Obama defends U.S. foreign policy: "It's not neat and it's not smooth"

Updated 5:15 p.m. ET

During a press conference slated to pan members of Congress on inaction one last time before they skip town for a five-week recess, President Obama on Friday defended the United States' push for diplomatic solutions during a time of heightened world crises in the Middle East, Ukraine and elsewhere.

"Apparently people have forgotten that America as the most powerful country on earth still does not control everything around the world," Mr. Obama said, asked by CBS News Senior White House Correspondent Bill Plante whether the U.S. had lost its global pull. "Our diplomatic efforts often take time - they often will see progress, and then a step backwards; that's the nature of world affairs. It's not neat, and it's not smooth."

The question came after the president explained the "dilemma" the United States currently faces in Gaza, where an internationally brokered cease-fire collapsed Friday just hours after it began. At least 62 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were killed in the latest round of fighting that erupted in the war-torn strip.

A senior Israeli official told CBS News the decision had been made to end the cease-fire and blamed Hamas squarely for violating its terms by resuming rocket fire. In a phone call with Secretary of State John Kerry, who fiercely pursued the cease-fire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charged Palestinian militants with "unilaterally and grossly" violating the brief halt to bloodshed.

Mr. Obama on Friday came to bat for Kerry's ultimately botched plan, giving him credit for persistence: "He has worked very hard," he said. "He has endured, on many occasions really, unfair criticism."

"Simply to try to get the point where the killing stops and the underlying issues about Israel's security, but also the concerns of Palestinians in Gaza can be addressed - we're going to keep working towards that," the president continued. But, he conceded, "I think it's going to be very hard to put a cease-fire back together again if Israelis and the international community can't feel confident that Hamas can follow through on a cease-fire commitment."

For the militants to demonstrate they're "serious about trying to resolve this situation," Mr. Obama called for the release of Hadar Goldin, a 23-year-old 2nd Lt. from the central Israeli town of Kfar Saba who was apparently captured during the ensuing mayhem of the broken cease-fire. "That soldier needs to be unconditionally released, as soon as possible," he said.

While turmoil in the Middle East is proving as taxing to the United States' foreign policy labors as ever, recent action against Russia, Mr. Obama argued, proffers one example of his administration's diplomatic success.

On Tuesday he announced that the U.S. is once again moving to impose fresh sanctions on Russia as a consequence for its continued support of separatists in eastern Ukraine. The new sanctions, which target the defense, energy and financial sectors of the Russian economy, will have an "even bigger bite" than those imposed in the past, the president said, because the U.S. is being joined by its European allies who had, until now, resisted widening their own sanctions.

"In Ukraine, we have made progress on delivering on what we said we would do," he said during Friday's briefing. Adding that he had spoken earlier Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he went on: "We can't control how Mr. Putin thinks, but we can say to Mr. Putin, if you continue on the path of arming separatists... then you're gonna face consequences that will hurt your country."

Still, the president cautioned, "short of going to war, there are going to be some constraints in terms of what we can do if President Putin and Russia are ignoring what should be their long-term interests."

In his roughly 48 minutes at the podium, the president Friday touched on a number of other issues playing out both stateside and on the international stage:

Republicans merely want to "check a box" on immigration

The White House, the Democrat-led Senate and the Republican-led House "all agree that there's a problem that needs to be solved in a portion of our southern border," Mr. Obama said, referring to the crisis-level surge of undocumented, unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. "And we even agree on most of the solutions. But instead of working together... House Republicans, as we speak, are trying to pass the most extreme and unworkable versions of a bill that they already know is going nowhere, that can't pass the Senate, and that if it were to pass the Senate, I would veto."

House GOP leaders huddled with their caucus on Friday morning to gauge support for passing a border security bill one day after they postponed that recess due to an insurrection among conservative members. Now tweaking the bill and monitoring the temperature of their rank-and-file, they're still scrambling to get something through before lawmakers flee the district. On Friday the president accused House leaders of seeking a vote merely for show, "just so they can check a box before they're leaving town for a month."

"Longest streak of private-sector job creation in our history"

As expected, the president seized on a report out Friday from the U.S. Labor Department that said the economy added 209,000 jobs in July, just shy of analyst forecasts of 225,000. He celebrated the sixth straight month boasting at least 200,000 new jobs - "the first time that has happened since 1997," he said. "Over the past year, we've added more jobs than any year since 2006, and all told, our businesses have created 9.9 million new jobs over the past 53 months. That's the longest streak of private-sector job creation in our history."

While U.S. employers continued to hire at a healthy clip last month, though, subdued wage growth suggests the economy is not poised to shift into higher gear. Mr. Obama blamed that stagnancy on House GOP, saying his push for solutions to rebuild infrastructure and raise the minimum wage "have two things in common: All of them would help working families feel more stable and secure, and all of them so far have been blocked or ignored by Republicans in Congress."

Screening visitors from Africa with even an "infinitesimal" risk of Ebola

Addressing the Ebola outbreak that's logged a death toll of more than 700 in West Africa, Mr. Obama explained precautions the United Sates is taking ahead of the White House-hosted gathering of African leaders in Washington next week. The deadliest outbreak ever recorded, it's inflicting three countries in particular: Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, two of which have pulled their participation in the summit.

"We are doing two things with respect to the summit itself," the president said. "Folks who are coming from these countries that have even a marginal risk or an infinitesimal risk of having been exposed in some fashion, we're making sure we're doing screening on that end as they leave the country. We'll do additional screening when we're here. We feel confident that the procedures that we've put in place are appropriate."

Because the disease is so easily transmitted, he went on, "the key is identifying, quarantining, isolating those who contract it and making sure that practices are in place that avoid transmission. And it can be done, but it's got to be done in an organized, systematic way. And that means that we're gonna have to help these countries accomplish that."

"We tortured some folks" after 9/11

Nodding to the impending release of a Senate report that takes issue with the CIA's treatment of al Qaeda detainees captured after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Mr. Obama made some of his most emphatic remarks to date about the controversial practices he banned after taking office.

"We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks; we did some things that were contrary to our values," he said. Still, he qualified, Americans shouldn't feel too "sanctimonious" about passing judgment on national security officials who at the time felt enormous pressure to forestall another attack. "A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots," he said.

The president also stood by CIA Director John Brennan amid calls for his resignation in the wake of an internal CIA report that shows the agency improperly accessed Senate computers. "Keep in mind," Mr. Obama advised, "that John Brennan was the person who called for the I.G. report and he's already stood up a task force to make sure that lessons are learned and mistakes are resolved."

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