President Obama lent ample credence to skeptics who worry that Russia won't deal squarely in negotiations over Syrian chemical weapons during an interview that aired Sunday on ABC's "This Week," but he downplayed the fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin is "playing" America, insisting Russia has a vested interest in a stable Syria.
"I don't think that Mr. Putin has the same values that we do, and I think, obviously, by protecting Mr. Assad, he has a different attitude about the Assad regime," Mr. Obama said in the interview, which was conducted on Friday, before Washington and Moscow.
"But what I've also said to him directly is that we both have an interest in preventing chaos, we both have an interest in preventing terrorism. The situation in Syria right now is untenable, as long as Mr. Assad's in power, there is gonna be some sort of conflict there," the president explained. "And I think there's a way for-- Mr. Putin, despite me and him having a whole lot of differences, to play an important role in that. And so I welcome him being involved. I welcome him saying, 'I will take responsibility for pushing my client, the Assad regime-- to deal with these chemical weapons.'"
The president said that, despite the fixation on the friction in the relationship between Washington and Moscow, the two countries have been able to work together constructively when it suits their mutual interests.
"You know Mr. Putin and I have," he said. "But I can talk to him. We have worked together on important issues. The fact of the matter is is that we couldn't be supplying all of our troops in Afghanistan if he weren't helping us...in transporting those supplies through the...northern borders of Afghanistan. So there are a whole range of areas where we currently work together. We've worked together on counterterrorism operations."
"This is not the Cold War," he said. "This is not a contest between the United States and Russia. I mean the fact of the matter...is that if Russia wants to have some influence in Syria, post-Assad, that doesn't hurt our interests. I know that sometimes this gets framed or or looked at through the lens of the U.S. versus Russia. But that's not what this is about."
Mr. Obama also took on those who say that his handling of Syria, with its shifting menu of policy options, has been "unsteady," saying his critics may have been more satisfied with a "linear" policy that eschewed dynamism and nuance for stability and clarity - but that doesn't necessarily mean it would have been a better idea.
"I think that folks here in Washington like to grade on style," the president said. "And so, had we rolled out something that was very smooth, and disciplined and linear, they would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy. We know that, because that's exactly how they graded the Iraq War until it ended up blowing...in our face."
The president pointed to the possibility of a real breakthrough in Syria, despite the reversals and frustrations of the last few weeks, taking something of an all's-well-that-ends-well perspective.
"I'm less concerned about style points. I'm much more concerned about getting the policy right," he explained. "What I've said consistently throughout is that the chemical weapons issue is a problem. I want that problem dealt with. And as a consequence of the steps that we've taken over the last two weeks to three weeks, we now have a situation in which Syria has acknowledged it has chemical weapons, has said it's willing to join the convention on chemical weapons, and Russia, its primary sponsor, has said that it will pressure Syria to reach that agreement.
"That's my goal," the president said. "And if that goal is achieved, then it sounds to me like we did something right."