Transcript: President Obama One-on-One With Diane Sawyer

Photo: Pres. Obama speaks with Diane SawyerABC News
President Barack Obama speaks with ABC News' Diane Sawyer.

DIANE SAWYER: Starting with Libya, as of this moment, any sign [strongman Moammar] Gadhafi wants out?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think what we're seeing is that the circle around Gadhafi understands that the noose is tightening, that -- their days are probably numbered -- and they're going to have to think through what their next steps are. But -- as -- as I have been very clear about throughout -- there are certain things that are nonnegotiable. He's got to pull his troops out of -- places like Misrata that have been under siege, they're not getting water, they're not getting medicine. Humanitarian aid can't get in there. He's got to stand down with respect to his troops. There's certain things they can do -- that will send a signal that he's ready to go. Until that time, we're going to keep on applying pressure -- and -- you know, we had a conference today in London where you had scores of countries. European, Arab -- the United Nations -- the African Union, all coming together saying -- it was time for him to go. And hopefully -- he's going to be getting the message soon.

DIANE SAWYER: Looking at each end of the spectrum of possibilities, if Gadhafi ends up in a villa some place in Zimbabwe with no war crimes trial, is that OK with you?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well -- you know, that's not going to be my decision alone. I will tell you, though that -- the first step is for Gadhafi to send a signal that he understands -- the Libyan people -- don't want him ruling anymore. That 40 years of tyranny is enough. And -- you know, once he makes that decision -- I think the international community will come together, and make a determination -- as to what -- the most appropriate -- way of facilitating him stepping down will be. I certainly will be supportive of him -- being removed from power. And -- we're going to have to examine what our options are after that.

DIANE SAWYER: Have you made any -- or would you make any calls to say take him?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We have not gotten to that stage yet.

DIANE SAWYER: Other end of the spectrum, of course, and we are hearing tonight as many people are, that it's -- it's fierce fighting, in Sirte, Ras Lanouf, may have been a little too far, a little too overreaching for the rebels tonight. If it is determined -- and I know it's not been determined yet -- that the U.S. must send munitions. Hard artillery into the rebels, how long would it take to get there?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well -- you know, I -- I wouldn't speculate on that. I think that -- it's fair to say that if we wanted to get weapons -- into -- Libya, we probably could. We're looking at all our options at this point. But keep in mind what we've accomplished.

We have instituted a no-fly zone that can be sustained for quite some time because it's an international effort. It's not just a U.S. effort. And so we've got scores of countries that are participating, including Arab countries like Qatar and -- the United Arab Emirates. That means he can't use any air power. His air defense systems have been completely disabled.

Because of the civilian protection mandate from the United Nations that -- NATO is participating in -- if he tries to advance towards Benghazi or some of these other major population centers where there's opposition, we can protect those populations. So, he's been greatly weakened. His forces have been degraded. But what's absolutely true is that if you measured his remaining capability to rebel or opposition capability then he's still more powerful on the ground in Libya.

That's why it's important for us not only to keep up the military pressure, but it's also important for us to maintain the diplomatic and political pressure. But also send a message to the rebels and the opposition that they have to understand what their position is. They need to clarify what their agenda is. And that's part of what the conference on Tuesday was all about.

DIANE SAWYER: But are they reassured? Can we say that we can have it in there in a day? In two days?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I'm not going to talk about -- you know, operations like that, at that level. But what I can say that is that we are examining all options to support the opposition. We are providing nonlethal assistance to the opposition. We want to get communication systems in there, medical facilities in there. We want to make sure that they can consolidate their current positions, protect themselves and their people. We will help them in that effort.

But it's conceivable that the process of actually getting Gadhafi to step down is not going to happen overnight. That it's going to take -- a little bit of time. And keep in mind, we've only been operating here for nine days. And for us to have such a strong international coalition, such a strong mandate from the international community, us having degraded his forces so rapidly -- that's pretty good work for nine days. But it's going to take more time before we get the kind of outcome that ultimately we'd like to see.

DIANE SAWYER: I want to try to clarify what you're saying today to the people of Syria, the people who are dying for full democracy in Syria. And I've got the list from last night. "If they rise up in force and are faced with violence on a horrific scale, a unique ability we have to stop that violence, a broad coalition, Arab countries coming in, and they make a plea for help" -- are you saying to them we will be there for you as we were there in Libya?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is that those are the criteria that I consider in making a very difficult decision about whether to apply military force. Understanding that we also have limits in terms of our capabilities. I mean, well, part of the point that I tried to make last night is that in Libya, we had a moment in time where we did have this international mandate, including from Arab countries.

We had a brutal dictator who had shown himself willing to kill thousands of people in the past and to show no mercy. We had the ability to intervene very rapidly with a strong international participation, and to make a difference.

I don't know if those circumstances could be duplicated anyplace else. Those are the kinds of criteria that I examined, but I'm not going to start, right as we're in a very complex operation in Libya, start projecting out about all the other countries in which this would apply.

