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Transcript: NBC's Savannah Guthrie interviews Pres. Obama regarding Syria

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WASHINGTON (NBC) -

The following is an interview with President Obama conducted by NBC's Savannah Guthrie. The topic: Syria.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
Syria's Foreign Minister said to today that Syria would consider placing international inspections around its chemical arsenal. Do you believe it? Are you skeptical? Do you think it might be a stalling tactic?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:
Well, I think you have to take it with a grain of salt initially. But between the statements that we saw from the Russians-- the statement today from the Syrians-- this represents a potentially positive development. We are going to run this to ground. John Kerry will be talking to his Russian counterpart. We're going to make sure that we see how serious these proposals are.

And my preference consistently has been a diplomatic resolution to this problem. But what we have to also keep in mind is that Syria has large chemical weapon stockpiles-- they have been in denial mode for quite some time-- we have been in discussions for a long time now about trying to do something about these chemical weapons with the Russians as well as the Syrians and we haven't gotten movement.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
So does it feel like a ploy?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:
Well, you know, I think what we're seeing is that a credible threat of a military strike from the United States, supported potentially by a number of other countries around the world has given them pause and makes them consider whether or not they would make this move. And if they do, then this could potentially be a significant breakthrough. But we have to be skeptical because this is not how we've seen them operate-- over the last couple a years.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
You said that these strikes, if they take place, will be limited.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:
Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
My question to you is how could you possibly know that? If we strike and Assad retaliates or Iran does or Hezbollah, they strike U.S. interests or even strike U.S. citizens at home, what then? You may want limited action, but can you really promise it?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:
Well look, nothing is 100% guaranteed in-- in life. But I think it's fair to say that our military is outstanding, our intelligence is outstanding, and we have shown ourselves capable of taking precision strikes on military installations in ways that would degrade Assad's capabilities to deliver chemical weapons-- that would have a significant impact. But that would not lead to escalation.

And you know, when we went into Libya, I indicated that these were going to be limited strikes as part of a broader NATO effort. And in fact, they were. There was no sense of a slippery slope. There was no boots on the ground. There was no-- you know, continuation beyond the narrow mission that had been set.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
But-- but Syria is different--

PRESIDENT OBAMA:
It has (UNINTEL) it's poss--

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
As you know, and Assad today, when asked if he would retaliate, had a message. He said, "Expect everything." And members of Congress are saying, "We're skeptical because we don't think the administration has a strategy for day two, day three, day four"--

PRESIDENT OBAMA:
Well, and I have to say that that's just not the case. First of all, Syria doesn't have significant capabilities to retaliate against us. Iran does. But Iran-- is not going to risk a war with the United States over this. Particularly given that our goal here is to make sure that chemical weapons are not used on children.

You know, we have seen consistently that-- when it comes to Iran, when it comes to Hezbollah, those that could potentially engage in asymmetrical strikes against us that they would only do so if they thought that the threat was extraordinarily significant towards them and their interests. And chemical weapons are not something that they-- in fact are deeply invested in.

This is Assad's tactic. Even his allies, I think, disagree with the use of chemical weapons. We know that the Iranians, for example, having had experience with Saddam Hussein gassing their own people don't-- think that it's a good thing to use chemical weapons. And so it-- it is very unlikely that we would see the kinds of retaliation that would have a significant impact-- on U.S. interests in the region.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
Your chief of staff called these strikes "limited and consequential." Which in a way, seemed almost a contradiction in terms to me. Today, Secretary of State Kerry said, "The strikes would be unbelievably small." What does that mean? I mean, are we talking a pinprick?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:
No.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
A knockout blow? A punch in the gut?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:
The-- the U.S. does not do pinpricks. Our military is the greatest the world has ever known. And when we take even limited strikes, it has an impact on a country like Syria. But does not have-- a tremendous military capability. They have a tremendous military capability relative to civilians.

They have-- they have a significant military capability relative to children who are being gassed. But they don't have a military that matches up with ours in any kind of way. So for us to take actions that degrade his military capabilities, that is limited in time and scope, still has a significant effect on their calculation about using chemical weapons.

And I just have to emphasize, Savannah, what's at stake here. The chemical weapons ban that has been in place is not something that only protects civilians. It also protects our own troops. You know, they don't have to wear gas masks even in tough battlefields because there is a strong prohibition and countries generally don't stockpile them. And if we see that ban unravel, it will create a more dangerous world for us and for our troops when they're in theater as well as for civilians around the world. It is worth preserving.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
When you saw those videos, and I assume you have, can you tell me your reaction to them not just as a president, but as a father?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:
I was heartbroken. And-- and I think anyb-- I-- I would recommend everybody look at these videos. Look, horrible things happen around the world all the time. Horrible things happen inside of Syria every day. And you know-- all of us, I think, recognize that America cannot try to solve every problem around the world or stop every terrible thing from happening.

But whether a few things that we know are important to humanity, when 98% of the world says, "These are the worst kinds of weapons," because they're indiscriminate. They don't differentiate between somebody in uniform mother, or the child. And as a consequence, you have a treaty that was ratified by the United States, overwhelmingly in the United States Senate by countries representing 98% of the world's populations, there's a reason for that.

And we have to make sure that that ban does not erode. Because when that ban starts eroding, then other weapons of mass destruction start looking more acceptable because the international community's not willing to stand up on their behalf. Now, last point I'll make on this. You know, when we talk about limited strikes, no boots on the ground, limited in time and scope-- I have to emphasize that over the last four and a half years, I've shown great restraint when it comes to using military power.

And I know how tired the American people are of war generally. And particularly war in the Middle East. And so I don't take these decisions lightly. But if we are going to have any kind of serious-- enforcement of this international ban on chemical weapons, then ultimately the United States has to be involved. And a credible threat may be what pushes the kind of political settlement that I think we'd all prefer.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
I don't have much time, I know you've been asked this and-- I'll just try to pin you down a little bit. If this resolution fails in Congress, would you act without Congress? Be it-- the answer could be, yes, no, or, "I haven't decided."

PRESIDENT OBAMA:
Yeah, I-- I think it's fair to say that I haven't decided. I am taking this vote in Congress and what the American people are saying very seriously. I knew by bringing this to Congress that there was a risk that the American people-- you know, just could not arrive at a consensus around even a limited strike. Because if you ask somebody, you know, I read polls like everybody else.

And if you ask somebody, if you ask Michelle, "Do we-- do we want to be involved in another war?" The answer is no. People are-- are-- wary about it, understandably. They have seen the consequences of this last decade. They think in terms of blood and treasure it has not been worth it. It's not what they expected when they signed onto the Iraq War back in 2003.

And so I recognize how important that debate is. And it's my belief that for-- for me, the president-- to act without consensus in a situation where there's not a direct imminent threat to the homeland or interest around the world. But that's not the kind of precedent I want to set. I think it's important for me to listen, to-- to engage in Congress, we're going to spend this week talking to members of Congress, answering their questions, and I'm going to speak to the American people tomorrow night directly.

And I'll evaluate after that whether or not we feel strongly enough about this that we're willing to move forward. And-- and I-- I've made my decision about what I think is best for America's national interests, but this is one where I think it's important for me to play close attention to what Congress and the American people say.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
And you're confident you're going to get the vote?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:
I-- you know, I-- I wouldn't say I'm confident. I'm confident that the members of Congress are taking this issue very seriously and-- and they're doing their homework and I appreciate that.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
Thank you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:
Thank you so much, Savannah--

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
Appreciate it.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:
You bet.

INFORMATION SOURCE: NBC Nightly News

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