Transcript: George Stephanopoulos Interviews President Obama

'Good Morning America' Anchor Sat Down for Exclusive Interview Following START Treaty Signing

April 9, 2010—

"Good Morning America" anchor George Stephanopoulos interviewed President Barack Obama in Prague, Czech Republic, just after Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the new START treaty.

The following is a transcript of the exclusive interview, which took place on Thursday, April 8, 2010.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. President, thanks very much for doing this.

OBAMA: Thank you.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So, some tough but successful negotiations with the Russians, now comes the Senate. You sounded pretty confident about ratification, but you know there is this concern about missile defense, and a lot of Republicans believe that even these unilateral Russian statements linking missile defense in the treaty could imperil it.

OBAMA: Well, first thing I think it's important to remember is that this is a process that wasn't just run out of the White House. The Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs looked at this every step of the way, our secretary of defense looked at this every step of the way, and the intelligence community looked at it every step of the way. And 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, but in fact, is designed to deal with --

STEPHANOPOULOS: The Russians are saying they're going to pull out if you proceed.

OBAMA: Well, no, that's not what they've said. What -- what they've said is that -- as we've adapted in Europe a phased approach to missile defense, hopefully, we're going to be able to create a situation where we cooperate with them. But it is going to be contingent and developing, based on our threat assessments. If for example, we are able to create a situation where Iran is no longer posing us a threat in terms of intercontinental ballistic missiles, then it may be that our missile defense configuration is able to be scaled back in a way that doesn't threaten Russia.

So, all these pieces fit together. We're looking at a timetable over a five, 10, 15, 20 year time horizon. This treaty itself absolutely accomplishes our initial goal, which was to replace the previous START treaty. To reduce the number of deployed warheads, the number of vehicles, launchers, that are used. But it's only a start. And we're going to have to continually build and evolve a whole approach that is designed for the 21st century as opposed to the 20th century.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So, you have no doubt you're going to get the eight Republicans you need to ratify this treaty?

OBAMA: Well, you know, the -- listen, I've now been in Washington for long enough that, for me to say I have no doubt (LAUGHS) about how the Senate operates would be foolish. I feel confident that leaders like Dick Lugar -- who actually was somebody I worked very closely with when I was in the Senate on issues of bomb control -- 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. But I will also say to those in the Senate who have questions, is that this is absolutely vital for us to deal with the broader issues of nuclear proliferation, that are probably the number one threat that we face in the future.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I want to get to some of those broader issues. Because you're also facing criticism on that. Sarah Palin, taking aim at your decision to restrict the use of nuclear weapons. Your pledge not to strike nations, non-nuclear nations, who abide by the nonproliferation treaty. Here's what she said. She said, "It's unbelievable, no other administration would do it." And then she likened it to kids on the playground. She said you're like a kid who says, "Punch me in the face, and I'm not going to retaliate." Your response?

OBAMA: I really have no response. Because last I checked, Sarah Palin's not much of an expert on nuclear issues.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But the string of criticism has been out there among other Republicans as well. They think you're restricting use of nuclear weapons too much.

OBAMA: And what I would say to them is that 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.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But not concerned about her criticisms?


STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's talk about President Medvedev. I'm going to see him tomorrow. You've spoken with him about 14 times negotiating this treaty. And it's been a struggle. If this was just two lawyers hammering out the details, what did you learn about him?

OBAMA: Well, he -- he is a -- he's a very deliberate, very methodical, very honest partner in negotiations, which I find very useful. He's somebody who says, "Here's what I can do, here's what I can't do." He, he showed flexibility in negotiations, that, you know, haven't always been the case in negotiations between the United States and Russia, where essentially you can just trade the talking points and not --

STEPHANOPOULOS: He -- really talked?

