EXCLUSIVE: President Obama on Nukes, Palin, Confederacy and Iran

Obama brushes off criticism from Palin, questions Va. Civil War controversy.

April 8, 2010, 1:26 PM

April 9, 2010— -- After signing the historic nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia, President Obama, in an interview with ABC News, pushed back against critics who say his new nuclear weapons stance is too soft and leaves the United States vulnerable to attack.

The scene at the signing at the historic Prague Castle in the Czech Republic Thursday was one of cooperation between the United States and Russia, but back home, the Obama administration may face a challenge getting the treaty through the Senate.

Obama brushed off criticisms from former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin about his nuclear weapons policy.

"I really have no response. Because last I checked, Sarah Palin's not much of an expert on nuclear issues," he said in an exclusive interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos.

Earlier this week, the Obama administration announced plans to end the development of new nuclear weapons, and iterated a new policy, not part of the new treaty, that the United States would not use nuclear weapons against any country that has signed and is abiding by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even if it attacks the United States with chemical or biological weapons.

In an appearance Wednesday on Fox News, Palin compared Obama to a kid in a playground who is asking for a punch in the face.

"It's unbelievable. Unbelievable," said Palin on Sean Hannity's program. "No administration in America's history would, I think, ever have considered such a step that we just found out President Obama is supporting today. It's kinda like getting out there on a playground, a bunch of kids, getting ready to fight, and one of the kids saying, 'Go ahead, punch me in the face, and I'm not going to retaliate. Go ahead and do what you want to with me.'"

Obama Confident Nuclear Treaty Will Be Ratified by the Senate, Despite Republican Opposition

Obama told Stephanopoulos in Prague that he was not worried about Palin's criticisms.

"If the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff are comfortable with it, I'm probably going to take my advice from them, and not from Sarah Palin," he said.

Obama sat down with Stephanopoulos on Thursday at Prague Castle after he'd signed the treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

The two leaders pledged to reduce their nation's nuclear stockpiles by a third, from 2,200 deployed warheads for each country to 1,550 over seven years.

Despite signs of Republican opposition, Obama told Stephanopoulos that he is confident that the Senate will ratify the treaty.

"When they have had the opportunity to fully evaluate this treaty, [they] will come to the conclusion that this is in the best interest of the United States," Obama said of Senate Republicans, who have voiced criticisms. Obama called the treaty "absolutely vital" to his administration's anti-nuclear proliferation agenda.

The agreement requires the support of two-thirds of the Senate (67 votes) for ratification. Given the Democrat's 59 seat majority, it looks as if they will need at least eight Republicans to get on board to make the treaty official.

The treaty signing comes after more than a year of intense negotiations and several missed deadlines between the U.S. and Russia.

In Prague, the two leaders expressed a commitment to their strong alliance, but there are underlying tensions stemming from the U.S. plans for a missile defense system. Medvedev warned once again that the Russians could pull out of the treaty if they believed the plan undermined the new foundation of arms control.

Obama disputed that notion to Stephanopoulos and said the Russians were not saying they would withdraw from the treaty over the missile defense system.

"We were firm, and are now absolutely confident that this in no way impedes our ability to move forward on the missile defense program, that's designed not to target Russia," he said.

Obama Calls Virginia Governor's Slavery Omission 'Unacceptable'

Obama said that Virginia Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's proclamation designating April "Confederate History Month" without a mention of slavery was "an unacceptable omission" but one he has now acknowledged.

"I'm a big history buff. And I think that understanding the history of the Confederacy and understanding the history of the Civil War is something that every American and every young American should be a part of," the president said. "Now, I don't think you can understand the Confederacy and the Civil War unless you understand slavery. And so, I think that was an unacceptable omission. I think the governor's now acknowledged that."

Obama Says U.S., Russia in Agreement on Need for Sanctions to Change Iran's Behavior

Both Obama and Medvedev pledged Thursday to crack down on Iran with sanctions if it continues to advance its uranium enrichment program and pursue nuclear weapons.

Obama told Stephanopoulos that he and Medvedev are in agreement that there needs to be "sanctions that will change the behavior of Iran.

"I think it's an enormous shift and a signal that Russia, like the United States, recognizes that unless we can get all countries to start abiding by certain rules of the road, and right now, our biggest concerns are obviously Iran and North Korea," he said.

But Obama cautioned that given Iran's unpredictable behavior in the past, it's difficult to guarantee success.

"If the question is do we have a guarantee as to the sanctions we are able to institute at this stage are automatically going to change Iranian behavior, of course we don't," he said. "The history of the Iranian regime, like the North Korean regime is that, you know, you apply international pressure on these countries, sometimes they choose to change behavior, sometimes they don't."

Asked why he had confidence that the continued pressure and threat of sanctions on Iran could work this time, Obama said there has never been "the degree of international unity that you've seen in this effort," but he admitted that Iran has not showed yet "the kinds of signs that would satisfy me."

"And that's why I think we've got to keep on pursuing all options," he said. "And at this point, the most important option in front of us is-- is strong and vigorous sanctions."

Critics say both the Obama Administration's new nuclear policy and the U.S.-Russia arms agreement send the wrong message to Iran, even as Obama administration officials argue that it puts more pressure on Iran to stop its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Obama brushed off Iranian President Ahmadinejad's recent comment that the American president was an "inexperienced amateur."

"The guy's known for saying some pretty, pretty unconstructive stuff, how's that? And offensive stuff. So, I don't take that seriously," the president said.

Obama had considerable praise for his Russian counterpart and said that over the year of negotiations over the nuclear treaty, "he has consistently been able to keep the commitments that he's made, and follow through on them, and the treaty that we signed today is just one example of that."

Asked if he was convinced that Medvedev was in charge in Russia, as opposed to powerful former president and now-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Obama said that Medvedev "takes the counsel of Putin very seriously.

"You know, Russia is a big, complicated country just like the United States is," he said. "And there are all sorts of different voices coming at him at any given time that he's got to take into account."

Obama: Karzai Needs to 'Adjust' and Make Improvements to Government

Concerning Afghan President Hamid Karzai's recent outbursts about the U.S. influence over his country, Obama notably did not call Karzai an "ally" but did stress that he is and will be a "partner" to the United States.

Asked if he was "convinced" that Karzai is committed to making the necessary adjustments and changes to give his government greater legitimacy, Obama said, "I think he is committed to doing that."

"But that doesn't mean that it's easy," he noted. "And that doesn't mean that there aren't going to be times when he and I disagree in terms of how things should proceed, and how rapidly things should proceed."

Obama said that in his conversations with Karzai, the Afghan leader has responded to suggestions of what can help him achieve a "strong, stable and prosperous Afghanistan."

"The key is to continue to have those frank and honest conversations in a way that allows that strategic partnership to develop, and grow so that we can succeed," the president said. "Again, primarily from our perspective, because it's national for our national security."