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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

President Obama Lays Out Foreign Policy At West Point Commencement

Aired May 28, 2014 - 16:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to the LEAD.

In world news, has the Obama doctrine finally been defined? President Obama laying out his foreign policy today at west point commencement, putting it somewhere between America to the rescue and minding our own beeswax.

In the same paragraph, he said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don't, no one else will.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And a few sentences later, he told the graduating cadets that military might cannot be the only way America leads in every case.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The tone of the president's speech, depending who you talked to, varied at times between passive, and aggressive, and perhaps to some a bit passive-aggressive.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Since World War II, some of our costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, on this.

Jim, how is the president's speech going to land with the rest of the world?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It's a good question. Expecting a new policy direction from the president or even new policy initiatives you'd be disappointed, even an expected announcement of more aid for Syrian rebels did not materialize. But if you are expecting a defense of Obama's existing preference for the measured use of force abroad, that's what the president delivered on.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): His west point address billed as a major, new foreign policy speech, the president instead delivered more defense of current strategy. At the core of contention after what he described, quote, "costly wars and continuing challenges at home," Mr. Obama will reserve military action as the last resort.

OBAMA: I would betray my duty to you and the country we love. If I ever sent you into harm's way because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed.

SCIUTTO: The president's foreign policy will instead emphasize international partnerships and institutions.

OBAMA: There are a lot of folks, skeptics, who downplay effectiveness of multilateral action. For them working through it international institutions like the U.N. or respecting international law is a sign of weakness. I think they're wrong.

SCIUTTO: Mr. Obama then laid out what this means for his most pressing foreign policy crises.

On Syria, president said he will work with Congress to ramp up support from moderate rebels, though he announced no new specifics.

On Ukraine, the president argued a multilateral approach is already working. Deterring a Russian invasion and allowing Sunday's presidential vote in most of the country.

OBAMA: Standing with our allies on behalf of international order working with international institutions has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future.

SCIUTTO: On Iran, the president argued working with international partners has brought Tehran to the table for nuclear negotiations.

And on China, multilateralism is helping Southeast Asian allies stand up on territorial disputes with Beijing.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: Some reviews of the president's speech are already in, Democrats supporting, as you expect, some Republicans, John McCain saying he preferred to see action rather than hear words which is interesting a phrase I heard from a lot of Ukrainians for the last week, some really expected a more forceful response to Russia's invasion, particularly Russia's annexation of Crimea.

So I think that for folks out there who wanted a forceful U.S. policy, likely disappointed. Those who support the measured use of force will hear what they wanted to hear. So if the president wanted to turn people over to his side, I'm not sure if he accomplished that. If he wanted to reassure folks who agree with him, probably did that.

TAPPER: Joining me now from the White House is President Obama's Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken.

Tony, good to see you.

TONY BLINKEN, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Thanks.

TAPPER: Before we talk about the president's speech, I want to get your reaction to this interim report released by the Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General. It shows that 1,700 veterans were denied appointments at the Phoenix V.A. And records were apparently falsified.

Two Republicans who were not calling for Shinseki's resignation and who are respected in the military community, Chairman Jeff Miller of the appropriate committee in the House and Senator John McCain, they're now saying that it's time for Shinseki to go. And Miller is calling for a criminal investigation.

Now, the president said he was waiting for facts before any accountability. Here are the facts. Does this change the calculus for the president?

BLINKEN: Jake, I haven't had a chance to read the report. Here's what I know: just before coming to talk to you, it's my understanding that Denis McDonough, the chief of staff, briefed the president on this interim report. My understanding is the president found the findings of the interim report deeply troubling.

He has already urged the V.A. to move out now on making sure that veterans have the access and care that they need, not to wait for the findings of interim reports or final reports. But obviously, we're looking at this closely, and the preliminary view that we have based on reading the interim report is it's deeply troubling, and, steps need to be taken to correct the obvious deficiencies.