OBAMA: He actually talked, he actually listened. I think we've developed a good working relationship. And I, what he recognizes -- and is, I think, one of the central concerns of our whole approach -- is that, you know, although the United States and Russia remain by far the largest nuclear superpowers, that the issues of proliferation, the challenges of nuclear terrorism and asymmetric threats, loose nuclear materials, that these are all things that in this environment, probably pose a much greater danger to the safety and security of the American people, or for that matter, the Russian people, than, you know, particular payloads coming from historic adversaries like the United States and the former Soviet Union.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you convinced he's the man in charge in Russia?

OBAMA: You know, I will tell you, he has been able to consistently follow through on the commandments that he's made. You know, I think there's no doubt that he takes the counsel of Putin very seriously. I think that there's no doubt that, you know, Russia is a big, complicated country just like the United States is. And there are all sorts of different voices coming at him at any given time that he's got to take into account.

But what I've been impressed with is, is that from the time that we first met in London, a year ago to today, he has consistently been able to keep the commitments that he's made, and follow through on them, and -- and -- the treaty that we signed today is just one example of that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And it sounds like you may be now on the same page in dealing with Iran.

OBAMA: Uh-huh.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you convinced that Russia and President Medvedev take this as seriously and, and feel the same urgency that you do?

OBAMA: I am convinced that what you heard today would've been unimaginable a year ago. For me to lay out clearly our approach to sanctions and to have then a Russian president next to me say there's nothing I heard that I could disagree with, 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 -- but they're a broader set of issues at stake out there. That -- that's going to be damaging to their national security just like ours. And, and so, what you heard today was the Russians I think are clear that we need sanctions that will change the behavior of Iran. And I think that what you'll be able to see over the next several weeks is, is that both the United States and Russia as part of a broader international effort are going to say to the Iranians once again, you've got options here.

STEPHANOPOULOS: An international effort that includes China?

OBAMA: You've got options. You can take the path you're on, and get further isolated with greater and great consequences, or you can actually look at the very reasonable offers that have been out there that would allow them to pursue civilian nuclear energy without pursuing weapons.

Now, you know, you were asking about China. I think China is obviously concerned about their energy. You know, when you have that many people, and you're growing that fast, then issues of oil are going to be high on your list. But what I've been encouraged by in conversations that we've had recently with the Chinese is the recognition, as they recognized when it came to North Korea, that if the international community is just standing by toothless and there are no consequences to actors who act contrary to their international obligations -- that over time, that's going to be destabilizing.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But what do you say to critics who say you're on the same page with Russia now because you've given away too much? And that sanctions aren't going to change Iran's behavior, unless they include real limits on this trade in oil and refined gasoline products?

OBAMA: You had a compound question here. First, you made a suggestion that we gave away too much, and I -- it would be -- I'd be curious as to what exactly we gave away.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You're giving away that -- the taking -- taking the fine petroleum products off the table.

OBAMA: Oh, I see. So, so, why don't you reformulate the question here, George, because I'm just trying to follow you here. You're, you're suggesting that --

STEPHANOPOULOS: You said you and Russia are on the same page. You're on the same page, because they've taken refined petroleum products off the table. And critics say --

OBAMA: No, no, no, no. I -- I didn't say that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You don't believe it. Well --

OBAMA: What -- what -- what I --

STEPHANOPOULOS: -- they said that.

OBAMA: Well, what I said is -- is that the United States and Russia both are committed to making sure that there are sanctions that change Iranian behavior. That's what you heard President Medevdev say, say today. Now, our assessments in terms of what that particular mix is -- that hasn't finalized. That's still a process of negotiation.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So, it could still include that?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I -- I don't want to negotiate on ABC News. But I think that there are going to be a whole host of measures that we put on the table, that they put on the table, that they think are effective, and that we think are effective, and we're not doing this in isolation. We're doing this with the other P-5 Plus One members. So, China is entering in negotiations in New York. We've got Germany, and France, and Great Britain. All of us are going to be sitting and crafting, shaping a sanctions regime that we think is actually going to be effective in changing Iranian behavior.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me -- let me --

OBAMA: But 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. I mean, 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. Part of that may have to do with their internal political dynamics. But if that pressure is steady, and applied, and consistent, and there's a unified international effort, over time, you can see changes in behavior. And we saw that in Libya for example, which had pursued --

STEPHANOPOULOS: But so far, three rounds of U.N. sanctions haven't worked.

