story of that contentious Oval Office meeting and maybe just what it felt like in the moment to feel, I think jammed is the word that was used most often, by the Pentagon as a decision as significant as sending more troops into harm’s way. And then second, I mean, when we sit here today and we look at the war in Afghanistan and how it’s going, you know, 11 years after you took office, which was well after the war started, is there part of you that wonders whether, you know, we could have sent fewer troops into battle and the conditions would be the same? We could have further resisted some of the demands from the Pentagon for more, more, more?

 

President Barack Obama: Well, the tension was, I think, well-meaning on all sides, Afghanistan was a tough problem, and I think, as I describe in the book, a lot of the tensions arose out of the fact that Washington policymakers had embarked on a bad policy in Iraq, diverted a huge amount of resources from Afghanistan. And so by the time we get in, we’ve essentially, I won’t say lost six years, but six years in which it might have been possible immediately after driving the Taliban out to make a big investment in Afghanistan to essentially do some nation building there, so that you could consolidate some of the gains that had been made in terms of development and education and anti-corruption efforts. That’s not what had happened. What had occurred, though, in Iraq was because of some of the screw ups by folks like Bremer and Rumsfeld and others, essentially the Bush administration had turned over the keys to the generals and they had done a pretty extraordinary job just of stabilizing Iraq. You know, Petraeus genuinely did make significant gains in stemming the bloodshed, in part with the assistance of folks like Ryan Crocker and the diplomatic work and the brokering of deals with Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq and so forth. But what happens is more and more, the Pentagon essentially is making policy, sometimes in conjunction with the CIA. But you have less civilian control of the policymaking apparatus in Iraq, those habits built up. So by the time we come in, in some ways the path has been charted for Iraq. Right? There’s going to be a wind down. And the question for me is just how do we execute and implement and stay on track with that? But in Afghanistan now, the impulse, I think, is to duplicate what, from the Pentagon’s view at least, worked in Iraq. Which is: let’s just put more in and we will double down and, you know, as you guys will recall, the phrase that was repeated again and again was, you know, ‘you got to listen to the generals on the ground.’ They know better. Write them a check and get out of the way. That’s what I was resisting. And so, you know, the tensions I had with Bob Gates and Mike Mullen, in part also growing out of statements made by Dave Petraeus and General McChrystal and others, as I say in that chapter, I didn’t doubt their sincerity. They genuinely believed that we had to initiate what was called a COIN strategy, a full COIN strategy, in Afghanistan to be successful. Meaning a counterinsurgency strategy, a lot more resources, a lot more troops, a lot more money. The problem was that those habits of not having civilian interference and asking questions, ‘hey, you know, this is going to cost us an extra 10, 20, 30 billion dollars. What does this mean we can’t do with respect to our national security if we’re making that huge of a commitment in Afghanistan?’ Those kinds of questions hadn’t been asked for a while. And so the assumption was once the generals made a decision, then that was sort of the end of the conversation. That’s what I resisted. And what I try to reflect in that chapter is is not any ill will on anybody’s side. But as you point out, there does come a point in which I call in Gates and I call in Mullen and I say to them ‘listen, when I ask for a deliberative process to figure out what we’re going to do on this very difficult strategy. I don’t expect it to be litigated in the press.’ And to some degree that helped stop that. But as I record in a later chapter, I think General McChrystal still had those habits. And he was an extraordinary warrior who had taken over in Afghanistan, had done some incredible work in Iraq. I actually thought very highly of him. But when, you know, he does this Rolling Stone article revealing this general skepticism towards all civilian restraint or control, I had to relieve him of his duties. And that was a very difficult decision. As far as the substance of Afghanistan, look, at the time I had to ask myself the question: how much of a difference will these additional troops make? I continue to ask that question. My instinct is that things were perilous enough, tenuous enough at the time that if we had not put in more resources at that time, we’re talking about 2009, 2010, 2011, that the Taliban really would have or could have overrun the major urban areas in Afghanistan. And that outcome at the time was not tolerable, given the fact that al-Qaeda was still active and the prospect of Afghanistan once again being a base for terrorist activity against the homeland was not a position that I was willing to take. What I think always made the decision difficult was that I knew even with those additional troops, we were not going to remake Afghanistan. But it did purchase us the time to engage in the strategic defeat of al-Qaeda. And, to some degree, stabilize Afghanistan enough where if, in fact, we now start drawing down troops all the way. There is at least the possibility, the prospect that Afghan security forces can maybe engage enough with the Taliban and other forces there to get a stalemate and to keep terrorism from reblossoming in that region. But nowhere is the uncertainties of the presidency greater than when you’re talking about a situation like Afghanistan, in terms of seeing how it’s going to play out and trying to engage in counterfactuals about what would have happened if you had made a different decision at any given point.

