During his 60 Minutes interview on Sunday night, President Obama said Russia’s airstrikes in Syria came as no surprise. He was vague on exactly what American intelligence knew.
NBC News’s coverage of this passage from Obama’s CBS interview captures all of the Democrats’ talking points and arranges them in a few crisp paragraphs for easy review:
In a long, tense interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” conducted Tuesday and aired Sunday night, however, Obama said: “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.”
Asked specifically whether he knew of Putin’s plans before they met at the United Nations on Sept. 28, Obama said, “We had pretty good intelligence.”
The question of how much Obama knew about Putin’s plans has become more prominent as presidential candidates Donald Trump, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and other Republicans have criticized Obama for showing weakness in the face of Russia’s advance.
But Obama contended in the interview broadcast Sunday that “the fact that they had to do this is not an indication of strength. It’s an indication that their strategy did not work.”
Within hours of the interview airing, it became commonplace for Obama supporters on social media to wail about how Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes was supposedly rude, disrespectful, or unfair toward the president, so of course NBC leads by describing the interview as “long” and “tense.” In other words, Kroft came close to treating President Obama like a Republican, and the president did not fare well.
Asking Obama if he knew the Russian airstrikes where coming when he spoke with Putin at the U.N. is not an unfair or tricky question, and Obama should have known it was coming. Putin made an absolute fool of him during that encounter, which ended with administration officials boasting of the Russian president coming around to Obama’s way of thinking about a peaceful resolution of the Syria crisis.
“The Russians certainly understood the importance of there being a political resolution to the conflict in Syria, and there being a process that pursues a political resolution,” as one official told reporters after Obama and Putin spoke. The storyline was that Obama really brought it to Putin and adjusted his attitude during the heated conversation.
For his part, Putin emerged from that meeting talking about what Obama could do to help Russia keep Assad in power. When the Russian strongman said there was an “opportunity to work on joint problems together,” he was explicitly referring to the idea of the United States teaming up with Russia to take out Assad’s enemies, including ISIS and al-Qaeda.
It is therefore relevant to ask how much Obama knew about Russia’s actual plans while he was trying to spin his meeting with Russia as a diplomatic success. Contrary to the president’s claims about having “pretty good intelligence,” only a few weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry was claiming Russia’s mission in Syria was an entirely defensive exercise in “force protection.” Kerry scoffed at the notion of Russia going to bat for a dictator who “has dropped barrel bombs on his people, that has gassed his own people, war crimes, that has started his people, tortured his people.”
If the White House was sitting on “pretty good intel” that Russia was about to start dropping bombs on behalf of that dictator, they apparently did not share it with the Secretary of State. They also do not seem to have shared it with any of the American proxy fighters in Syria that just got hit by Russian airstrikes.
The Iraqis hailing Putin as an honorary Shiite and begging him to drop bombs on their behalf see him as strong, and they are not going to change their opinions because President Obama reads them some grade-school anti-bullying pamphlet about how throwing punches reveals a lack of character.
Understanding Russia’s interests, and the situation on the ground, should have made it blindingly obvious what those Russian warplanes in Syria were for. For that matter, the Russians broadcast their intentions to everyone who would listen. This was the easiest tactical intelligence call in recent history, and yet Obama, Kerry, and the rest of their team acted completely stunned when the first airstrikes were carried out.