OBAMA: Well --

STEPHANOPOULOS: What will be different this time?

OBAMA: Well, the -- I don't think you have seen the degree of international unity that you've seen in this effort. Now, we've got to explore a whole range of other options. And I've been consistent about that. But I think the important point is if that we came in a year and a half ago, close to a year and a half ago, saying that we would approach the Iranian government, give them an option, and we would move on parallel tracks, not because we were naive that the Iranians would automatically accept an open hand from us, but rather because we understood that by taking ourselves off the table as an issue, by showing that we would be willing to engage if, in fact, Iran was willing to act responsibly, what we would be able to do is to mobilize the international community much more effectively than we have in the past. And I think you're seeing the results of that bear fruit today.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me just press this one more time. Are -- are -- are you saying now that you're willing to consider blocking the trade in gasoline to Iran?

OBAMA: George, what I'm saying is I am not going to discuss the specifics of sanctions at this point.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So far, the Iranian officials are calling the sanctions a joke. And I'm sure you've seen that. And President Ahmadinejad took after you personally. He -- he's basically calling you a cowboy. The quote -- the quote was, "inexperienced amateur," and he wants you to wait "until your sweat dries and you get some experience." What do you make of that?

OBAMA: Well, let's see, George. So far, you've quoted Sarah Palin (LAUGHS) --

STEPHANOPOULOS: No, it's President Ahmadinejad. You have to have deal with him.

OBAMA: -- and now President Ahmadinejad. You're -- you're trying to get a rise out of me.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And it's not going to work?

OBAMA: No, it's not. I mean, look, the guy -- the guy's known for saying some pretty, pretty unconstructive stuff, how's that? And offensive stuff. So, I don't take that seriously. What I do take seriously is the fact that if we consistent and steady and applying international pressure, that over time, Iran, which is not a stupid regime, which is very attentive in watching what's happening in the international community, will start making a different set of cost benefit, you know, analyses about whether or not pursuing nuclear weapons makes sense for them.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Whose mind do you have to change there?

OBAMA: Well, I think, you know, how Iran works internally is a, is a pretty complicated thing. Ahmadinejad is just one player among many. Obviously, Khomeini is the, the person who probably has the ultimate power in Iran right now, but I think things are in flux in part because after this election, what we've seen is a delegitimizing of that regime. The violations of human rights, what we've witnessed on the internet and other venues have, I think, weakened this -- this -- this government.

So that there are probably a whole bunch of different power sources. And that's part of what has made this process difficult. I mean, it's not at all clear that they would have made the same decisions, for example, to reject the international offer that was made by the P-5 Plus One had they felt more secure and more stable. The fact that it came after an election may have, in fact made them dig in their heels a little bit more.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you seeing any signs there that they're ready to change their behavior?

OBAMA: Well, you know, we haven't seen the kinds of signs that would satisfy me. And that's why I think we've got to keep on pursuing all options. And at this point, the most important option in front of us is -- is strong and vigorous sanctions.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask you about Afghanistan. There's been something of a war of words between your administration and President Karzai recently. And -- and your press secretary, Robert Gibbs, refused to call him an ally the other day. And I think a lot of Americans wonder, if he's not an ally, why are we putting American lives on the line?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, the reason we're putting American lives on the line is because 3,000 Americans were killed by an attack that was launched from Afghanistan. And those people are still out there, still plotting to kill Americans.

So the reason the American troops are there, first and foremost, is because we've got to make sure that something like that doesn't happen again. And that means that we are going after al Qaeda to dismantle and destroy them. I say at the beginning of my Afghan strategy, that was our central concern. That remains our singular focus. But in order to do that, what we've said is we've got to work both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan to create an environment in which these extremist organizations are further and further isolated.