 

Ben Rhodes: Yeah, so just moving through some of the foreign policy of the book, I was struck by how much you know, one of the things that you only fully appreciate in government is the extent to which who the leaders of other countries are matter. You know, when Yitzhak Rabin is the prime minister of Israel, you can get a peace deal. And when Bibi Netanyahu is, it’s harder. And one of the countries that jumps out in here, and I think you deliberately make the point in the book, is Russia. Where in the time in this book, Dmitry Medvedev is president, and I’m struck by how many things we got done. You know, to read this, the New START treaty and we’re resupplying our troops in Russia. The Iran sanctions that basically led to the nuclear deal required Russian cooperation and on and on. And you have a pretty remarkable juxtaposition of the two leaders on your  trip to Russia, where you describe a dinner with Medvedev that was very familiar to you. You know, he’s talking about his workout routine. He’s talking about the US rock music that he likes, a Deep Purple fan. And Michelle’s there and the wives are getting along. And, you know, it sounds like a normal evening. And I remember just reading and just thinking, ‘I can’t imagine Vladimir Putin having that evening with you.’ I don’t want to paint too rosy picture of Medvedev, because as you point out, he’s a participant in a corrupt system. He tolerates it. He’s– he’s surfed it in many ways. But then you describe Putin and your first meeting with Putin. And it’s just a 45-minute, you know, grievance filled, you know, rant of sorts about the wrongs done to Russia. And, you know, it kind of foreshadows, obviously, the kind of nationalism that he pursued when he came back to the presidency. One question that I’ve always had in mind. I just want to get your view of is: when Medvedev was president and Putin was prime minister and we were making all that progress and it did seem that here’s this kind of Western oriented character, Medvedev, who represents, you know, one part of Russia. How much do you think Medvedev was getting out ahead of Putin? You know, our assumption, I think, had been that Putin must have been signing off on this. But like, given how different they are and given how different things were, you know, after Putin came back, do you think that there was more going on underneath the surface in terms of Medvedev pushing out ahead of Putin? And as we just think about Russia, what do those two characters tell us about the different mindsets inside of Russia? Medvedev is kind of more, again a corrupt figure I don’t want to sugarcoat it, but kind of a Western oriented guy. And then Putin is obviously this very kind of almost tsarist figure. Like, how do you read the two of them in terms of what they say about Russia?

 

