This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," January 20, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: White house today, a lot of focus today about a New Yorker article, pretty long article, number of different quotes we'll get to with the panel. This one is about Syria. President Obama, quote, "I am haunted by what's happened. I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq."
We'll start there, as peace talks will start soon in Geneva, Iran being disinvited to those talks late this afternoon by the United Nations. Let's bring in our panel, syndicated columnist George Will, Juan Williams, columnist with The Hill, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. Charles?
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, I don't think the president is right about that. Iran and Russia have demonstrated that you can sway, you can change the course of the war without an invasion of the size and scope in which we had in Iraq. They have decisively altered the course of the war with weaponry, huge financial support, and essentially by keeping out other powers. So I think this is sort of Obama's explanation for Syria. He says, I couldn't have done anything. I think he's quite wrong about that, and I suspect he knows that as well but doesn't want to admit it.
BAIER: Juan, on race, the president is quoted as saying, "There's no doubt that there's some folks who just really dislike me. They don't like the idea of a black president. Now, the flipside of it is that there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me, and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I'm a black president." Your thought on that?
JUAN WILLIAMS, SENIOR EDITOR, THE HILL: I think that's probably right. The question would be whether or not he's speaking specifically about the recent downturn in his numbers. And it appears at first that that's what he's talking about. If he's talking about the predicament that he's in now, which I think is tied to the failure of the rollout of ObamaCare, then he's delusional. But if he's talking in general terms, I think from the very start, he did not win the majority of the white vote in 2008, he didn't win the majority of the white vote in '12, but he did win a substantial number of white votes, especially back in '08, a time of great enthusiasm for President Obama.
But he doesn't dismiss that. He simply says, if you look at the 90 percent support among blacks, high level of support even among Hispanics and Asians, I think it is tied into his race, and I think that's fairly forthcoming. To be frank with you, that wasn't the most controversial thing he said about race in that interview. He goes on to talk about battles with the Congress about entitlement spending and states' rights, and says that he believes a lot of the antagonism on the right has to do with the states' right argument, which of course is tied into arguments that go way back about segregation and whether the federal government has the right to intervene on behalf of the black racial minority.
BAIER: What struck you about this piece?
GEORGE WILL, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: How interesting it was. It was interestingly uninteresting. It's not David's Remnick's fault. He threw 17,000 words at this project.
WILLIAMS: Well, that's a lot.
WILL: The problem is the president is an open book who has been reading himself to us relentlessly for almost seven years now. He said at one point, presidents are inherently overexposed. Maybe, but this president has gone out of his way to be overexposed.
So what have we learned? We learned the kind of tea served on Air Force One. We learned he has lots of hip-hop on his iPod. We learned that he really doesn't want to be like Millard Fillmore or Franklin Pierce. That's not new.
Then the president throws some bromides out. Social change is not a straight line. We knew that. But then the really interesting part, and this was fun, he said, you know, there's really no appetite in this country for tax and transfer strategies for command and control top-down programs like the Affordable Care Act.
BAIER: What about this line about marijuana? He says this, "As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol." He goes on to say he wishes his two kids don't do it. But he says the states should go their own way essentially. And they are.
WILL: They are. And even though the federal government still makes possession of marijuana a crime under the Controlled Substances Act, which is going to have to change sooner or later. The president is quite right that the ravages brought by alcohol have been far more than marijuana. Now, marijuana may play catch-up once people start using it promiscuously because it can have cognitive effects on users. But so far, he's quite right.
KRAUTHAMMER: Yes, on the medical side, he's obviously right. Anyone who has seen a cirrhotic liver or a patient in delirium tremens and withdrawal from alcohol knows how absolutely devastating it is to all systems in the body. But that doesn't mean that marijuana is benign. The worst part about it is it makes you dull, it makes you dumb, and you think you're smart. So particularly if you're a young person, you end up in a state where you don't learn and where it probably stunts your intellectual development. You get slack.
And look, I think overall, the question isn't, is it alcohol or marijuana? Alcohol is here to stay. It's been in Western civilization forever. So is it alcohol alone or alcohol and marijuana? If you add a second intoxicant, and I think we're doing it probably the right way, you know. Brandeis said the states are the laboratory of democracy. Well, let's see how it works in Colorado and Washington State. Let's measure over some years student achievement, traffic accidents and other indices of what might be wrong with this, and we will learn something.
But, I mean, I didn't see him coming out in any radical way. He said what was obvious. It's not as bad, but it's not a good idea.
BAIER: I think the front page of Drudge said "Pot Bowl" today, Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, Washington and Colorado.
KRAUTHAMMER: And no one will remember the outcome.
WILLIAMS: I think my colleagues have spoken well on this marijuana issue, but just I wanted to pick up on something else that came through to me during that interview, and came to me as a surprise. You said you didn't think it was a very interesting interview, George, but I thought this was interesting. I had a sense that I never had before from the president of being defeated, that he felt like, you know what, I can't really make a big difference in this office.
He spoke about the stream and being part of a stream in history, and you can't turn things around. He does say at one point, he says to his staff, we run the biggest organization, and the most powerful organization in the world. But on the other hand, he speaks as if he's a man caught in the maws of a larger machine, and he's not able to make a difference. I thought, boy, that's not the Obama that I heard of in 2008.
BAIER: This is the one I really wanted to hit on before we wrapped up about Al Qaeda and these different groups of Al Qaeda. Quote, "The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on a Lakers uniform, that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant, he said, using this analogy. I think there's a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian."
WILL: Yes, and Al Qaeda's flag is flying over a city in Iraq now. I mean, I didn't understand the analogy, which seemed strained in the first place. But it was a year ago in the State of the Union address the president said Al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. I don't think he'll repeat that next week.
BAIER: The pains that the administration has gone to differentiate between core Al Qaeda and all of these splinter groups, I mean, they might as well call it core Al Qaeda/Kobe Bryant. But it seems like it.
KRAUTHAMMER: It's not only an excuse, a way to explain his way out of why he has failed on all of these issues. It's also a demonstration, a shocking demonstration of his strategic shallowness. It's the example of it's not the Lakers. The whole strategy of Al Qaeda as explained by Zawahiri and Usama bin Laden was to establish regional and local insurgencies to attack the Arab states who they saw as acting in the interest of the infidels, starting with Saudi Arabia. The whole idea was local insurgencies with a global perspective. I think Obama still to this day after half a decade, doesn't understand at all who we are and who he is up against in the war.
WILLIAMS: I strongly disagree with that.
BAIER: If you ask these experts, they say that all of these groups, no matter what you call them, Lakers or whatever team they're playing for, they want to establish a caliphate throughout the Middle East.
WILLIAMS: That's fine, but what's now being called core Al Qaeda, what Obama referred to as the Lakers, attacked us on 9/11 and killed our people. These folks, most of them are involved, as Obama rightly said, in sectarian violence on a local level.
WILLIAMS: Right, that's terrorism, and there's no need to differentiate terrorism from terrorists, I'm not trying to put that on any scale. But to suggest they're the equivalent of bin Laden, I think that's a Republican argument intended to undercut Obama's claim that he's decimated Al Qaeda.
KRAUTHAMMER: It's a reflection of the reality that non-core Al Qaeda is as anti-American, anti-West as Al Qaeda is, and it is now the new Al Qaeda, having metastasized all the way from West Africa to Kabul.
BAIER: Next up, another road block for Chris Christie.
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