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Special Report

Is President Obama wiping his hands of the Syrian program?

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," October 12, 2015. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight I call on Congress again to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. The strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: We're working hard with our coalition partners to train a moderate Syrian opposition force that can take the fight on the grounds to ISIL inside of Syria.

DEFENSE SECRETARY ASHTON CARTER: That program is part of the strategy.
The strategy is the right one.

OBAMA: There is no doubt that it did not work. I've been skeptical from the get-go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside Syria.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: President Obama in "60 Minutes," and there you see the timeline from the beginning of this effort to train and equip Syrian rebels on the ground.

Meantime, Russian President Vladimir Putin has his own thoughts about the $500 million the U.S. spent on that program, telling Russian state media, quote, "They wasted $500 million. They should have given that money to us. We could use it more effectively in fighting international terrorism, no doubt about it."

With that, let's bring in our panel, Steve Hayes, senior writer for The Weekly Standard, Julie Pace, White House correspondent for the Associated Press, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. Julie, there is a lot to unpack from that interview on "60 Minutes," but specifically on Syria part and the whole effort where the president says he was never really behind it to begin with.

JULIE PACE, ASSOCIATED PRESS: It's interesting because it is true that this president has been skeptical about the United States' ability to create a ground force in Syria. That's why he didn't early on arm Syrian rebels to try to fight Assad.

At the same time, he did approve this $500 million train and equip mission.
And typically presidents do something like that and it becomes a failure and that's obvious, you'll hear him saying like, well, maybe I totally wasn't behind it, but the buck stops with me. I'm president. You're not hearing that from this president. He is essentially wiping his hands of this program. I think that's a very difficult thing to do because, through the clips that you showed, we didn't hear a lot of that skepticism when he made the decision to move forward with this.

BAIER: Not only that, he's also challenged on Russia, saying Russia looks strong in the Middle East filling the U.S. vacuum. He sees this a different way. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEVE CROFT, CBS NEWS: You said a year ago that the United States of America leads. We're the indispensable nation. Mr. Putin seems to be challenging that leadership.

OBAMA: In what way?

CROFT: The Russians are conducting military operations in the Middle East for the first time since World War II, bombing the people that we are supporting.

OBAMA: If you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we've got a different definition of leadership. My definition of leadership would be leading on climate change in an international accord with potential that we'll get into Paris.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BAIER: Charles?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: The president leaves you staggered. Did you see the way he said "In what way?" as if, what kind of weird question is this is that we're not leading in the Middle East? Look what's happened in the last week. The Iranians today launched and tested a guided missile. A few weeks ago they sent Suleimani, the leader of the intelligence of the Revolutionary Guards to Moscow illegally within weeks after the signing of the Iranian accord to plan what is obviously now the Russia-Iran alliance fighting on the ground in Syria.

They have sentenced an American journalist as a gratuitous slap in the face. The Russians take over air space in Syria. Tell us by sending a general to our embassy in Baghdad, showing a demarche, saying in one hour we're going to be in the air, you get out of the way. And, of course, we get out of the way.

They attack our allies who are now under furious attack from Russian aircraft and we are leaving them out to die on their own. And Obama seems to see absolutely nothing going on, because he's leading on climate change.

Everybody in the region, adversary or ally, can see the United States being not just pushed away and in retreat but humiliated, and the allies are the ones who relied on us ever since FDR, and they are wondering where do they go. Where do they go? The leaders all end up in Moscow trying to make some kind of arrangement with the real power in the region.

BAIER: In the meantime, Steve, the Pentagon confirmed today that 50 tons of ammunition and weapons have been air-dropped into Syria, hopefully in the hands of Syrian rebels that we like, but it's happened. And the Kurds in Iraq are still having a tough time getting U.S. equipment and ammunition.

STEVE HAYES, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Who knows where those weapons are going? And the president and his advisers have said repeatedly they don't want to be involved in a proxy war in the region, and yet here we are dumping these weapons, which the president had said on "60 Minutes,"
support for moderate rebels isn't going to work.

I mean, this is a policy that's in total chaos. You wonder why you haven't seen more Democrats defend the president's foreign policy. That example last night is a good example, or is a good case as to why they're not, because it sounds like what President Obama just said where he says, in effect, yes, we spent $500 million on training these Syrian moderates.

BAIER: Well, let's be clear. They only spent about $50 million, but it was $500 million.

HAYES: Budgeted $500 million. They weren't competent enough, I would argue, to spend the entire amount.

But this is the president, in effect, pretending that what's happening is not happening. We see this again and again, the examples that Charles is suggesting I think make a good case. Look at the argument the administration, the president is making on Vladimir Putin right now. I mean, pretending that everybody in the world knows this is not in Putin's interest when Putin plainly thinks it's in their interest, and we're seeing this emerging coalition between Iran, Syria, and Russia grow and strengthen literally on a daily basis.

BAIER: Julie, the other thing the president said is that America is safer.
He was asked if the world was safer. He said America is safer. I think there are Democrats who would say that's a tough argument to make.

PACE: It's at the very least a tricky argument to make, especially when you've had the administration talking so much about the threat of foreign fighters in Syria and the Middle East, which is still a real concern that you don't hear a lot about anymore. It's also one of those things you have to be careful when you say because one event can happen that can very quickly change the way that kind of statement is viewed.

BAIER: Charles?

KRAUTHAMMER: The worst part is not just that he's stumbling around because of a policy that he never believed in, he never had in Syria. It's the overarching theory which he has actually articulated. He was asked, who is going to defeat ISIS? And Obama's answer is, quote, "Over time the community of nations will all get rid of ISIS." There is no such thing as a community of nations. The tooth fairy has a stronger reality. There is no community, unless he means the U.N. The U.N. can't repel, you know, an army of the smallest country in the world. It's completely powerless, has been for 50 years.

What is the community of interest between, say, between North Korea, Britain, Togo, and Argentina? There's none. But he seems to believe the arc of history is long but it tends towards justice, so one day, maybe in
100 years or 200 years when the Middle East is rubble, millions are dead, and scattered around the world, justice will be served. But he's the president of the United States. He's operating in the present. But he believes in the community of nations. The world is dependent on the for peace and liberty since the Second World War. And he says, nope. It's not our job. It's the community of nations.

HAYES: But he also said, in that same context, he also said there was a 60-nation coalition that was opposing -- or at least not supporting Putin.
Well, that's mistaking the process of diplomacy with the results of diplomacy. No one cares about the existence of a coalition. It's what you do with the coalition. I think Charles is exactly right. That's the mistake the president is making. And look, we've seen him make this again and again and again. The Iran deal, I would argue, is the base case in point.

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