President Barack Obama: Well, look, as I point out, you know, and I’m not the first to say this it’s not particularly original, but I think Russia has always had this sort of Janus faced quality to it. It both looks West and East. And has these strains of culture where in certain moments, you know, we’ll get Peter the Great and they’re very much oriented towards ‘let’s show the Europeans how civilized and how modern we are and we’ll embrace whatever the latest trends are.’ And then there are other times where, ‘look, that’s not us, Mother Russia operates along a different system and, you know, has a different soul.’ And, you know, some of these things are stereotypical. I think that a lot of the differences between Medvedev and Putin, and I try to describe these, are biographical and generational. Right? I mean, Putin is much more of a creature who comes up through the ranks of the Soviet system and is a well-established and reasonably powerful mid-level official at the time that the Berlin Wall falls. And that is a traumatic experience for him, to see the world and the system he had operated under crumble before his eyes. Medvedev, who’s younger than I am, you know, he’s experiencing these changes as a young man and is probably seeing opportunity. Right? And an opening and an awakening. And so I think that some of the differences have to do both with their temperaments and personalities, but also how they came up. As I point out, Medvedev was also relatively privileged coming up, whereas Putin is much more somebody who had to scrap and claw his way into power. And that probably accounts for some of those differences as well. And it also meant that Putin was probably more attuned to the sense of anger, resentment, aggrieve, you know, feelings of others taking advantage of a weak Russia and so forth in a way that Medvedev didn’t embody. Now, as I point out, you know, Medvedev operated as Putin’s consiglieri and chief of staff and adviser. And we assumed early on that all the work that Medvedev was doing with us was signed off on by Putin. I’m not sure to this day that that is wrong. As I point out, it’s really and this is an example of how sometimes contingent you get a sense history may be. A couple of things happen, only one of the things that happens first occurs in volume one of my book and some of the other factors play a prominent part in volume two. What happens towards the end of volume one, midway through my presidency, is Libya. And I do think that, that may be a circumstance where Putin… I can’t imagine that Putin agreed to have the U.N. ambassador from Russia to the U.N. sign on to a broad mandate to protect citizens who were at risk of being slaughtered in Benghazi. But you do get a sense that perhaps Putin said, ‘let me give Medvedev enough rope to hang himself on that issue.’ Right? And that’s the first time where you start seeing at least a public divide. And Putin sensing that perhaps Medvedev is too comfortable with the Americans or Europeans or the West, sort of dictating terms of how the international order should operate. What happens later, and you see this at the end of my first term, so we’re talking 2012. As you may recall, Putin has to run for reelection. And right around 2012, his polling drops significantly. Now, for an American or Western politician, his poll numbers are still pretty darn high, they drop down to like 60 percent or something. But I think they have dropped 10, 15 percent from his high watermark. He’s running for reelection now. He’s decided I’m going to take back the presidency. Medvedev is shunted aside. And when you look at the transcripts of the speeches, it’s in the run up to that reelection. Because you’ll also recall that’s when you start getting actually thousands of people in Moscow protesting against Putin and the regime. And so I think that what happens is, is that Putin starts suddenly feeling that, you know what, I’ve let a little– I’ve been too loose on the reins here and I could lose everything. He yanks that back, finds that it is convenient politically to play up Russian nationalism, to oppose more vocally and in much harsher terms US policy, to set us up as a boogeyman. And then, the third factor that I think we all recall is that suddenly Ukraine decides ‘we want to leave the Russian orbit’ and you get the entire situation in Crimea. All of which, by the way, as I’ll describe in volume two, this notion that somehow Putin had this all planned out, you know, while he was worrying about whether there was enough snow in Sochi is not the case. Right? That’s an example of something happening where he sees suddenly Ukraine following a path that some of the other satellite states or former satellite states of the Soviet Union had followed with the various color revolutions. And at that point I think is when you see a sharp divide. And Putin himself makes a decision. So it’s not clear to me that Putin from the beginning, was so convinced of the necessity of following a path different from Medvedev as much as it is that Putin, whose main concern was self-preservation, started changing his orientation in response to various events that he thought might weaken his grip on power.

 

Tommy Vietor: I’ll never forget, this isn’t in the book, but I’ll never forget that last May 2012 G-8 at Camp David when Putin had just taken over, but he sent Medvedev instead. And it was like their last hurrah. And I remember being in the bar with Jay Carney and some staffers, some Medvedev people walked in.

 

Ben Rhodes: I was there, I was at the bar.

 

Tommy Vietor:  And someone on the advance staff was like ‘so are you going to go work for President Putin now?’ to one of Medvedev aides. And Jay Carney was like, ‘that’s not, that’s not really how it works.’ And then I think Medvedev’s team ordered like thirty seven hamburgers to his house at 1:00 in the morning. And I’m sure the Marines were thrilled about that. But I digress. So in reading the book, there were lots of nostalgia, lots of, like, interesting points. The chapter that made me the most frustrated all over again, like I was reliving it was the section on Gitmo. And the quick and dirty version for listeners is that closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay went from an issue with bipartisan support to this bizarro political reality where Republicans started acting like it wasn’t safe to try terrorists in Article III courts or house Gitmo detainees in a supermax prison in the middle of nowhere in Illinois. And, in other words, like 11 years after 9/11, the politics of terrorism was still completely irrational. And I thought about that part. And then I thought about a passage later in the book where you were talking about US counterterrorism policies and the young men who become terrorists. And you said you wanted to save them or send them to school, but, quote, ‘and yet the world they were part of and the machinery I commanded more often had me killing them instead.’ And that made me wonder if you felt like the politics of terrorism were so broken that it almost forced your hand to continue, you know, controversial policies and you didn’t have the choice to say, like, fully scrap the drone program?

