Obama: Decision not to bomb Syria required 'political courage'

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Story highlights

  • US warships launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian government airbase in April
  • Obama has been widely criticized for not bombing Syria while he was in office

Washington (CNN)President Barack Obama is pushing back on criticism from the Trump administration for his decision not to bomb Syria when he was in the White House, saying in an interview that it took "political courage" not to do it.

In an interview with Jack Schlossberg, the grandson of the late President John F. Kennedy, for his Profile in Courage award, Obama said the "most political courage" came from his "decision not to bomb Syria."
"But I actually think that the issue that required the most political courage was the decision not to bomb Syria after the chemical weapons use had been publicized and rather to negotiate them removing chemical weapons from Syria," he said in the interview.
    In December 2016, Obama told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that in retrospect he still believes he handled Syria the right way.
    "I think it is the smartest decision from a menu of bad options that were available to us," he said in the interview that aired December 7, 2016. "Have we been flawless in the execution in what is a complicated policy in the region? Absolutely not. I think flawless is not available when it comes to foreign policy. Have we made the best decisions that were available to us at each stage? The answer is yes."
    Obama's latest remarks came more than a month after President Donald Trump authorized a strike against a Syrian air base in April in response to a chemical weapons attack carried out by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
    US warships launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian government air base, the first time the US has directly attacked the Assad regime in the country's six-year civil war.
    Trump's decision to strike Syria earned him rare bipartisan praise, with Republicans largely supporting him in his decision to respond to the chemical attack, while Democrats were more concerned with discussing Trump's next step to address Syria.
    It was a step Obama was unwilling to take -- at least without congressional approval -- as he elected not to strike Assad's regime in 2013 after a chemical attack at the time crossed his "red line."
    Instead, the Obama administration reached a deal with Russia -- a Syrian ally -- on a framework to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons.
    The request was for Syria -- with Russia brokering the agreement -- to turn over its chemical weapons as part of a process overseen by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
    The removal of the weapons was confirmed by the OPCW, but the Obama administration said at the time that it couldn't confirm that there weren't still undeclared stocks in country.
    US intelligence has estimated that less than 10% of the stockpile is suspected to have remained in place and Syria has the ability to make more.
    So even though the Obama administration embraced the process as a victory, it still left Syria with chemical weapons. Republicans also charged that it was a display of weakness as the White House didn't enforce its red line. But Obama didn't want to bomb Syria without approval from Congress, which didn't happen.
    Obama did launch airstrikes in Syria a year later, but against ISIS, as the US began a military campaign against the terror in Iraq and Syria. However, those airstrikes were not in response to Assad's use of chemical weapons.
    The Trump administration criticized Obama's strategy toward Syria when the chemical attack happened there in April.
    The chemical attack against Assad's own citizens in Syria was the Obama administration's fault, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, declaring it a "consequence of the past administration's weakness and irresolution."
    GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham quickly tweeted a rebuttal to Obama's remarks in the interview, writing, "What President Obama calls 'political courage' -- most everyone else calls weakness and poor judgement."
    He added: "It's not 'courageous' to allow a ruthless dictator to kill thousands and cross red lines regarding chemical weapons. #syria"
    Graham sent out two more tweets, writing, "Giving Assad a pass for his outrageous behavior was not 'political courage,'" and "President Obama's 'courageous' approach to Syria has come back to haunt the people of Syria, the Middle East, and the world at large."