Obama defends Russia relations, progress on al Qaida, health care law

McClatchy Washington BureauAugust 9, 2013 


President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House on Friday, August 9, 2013, in Washington, DC.


— President Barack Obama said Friday that it was appropriate for the U.S. to “take a pause” and reassess its relationship with Russia, given what he called Cold War-era thinking by President Vladimir Putin.

Obama’s remarks on Putin were his first on the sharp rebuke he delivered to the Russian president earlier this week, calling off a planned meeting in Moscow . He said they’d failed to reach progress on a host of issues, unlike achievements he said he’d been able to reach with former President Dmitry Medvedev.

“We’re going to assess where the relationship can advance U.S. interests and increase peace and stability and prosperity around the world,” Obama said. “Where (we) can, we’re going to keep on working with them. Where we have differences, we’re going to say so clearly.”

Obama’s remarks came in a wide-ranging news conference delivered the day before the first family leaves for vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. The president, who hadn’t held a full-fledged news conference since April, fielded questions for an hour. He grew particularly animated as he lambasted congressional Republicans for what he called an “ideological fixation” on repealing his signature health care plan.

“The one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don’t have health care,” Obama said, accusing Republicans of having no alternative to his plan.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said Republicans were “united in . . . repealing and replacing the president’s health care law because it is driving up costs, decreasing access and destroying American jobs.”

On another topic, Obama offered a defense of his administration’s decision to close embassies in nearly two dozen countries. That move has prompted criticism for its sweeping nature. The State Department announced late Friday that it would reopen 18 of the 19 embassies and consulates that had been closed. The embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, was to remain closed.

He defended his past insistence that his administration has al Qaida terrorists on the run.

Obama called it “entirely consistent” to say that the centralized, tightly organized al Qaida that attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, is “very weak” but that regional organizations such as al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula can pose threats, such as driving truck bombs into embassy compounds.

He refused to discuss a recent series of drone strikes in Yemen, despite a May address in which he defended the use of such strikes to kill terrorists as “heavily constrained” and lawful.

“We are not going to completely eliminate terrorism,” he said. “What we can do is to weaken it and to strengthen our partnerships in such a way that it does not pose the kind of horrible threat that we saw on 9/11.”

His remarks on Russia came as Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met in Washington with their Russian counterparts. Kerry sought to downplay the deepening rift between the countries. He noted that he and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are longtime hockey players and “we both know that diplomacy, like hockey, can sometimes result in the occasional collision.”

One of the factors that triggered the cancellation of the Moscow trip was Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, who Obama said Friday was “not a patriot.” Yet Obama announced changes to the surveillance programs that Snowden had unveiled.

“If, in fact, he believes that what he did was right, then, like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer and make his case,” Obama said. The president noted that he’d signed an executive order providing whistleblower protection to the intelligence community. “There were other avenues available for somebody whose conscience was stirred and thought that they needed to question government actions.”

Obama had pledged to forge better relations with Russia when he took office. He noted that he and former President Medvedev had achieved progress on an agreement to reduce strategic arms, sanctions against Iran, a supply line for troops in Afghanistan and a seat for Russia in the World Trade Organization.

But when Putin returned to office, he said, “we saw more rhetoric on the Russian side that was anti-American, that played into some of the old stereotypes about the Cold War contest between the United States and Russia.”

Moscow, for example, has charged that a planned U.S. missile-defense system for Europe is a deterrent against Russia, and it gave a cold shoulder to Obama’s call in a speech in Germany to cut back nuclear warheads.

Obama said he’d “encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues with mixed success.”

The president said he didn’t have a bad relationship with Putin. Instead, he accused the news media of focusing on body language. Although Putin has “got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom,” Obama said the two had had “very productive” talks.

He said his administration had decided to cancel the meeting because it wasn’t seeing progress on a host of issues, including human rights and Russia’s support for Syrian leader Bashar Assad.

“It is probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia is going, what our core interests are, and calibrate the relationship,” Obama said. “There are just going to be some differences, and we’re not going to be able to completely disguise them, and that’s OK.”

Obama said he didn’t think the U.S. should boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, over Snowden or over a Russian law that banned displays of gay pride.

“One of the things I’m really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze,” Obama said.

“If Russia doesn’t have gay or lesbian athletes, then it’ll probably make their team weaker.”

(Matthew Schofield contributed to this report.)

Email: lclark@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lesleyclark

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