 

President Barack Obama: Yeah, well, look, I mean, let’s separate out Gitmo from counterterrorism more broadly. With respect to Gitmo, I absolutely had a choice. I chose to close Gitmo and Congress stopped me. And Congress stopped me, by the way, on a bipartisan basis. And you know, what struck me as I was writing the book was the reminder of how fast Gitmo politics pivoted. I mean, we were only in like six months when suddenly, you know, not just Republicans but conservative Democrats like Jim Webb and then later even a bunch of liberal Democrats, suddenly said ‘the idea of housing terrorists on US soil, that worries us.’ And as I point out in the book, there was a distinction between high value, you know, leaders within al-Qaeda who are housed in Guantanamo and that releasing them would have been a serious problem. But nevertheless, there was no reason why we could not imprison them in US prisons because, in fact, there were other high value targets who had been tried by the Bush administration and were also housed without incident in US prisons. And a whole bunch of Gitmo prisoners, though, were basically low level fighters that had been swept up. And the Bush administration itself had released like 500 of them and sent them back home. We were trying to deal with the last 200. But the degree to which the boogeyman of terrorism. As I describe in the book, the notion that these were somehow supervillains. That if you brought them on US soil, who knows what might happen I think caught fire in Congress very quickly. And, legislatively, they prevented us from doing everything that we needed to do. And later on, they would not even let us try some of these folks in Article III courts. And that had support within the Democratic Party. So, yes, I think it’s fair to say that we underestimated not just the complexity of how to try many of these Gitmo prisoners who, as I described, you know, it wasn’t like there were these great court or records of their capture and evidence and chains of evidence and so forth. I mean, you know, their files were a shambles. So from a legal perspective, trying them in Article III court was difficult. But what we also underestimated was the power of fear, and that was still operating significantly. But, Gitmo was never a situation where I was struggling with what the right thing to do was.

 

Tommy Vietor: Yeah.

 

President Barack Obama: It was just how to navigate Congress to actually do it. And, you know, I think that you can make an argument, and sometimes I’ve wondered what would have happened, if rather than saying we’re going to have a year long process in the first month, I just issued an order. Close that down, move these folks there, put up some security, you know, perimeter, you know, in one of our existing military facilities and house them there until we figure out a more permanent solution, whether that might have worked? It’s hard for me to imagine that that would not have triggered a freak out while we were obviously doing other things like trying to save the economy from a Great Depression.  You know, but you could make an argument that maybe if we had just moved more quickly without worrying about process, that maybe we could have gotten more done on that front. At the end of the day, I probably don’t think so, but it’s something I think about. With respect to counterterrorism generally, that is a hard issue. Because the fact of the matter is, as you guys know because you were part of the administration and had access to various levels of intelligence that was, you know, coming through the transom, there were folks who would happily blow up a New York subway if they could, and had no hesitation in killing all kinds of innocent civilians if they had the capacity. And because they’re non-state actors, they are embedded in countries and remote areas, but populated areas where had we sent in additional troops, for example, into the FATA, we’ve got not only more collateral damage, but we’re risking now a complete breach with a nuclear power in Pakistan that we also depend on for supply lines in Afghanistan. And so you then look at is there a way to use drones effectively to target those individuals while as much as possible avoiding death or the killing of civilians who are in close proximity? And you know, I talk more about this again in volume two, because what happened with the drone program was my awareness, not that there was more quote unquote “collateral damage”, which is a bloodless way of saying innocent people being killed with the drone program than there would have been if we had sent in troops. In fact, the statistics and data that we collected actually showed pretty consistently that you get a lot more civilian death when you have conventional forces or air power going after these networks than you do with drones. What I discovered and ultimately led to us trying to reform how we were using drones was the bloodlessness of it, the degree to which it was– it felt antiseptic even the way it was talked about within the national security apparatus, led me to conclude that there was a danger there of people not understanding what exactly we’re doing when we order a kinetic shot, even if it’s well targeted. And that we have to, we have to have some controls on this thing and understand that this is still war, even if we’re not deploying our own troops. We’re still firing missiles at people. And there is a moral element to that that has to be taken into account. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that at some point an American president doesn’t have to make that choice. You know and sometimes I think critics of counterterrorism seem to think that there is some binary choice: either you’re engaging in the drone program or you’re not and there’s some other way in which you can engage in some, you know, law enforcement operation in the FATA that arrests people the way you might, you know, engage in a raid on a house in Baltimore or in Des Moines. Those options were not available, and so you then have to decide, all right, are we going to allow this network, let’s say the bomb maker al Asiri in Yemen, are you going to allow him to make and design more and more sophisticated bombs that he can somehow plant on, you know, cargo ships or planes or trains or what have you, or are we going to try to take him out? And if we are going to try to take him out, then what has to be acknowledged and sometimes I think is not, is that there is no clean, simple, effective way of doing that without some risk that, you know, you may miss or there’s somebody who’s in the vicinity. And that is heartbreaking. It is, morally, something that I wrestled with and I think a lot of folks in our administration wrestled with. But sometimes it’s something that I don’t hear critics wrestle with, as well-intentioned as they are. Right, so their moral impulse is correct. That it’s terrible if even one drone shot hit somebody who has meant no harm to the United States. And yet what is also horrible is if a bomb goes off and one hundred people in a city are killed. And that is a question that you have to wrestle with if you are in that position. If you’re not, then it’s easier to speak more theoretically about it.