TAPPER: But nothing in terms of anybody stepping down, most notably, Secretary Shinseki?

BLINKEN: Look, we're focused on making sure that these veterans who have delivered for this country and put their lives on the line get the care that they deserve and that they need. And we want to make sure that the V.A. does that.

I would say that, of course, millions of veterans every day are getting extraordinary care from the V.A. But we have manifest problems. The interim report that we just received documents some of those. They need to be corrected.

TAPPER: Let's talk about one of the big announcements from the president's speech earlier today, this $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund to work with other countries to fight these terrorist groups. Isn't one of the biggest problems that the real hot spots, places like Libya, Syria, Nigeria, Yemen, none of them have particularly dependable governments?

BLINKEN: Jake, let me put this in context first.

What you heard the president deliver today was a broad vision for American leadership in the world. And what we are doing is turning the page on a decade of war where we've had large scale deployments that have gone on indefinitely. We're now in a position where ending those wars allows us to redeploy some of those forces, redeploy some of those resources to act more flexibly and to deal with the problems that have emerged in the last decade. Notably, the fact that terrorism has become decentralized and has moved into other places.

So we now have an opportunity, having ended these wars, to refocus our resources, and also to build up the capacity of partner countries to take on some of this burden and to help us deal with this problem.

TAPPER: But you didn't address the question I asked, which is this fund for these governments where there are terrorist threats. These governments are not the most dependable governments in the world.

BLINKEN: Look, in many cases, we're already seeing that we're working effectively with a number of these governments. In Yemen, we've worked closely with the government of Yemen to help them develop the capacity to deal with AQAP.

In Somalia, we're supporting a multinational force to support the government and also help it deal with challenges from extremists and terrorists.

We're working, indeed, with partners in the region to build up their capacity to deal with some of the spillover from Syria. And that's another part of what the president talked about today.

So in all of these instances, we think that we can leverage the support and build the capacity of other countries to help us in this struggle.

TAPPER: Let's turn to the crisis in Syria. President Obama said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Tony, has the president authorized or is he about to authorize military training of veteran Syrian rebels --

BLINKEN: The --

TAPPER: -- vetted Syrian rebels? BLINKEN: Jake, here's what -- here's what the president said today, and here's what I can tell you.

First, we have been engaged in an effort to support the moderate opposition, both the political civilian opposition and the armed opposition over the last couple of years. And we intend to continue that support and to build on it.

Second, we're working closely with the neighboring states, as I mentioned a moment ago, to include Jordan, to include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Iraq and others who are feeling the effects of Syria.

And what the president talked about today was taking greater steps to build their capacity, to deal with some of these problems -- the borders, terrorism, refugee flows and working with Congress to develop that's support.

And with Congress, we will look for ways to increase our effectiveness in supporting the Syrian opposition. There have been some interesting ideas that have come up in Congress recently, including from the Armed Services Committee, Senator Levin. We're looking carefully at those.

But that's what the president was talking about today.

TAPPER: On the winding down of troops in Afghanistan, critics say the time table seems based on considerations other than conditions on the ground. The former director of the CIA, Michael Hayden, said that going to zero in Iraq did not lead to a happy outcome. And now President Obama is committed to doing just the same thing in Afghanistan.

Tony, just today there was a suicide bomber that killed at least 12 people in Northwestern Baghdad. Doesn't Hayden have a point? Aren't we likely to leave behind a real mess?

BLINKEN: No. Jake, what we've been doing is this.

In Afghanistan, we have spent the last many years building up the Afghan security forces and helping Afghans take responsibility for their own security. We think it's very important to be very clear with them about what's going to be expected of them and when it's going to be expected. And that's why the president was very deliberate in making clear the timetable for drawing down our forces because as we do that, they have to take full responsibility.

Second, the president made very clear that combat operations by American and international forces will end at the end of this year. It makes no sense to keep thousands or tens of thousands of American forces in Afghanistan if they're not going to be engaged in combat operations. They'll just be sitting there as targets.