And that means having a stable Afghanistan that has a trained security force, that is not allowing the Taliban to take over huge sections of the country, and potentially allow another platform for al Qaeda to operate. And in that process, what we've seen is steady, demonstrable success over the last several months. Now, President Karzai, I think, is going to be a critical partner in this effort, because if we are just succeeding on the military side, but not succeeding on the civilian side, then you're going to continue to have instability in the region.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is he a partner now?

OBAMA: Well, I think he has been a partner, but I think that he has his own domestic politics that he has to deal with. I think that -- what in my last meeting with him, what I said to him was, the -- the most important thing from the United States perspective, the thing we want most, is not to control Afghanistan or have a presence in Afghanistan. We want a prosperous, stable, secure Afghanistan that we can partner with to make sure this isn't a base for terrorist activity.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But that means he has to be there.

OBAMA: And -- and -- and that means that he has to adjust and make continual changes and improvements that give his government greater legitimacy. That make ordinary Afghans feel that it is in their interest to support this national government, that they're seeing better irrigation, that -- that their crops are getting to market, and they're getting a decent price. That there's rule of law, and they're not experiencing corruption. That -- that people -- you know, their government is -- is representative of those concer -- their concerns.

And I think the fact is, is that real progress has been made, but, you know, this is a country that went through 30 years of -- of war. It's one of the poorest countries in the world. Does not have a tradition of a strong centralized nationalized government. And so, part of President Karzai's challenge is he's got to bring his country along into a 21st century in which it is functioning and effective and --

STEPHANOPOULOS: But are you convinced he's committed to doing that?

OBAMA: I think he is committed to doing that; that doesn't mean that it's easy. 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. But, you know, generally speaking, what I've seen is each time I've had a conversation with him -- one that's respectful of Afghanistan's independence and sovereignty and traditions and culture, that I say to him, "Here are some things that are going to make us more effective in partnering with you -- to achieve a strong, stable, and prosperous Afghanistan."

Each time I've had those conversations, he's responded. And 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, again, primarily from our perspective, because it's national for our national security.

STEPHANOPOULOS: We're just about out of time. I just have two quick questions. Number one, the governor of Virginia proclaims Confederate History Month in Virginia. What did you make out of that?

OBAMA: Well, you know, 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, should be a part of. Now, I don't think you can understand the Confederacy and the Civil War unless you understand slavery. And so, I think that was a -- an unacceptable omission. I think the governor's now acknowledged that.

And I think it's just a reminder that when we talk about issues like slavery that are so fraught with pain and emotion, that, you know, we, we'd better do so thinking through how this is going to affect a lot of people. And -- and their sense of whether their part of a commonwealth or part of a -- of -- of our broader society.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Finally, speaking of history, a new book out by David Remnick, a biography of you, includes a story from the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. She recounts the conversation she had with you during the campaign where she was really struck by your ambition. She said -- she quotes you saying, "I have no desire to be one of those presidents who are just on the list, you see their pictures lined up on the wall." You're pretty confident that you're going to avoid that fate?

OBAMA: Well, look, here's what I've been spending my time thinking about. I'm pretty confident that we're not going to plunge into a Great Depression, which I wasn't so clear about a year ago. I'm pretty confident that we've stabilized the financial system. I'm pretty confident that economy's on the mend, and we -- that -- I'm also pretty confident that we've got a heck of a lot of work to do to put people back to work. I'm confident that health care was the right thing to do, and that's going to be a significant achievement when generations look back on it. And I think this START Treaty that we signed is -- is the start of a good direction for American national security policy. But I'm going to wait until I'm maybe 10 years out of office before I start making assessments about how I did.

STEPHANOPOULOS: OK, Mr. President, thanks very much.

OBAMA: All right, thank you, George. Appreciate it.