 

Ben Rhodes: So just I’ll wrap here with a question about Copenhagen. I’m actually going to put two questions in this. It might be one of those five-parters from a press conference.

 

Tommy Vietor: Oh god.

 

President Barack Obama: But I wanted to give you a chance to talk about–

 

President Barack Obama: Tommy knows all about that. Every White House correspondent knows this trick.

 

Tommy Vietor: Is that Major Garrett down there? Alright here we go. 

 

Ben Rhodes: Yeah… But I love that you obviously included the Copenhagen scene, the climate talks there. You know, for for a couple of reasons. I mean, one, because I think people need to read this and understand that when you hear about the Paris Agreement, the birthplace of that agreement was in Copenhagen. Right.

 

President Barack Obama: Right.

 

Ben Rhodes: Because that was the first time we’re able to kind of agree upon at least a framework where everybody was doing something to reduce their emissions, including China and India. And obviously the US as well as…

 

President Barack Obama: Copenhagen ends up being the foundation stone on which we are then able, eventually, to achieve Paris.

 

Ben Rhodes: Yeah, I mean.

 

President Barack Obama: Even though at the time Copenhagen was viewed by, and understandably by a lot of climate activists, as a failure. We actually snatched this little nugget.

 

Ben Rhodes: Yeah.

 

President Barack Obama: This basic principle that then over successive years were able to use as a lever to engage the Chinese, eventually the Indians, and finalize a Paris agreement towards the end of my second term.

 

Ben Rhodes: Yeah. Christiana Figueres, you know, who was the UN top climate negotiator, described it to me as the most successful failure in the history of the United Nations. Because of the basic formula: everybody commits to emissions reductions, it’s going to be different in different countries, the richer countries are kind of paying into a fund to help the poorer countries develop cleaner energy. The formula that led to Paris. But when I read it again, the thing that struck me, and it’s such it’s a great scene, which I’ll get to in a second, but it’s actually the international order, you know, a term that’s thrown around a lot that we lived with for eight years is very evident. Because we show up, the conference has fallen apart. The reason it’s fallen apart is because Europeans are basically trying to negotiate, you know, the Kyoto Protocol, which is the 90s version of a climate agreement. The Chinese controlled more votes than America did, by the time we showed up. And it’s because all the developing countries were deciding with them because their position was the developing world, which includes us, doesn’t have to do anything. And you describe the remarkable meeting where you walk in and the Chinese premier, Premier Wen, is essentially chairing a meeting with India, Brazil, South Africa and Russia, you know, emblematic of the countervailing bloc to the west.

 

President Barack Obama: And they’re not just chairing the meeting, but they’re also dodging me.

 

