President Obama said he's proud of the moment he pulled the U.S. from the brink of launching airstrikes against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, calling it the right decision to make.
In interviews with The Atlantic magazine published Thursday, Obama also called out U.S. allies who call for tougher U.S. action in Mideast conflicts but fail to take risks themselves, describing them as "free-riders." He cast the sectarian conflicts roiling the region as a competition between Iran and close U.S. partner Saudi Arabia, and he urged both to find "an effective way to share the neighborhood."
Of his 2013 decision not to strike Assad's government, he said: "I'm very proud of this moment."
"For me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically," Obama said. "And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America's interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I've made."
Obama had been close to ordering strikes to punish Assad for using chemical weapons against Syrians, with plans for military action ready to go. At the last minute, he said he'd ask for permission from Congress. The strikes never happened.
The reversal has become a prime example cited by those who argue Obama has lost his credibility in the Middle East, having failed to take action despite threatening that Assad's use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" and trigger tough U.S. response. To Obama's critics, the "red line" epitomizes his reluctance to use U.S. leadership and military might to promote U.S. interests in a dangerous region.
Obama acknowledged the broad perception that "America's credibility was at stake" in the 2013 decision not to strike. Yet he said that "ultimately it was the right decision to make."
In the interviews, which took place over many months, Obama offered an unusually blunt assessment of American allies in Europe and in the Persian Gulf region, especially regarding Libya, where a 2011 NATO intervention backed by the U.S. led to a vacuum of power that has fueled chaos and allowed extremist groups to thrive. Obama acknowledged that the intervention "didn't work," but also faulted allies who are closer geographically to Libya for relying too much on the U.S.
"What has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game," Obama said. Asked if he meant they were free-riders, Obama repeated, "Free-riders."