What will be consistent is a strong message from us in the region about what we believe. That in fact, you know, governments shouldn't turn their weapons on their own people. That peaceful demonstrators should not be shot and killed. That respecting basic human rights, freedom of speech, and and freedom of assembly -- that that's important. That a government should be responsive to legitimate grievances. We will consistently send out that message but there are a whole host of countries that are going through turmoil in the Middle East right now. And we should not expect that somehow we're going to be able to impose a solution on each and every one of those every time. Libya was a unique situation. We'll examine how we can make a difference, not just through military tools, but also through diplomatic and political tools, and economic sanctions. We'll examine that carefully -- as the weeks unfold.

DIANE SAWYER: Even if these paper criteria are met?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, as I said, Diane I think in each situation I've got to examine how does this measure up in terms of our interests, the international community's interests, what exactly would any military intervention accomplish. Understanding that there's significant costs and risks involved in that, and understanding that our military is already very overstretched.

DIANE SAWYER: Should the American people be prepared for a continued American presence in a no-fly zone monitoring until the end of summer? The end of the year? Just be prepared for as long as it takes?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, here's the good news. I think that is precisely because we organized an international coalition, we don't have to shoulder this entire burden. I mean, the fact of the matter is it's not going to be U.S. planes that are maintaining the no-fly zone. It is a NATO operation. We've got -- a support role where we'll be doing some refueling, we'll provide intelligence, we'll provide jamming capabilities.

But we did a lot of the heavy lifting early. And that was by design. Because what I didn't want was a situation in which everybody else was a free rider on our U.S. military. I wanted to make sure you guys say this is important to you, make sure that you are actually putting some skin in the game. And what that means then is that a no-fly zone and the protective functions of assuring that Gadhafi's forces are not overrunning major cities like Benghazi. That can be maintained without heavy direct involvement by the United States.

DIANE SAWYER: A question. I can't tell you how many people have said this. You wake up in the morning, and you are looking at Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, a tsunami, a nuclear -- potentially nuclear meltdown, an economic crisis, Tucson. Do you -- I guess one question I have, when you go home to your daughters at night, and it's thorns and roses, (LAUGHTER) what do you say now?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yeah. I -- well look --

DIANE SAWYER: What do you say to them now?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I mean -- there is no doubt that we are going through -- as significant a set of challenges in the world as we've seen in my lifetime. And you know, that means that being President of the United States right now is pretty busy. But here's what I say -- to the American people.

Number one is -- my most important priority is obviously keeping the American people safe. And I never lose sight of that. My second most important priority is making sure that we are rebuilding our economy, because we can't be strong abroad if we're not strong at home. And so I'm still spending a lot of time thinking about how do we fix our energy situation so that we don't go through this cycle of shock at $4 a gallon gas, and then suddenly trance when the prices go back down. But instead, have a steady, sustained energy policy that we're retraining our people to make sure that they're prepared for the jobs of the 21st century. You know, so I'm staying very focused on that. But in the meantime, what is true is, is that you know, my job is to is to manage problems and manage crises. And we've had more than our fair share. So I'm assuming that in future years things level out a little bit. But in the meantime, you know this is why I have to I have to do something about the bags under my eyes.

DIANE SAWYER: Someone pulled the Lincoln quote again, thinking of the immeasurable stresses awaited every day. About being on his knees sometimes, because he was in search of wisdom that -- his own wisdom was insufficient for the day.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I do a lot of praying. Absolutely. Every night, right before I go to bed. You know, and I am praying that -- I'm making the best possible decisions, and that I've got the strength to serve the American people well. And frankly as President of the United States, you know, your responsibilities extend beyond beyond our borders. And these decisions are difficult. Look, I think it's important to understand when -- when people look at a situation like Libya tend to recognize that there are no easy alternatives there. There are no, you know, smooth, painless options.

DIANE SAWYER: Going to be a rough ride ahead for --

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yeah. I mean, when that plane malfunctioned over Libya, thank goodness, we had pilots who had trained for that, we had a rescue. And search and rescue operation that we had already thought through before we went in and they're back home safe. But, you know, something could've gone wrong.

So in each of these instances, you make the best possible decisions based on an assessment of what's in the interest of the American people. I think on Libya, we've gotten it right. That doesn't make it easy. It just means that we've made the right decision for that moment. It means that on situations like Egypt -- you know, we've got to continually follow through and not take our eye off the ball there if -- if we can get the largest Arab country, Egypt, stable, a democracy, the economy's doing well, all those young people who were in Tehrir Square, suddenly see hope for the future and opportunity, that makes a huge difference for us. That could set a tone -- for how this Arab Spring plays itself. So none of this is going to be easy. But I remain confident that we're going to ultimately come out on the other side of this with a better world.

DIANE SAWYER: Just a final question. How much do you think Kentucky will win by?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (LAUGHS) Diane, I --

DIANE SAWYER: I mean, at this point, we're really just looking at --

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I mean I will make this point. You know, a lot of folks focused on the fact that I filled out my bracket. Obviously, I hadn't been spending that much time studying it since I don't have anybody in the Final Four. (LAUGHS) Congratulations to Kentucky.

DIANE SAWYER: Thank you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You're welcome.

DIANE SAWYER: Thank you, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You bet.

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