Ben Rhodes: They’re dodging you. And there’s a great scene. So, you know, we were trying to get meetings with the Chinese and the Brazilians and the Indians. We couldn’t find them. We finally heard that there was this meeting going on. You walk through this scrum of Chinese security to get in the meeting. I was pummeled in that scrum, like literally physically thrown to the ground. And you walk in and say, you know, ‘are you ready for me, Premier Wen, let’s make a deal.’ But the question I had, there’s a serious part and then a lighter part. The serious part is that, okay, this is kind of the emerging world order where you can’t solve a problem with just the US and Europe in room figuring it out. The Chinese have their say and they have their stake, but we need them to do more, just like we need India and others to do more. Another interesting part, which you have in your book, is the Europeans were grumpy about this, but the person you could go to to solve that was Angela Merkel. Right. So no offense to our British friends, but, you know, she’s– Berlin is kind of the leader. She herself the leader. It kind of foreshadowed a lot of the progress you made in foreign policy was like try to get the Chinese to move forward, work with Merkel to bring along the Europeans, take the developing world seriously, see them, hear their concerns. And so I wonder what is you know, because Paris is this unique agreement that comes out of Copenhagen where everybody’s in on the deal. There are 200 countries in it now that we’re back in. Everybody’s got to do something but it’s going to be different. And the Chinese relationship to that is complicated, but they need to be in. And I’m just wondering, you know, what is that… How would you describe how that that international order, which is still kind of unfamiliar to Americans, the idea that we can’t just go around and tell people what to do, the idea that it’s not just us and Europe, the Chinese have to be a part of it. The idea that Europe needs to navigate amongst itself. What did you learn from Copenhagen about the world that actually was in terms of what the international order was? And the lighter point is you have a great, so many great stories. You know, Reggie telling you that ‘that was some gangster shit.’ You know, that summit was crazy, it was a shopping center where I remember where the staff office was. I wanted to give you one chance at the end of the interview to just…. You have some great light moments in this book about the absurdity of foreign trips too. So a very serious question about the international order and the implications of Copenhagen. And the latter point of just, you clearly made a point in the book to lift up kind of what you and I used to joke about and top 10 list and things like that, the kind of absurdities of foreign travel for president. I wanted to – how much Copenhagen was a part of that as well?

 

President Barack Obama: Well, look, I’ll take the second question first. You know, all of us have some pretty great stories about foreign travel and bilaterals and summits. Part of the point that I try to communicate in the book is this stuff looks fancier and it has a bunch of flags and, you know, limousines driving up with kings and prime ministers, et cetera, getting out of cars, et cetera. But oftentimes it’s organized like a trade show or convention. Right? You know, you’ve got the, you know, the big round table in our case. But, you know, you’ve got the pen and the pad, you know, commemorative pens. And some of them don’t work that well. Some of them are really nice. The Chinese always had the fanciest stuff because they were trying to show off through how nice their pens and pads were. And, you know, you got the mints and sometimes they’re snacks, sometimes not so much. And, you know, you’ve got the photo with everybody and with the cheesy wave and, and…. But I think, as you guys will acknowledge, at least during my presidency, what was still true, and I think this is what was lost during the Trump presidency and I think will be a challenge, a necessary challenge for the Biden-Harris administration to confront: we still set the agenda in these meetings. And if we didn’t set the agenda, there wasn’t a – nobody else had the combination of technical skill, bandwidth, diplomatic experience, relationships, trust and power to be able to stitch together various interests to arrive at something like a Paris Accord. And, you know, I think what Copenhagen showed and, you know, I talk about how Ban Ki Moon, who was then the U.N. secretary, kept on nagging me about how I needed to go. And me, trying to put him off because it wasn’t clear that we were actually going to be able to get any kind of deal of the sort that people wanted at the time. Everybody wanted a binding treaty of the sort that had happened in Kyoto, except America had never signed up for it. And what we didn’t have the votes in the Senate to have a binding treaty like that. Nor did we think we should have a binding treaty that in which China, India, the fastest growing emitters, had no responsibility. So we knew we couldn’t get that. So there was an instinct, I think, on the part of a lot of us in the administration to say, ‘well, we shouldn’t send the president to something that we know is not going to work.’ And the U.N. is trying to organize with 194 countries and they all have delegates. And, you know, poor Denmark is being asked to work with the U.N. to somehow hammer agreement. And as I point out, Denmark and all the Scandinavian countries, they punch above their weight. I mean, they’re terrific. They’re smart, they’re humane, they’re thoughtful, but they’re still tiny countries. China is not going to be muscled by Denmark into a deal it doesn’t want. At the end of the day, even though it was last minute, we are the ones who come up with a plausible formula and then have the muscle both to say to the Europeans, ‘this is as good as we’re going to do right now. Let’s go ahead and take this quarter of a loaf and build on it.’ And then to say, the Chinese, ‘listen, if you don’t take this deal, we are going to do everything we can to make sure everybody knows that you didn’t take the deal. You’re the reason that we didn’t have an agreement and the prospect of potentially providing mitigation and adaptation financing for poor countries and island nations that are being swallowed up by the oceans. That’s going to be on you, not on us.’ We’re the ones who are able to see and then broker that kind of deal. Now, what that I think points to is the fact that sometimes we have in our foreign policy thinking this on and off switch where we think either the US is this dominant hegemon and everybody has to fall in line to whatever it is that we want to do. Right? If you’re not part of the coalition of the willing, then we’re not going to do business with you. We’re going to punish you. We’re going to muscle you, as the attempt the Bush administration made during the Iraq war. That’s one view. And then the second view is that we’re just one nation among many nations. And, you know, we shouldn’t be arrogant in that way. And our role is simply to try to see if we can arrive at a global consensus. Well, the fact– what Copenhagen showed is you’re not going to get global consensus with 194 countries. The fact is, some countries in the case of climate change, some countries are the big emitters. Some countries are the bigger economies. You’re going to have to get agreement from them first. And in a multipolar world, what you have to do is to still assert American leadership, but that leadership is exercised in a different way. The leadership is exercised by example, right? So we start taking steps ourselves to deal with climate change so that we can then go to other countries and say: ‘See? we’re taking this seriously. You need to also.’ It involves understanding what the other big countries are thinking. Right? So I can’t have a conversation with the Chinese about climate change if I don’t acknowledge that they still have 300 million people who are in extreme poverty; and that the Central Committee in China is constantly obsessed with the destabilization if they cannot stay on a six percent growth rate or seven percent growth rate, because they’re not going to be able to employ all those folks who are coming in from the countrysides. And I have to understand that India, you know, has to figure out how to electrify huge swaths of the country– hundreds of millions of people who just don’t have basic electricity. And I have to understand the Europeans’ view, that they have already made investments in clean energy and so they’re trying to figure out why is it, if we’re doing it, why isn’t the bigger emitters doing anything? Right? So the role ends up being one of convener, agenda setter, persuader, example setter. But that’s still leadership. It’s not as if you then pull back. America is still central to getting the kind of international cooperation on big issues like nuclear proliferation or climate change or disaster relief or dealing with a pandemic. We’re still central to that process. But how we exercise that power is– it’s critical to be able to to persuade and understand the perspectives and dynamics in these other countries. It is not ‘here’s what we’re going to do and everybody else has to fall in line’ because the time in which we had that kind of power, which, by the way, is always overstated, otherwise we wouldn’t have had Vietnam, we would not have had OPEC. Right? I mean, there are all kinds of things that happened even at the zenith of American power. The world was always messier than we understood. But, what we have to recognize is, is that other countries caught up. And the anomaly was that period right after World War Two to let’s call it, the fall of the Berlin Wall or a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in which you have a huge swath of the world behind an Iron Curtain. You’ve got China and India that are basically still at the early stages of development and you’ve got Japan and Korea and most of Europe in rubble. Well, yeah, we had more power then. Obviously that changes once China starts to grow, and India begins to grow, and suddenly all that power is unleashed behind the Iron Curtain. But that doesn’t mean that American leadership doesn’t still matter. And what we’ve seen over the last four years is when we’re not exercising that leadership, where we’re not presenting an agenda and a vision that is infused with democratic values and at least some consideration of human rights and thinks about generational challenges like climate change, nothing happens. It’s not as if China filled that void, or wants to fill that void. And, you know, the combination of humility, in understanding that other countries matter and they have their own imperatives, but also a certain bold confidence in saying, ‘you know what? We have the ability because of our unique position in the world, even today, to lead.’ That’s the combination that I think we need to be looking for. And the good news is, is that I think they’re going to be a lot of veterans of our administration working inside the Biden Harris administration who will have learned some of these lessons. It doesn’t mean that all the choices are going to be easy and they’ll get their share of criticism just like we did. But I do think they understand the essential role America continues to play in the world and should.

 

Tommy Vietor: Well, there are so many more things we could have asked you about in the book, there’s the bin Laden operation, the Arab Spring, the Middle East peace talks. There is great family stuff. There’s Reggie stories, couldn’t get enough of those. There’s Iowa. But you have been incredibly gracious with your time, President Obama. So thank you so much. Everyone should check out A Promised Land. And it was great to talk to you.

 

President Barack Obama: It was fun. Thank you guys.