So what we've designed is a very deliberate drawdown that allows us to continue and finish the job of building up the capacity of the Afghanistan forces while pulling our forces out and being able to redirect those resources and that focus to other parts of the world where the threat has become more acute. TAPPER: Tony Blinken, thank you so much for your time.

BLINKEN: Thanks very much.

In world news, Edward Snowden is so generous with reporters with the U.S. government secrets may have been sitting on big secrets of his own.

Snowden telling NBC News that he has more on his resume than former NSA contractor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EDWARD SNOWDEN, NSA LEAK SOURCE: I was trained as a spy in sort of the traditional sense of the world, and I lived and worked undercover, overseas, pretending to work in a job that I'm not, and even being assigned a name that was not mine.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Snowden says he worked as -- so he takes exceptions to the way the Obama administration has characterized.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SNOWDEN: When they sound a little level systems administration, but I don't know what I'm talking about, I'd say it is somewhat mislead.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: But the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, says nonsense. A spokesman says, quote, "Edward Snowden was an IT contractor. He was not a covert intelligence officer. Like so many of his previous public statements, many of these recent claims fall well short of the truth."

When we come back, a shocking turn of events right before the most famous tennis playing sisters in the world were set to meet on court. That's coming up next.

Plus, he is a lover of animals, even if they don't always love him back. Why is New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's latest pro-animal policy shift causing such a stir?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. The Sports Lead now, maybe they just wanted to avoid making mom choose sides. The William sisters were set to square off against each other in the third round at the French Open, but both lost today. One after the other in a matter of hours.

On center court, Venus won the first set of her match before dropping the next two leaving the court just as her sister was warming up. Serena, the number one ranked player in the world, reigning champion, she didn't fare any better, she got drubbed in 64 minutes winning only four games, that's the fewest that Serena has ever won in her nearly 300 grand slam matches.

In other sports news, to the bloody end, that's how far Donald Sterling says he'll drag out the fight to keep control of the Los Angeles Clippers, the disgraced NBA owner seemed to be coming around to the idea of selling his team to the highest bidder even reportedly handing over control of the club to his wife so she could negotiate a deal.

But now his lawyer's saying Mr. Sterling is disavowing that agreement calling the NBA's move to push him out, quote, "illegal" and the league's case, a, quote, "pile of garbage." The NBA has no intent of pressing the pause button. A spokesman for the league said Tuesday they intend to terminate the current ownership.

And finally in sports, he may run New York, but rat mogul, sometimes actor, and possibly indestructible human, Curtis Jackson, also known as 50 Cent, always go in his own direction, which is admirable except when it comes to baseball. The rapper threw out the ceremonial first pitch at last night's Mets game.

The pitch was so outside he nearly took out the right fielder. Slow it down. Get pitch or die trying. The technology is not going to help you with that. Mr. Cent did explain himself on Twitter saying, I'm a hustler, not a damn ballplayer, true, true. We have 21 questions about the pitch, but I'll offer a few suggestions.

First, steps towards the target, fine-tune that release point, maybe spend last time in da club and more time practicing, never a good thing when you risk unseeding Baba Booey for the worst first pitch ever.

Now Wolf Blitzer, here with a preview of "THE SITUATION ROOM." Wolf, who are you talking to today?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": We're not talking about that, but we're talking to Susan Rice, the president's national security adviser on the president's speech. Lots of good questions we have for her. Valerie Plame, remember her? She was the CIA officer was outed, her cover broken during the Bush administration, she's joining us in "THE SITUATION ROOM" to talk about the CIA station chief in Afghanistan whose name was accidentally released as well. So we've got some major news coming up.

TAPPER: Sounds great. Wolf Blitzer, "THE SITUATION ROOM," coming up in under 8 minutes. Thanks.

Plus New York City, it is dealt with its share of rodents, weasels, but there's one creature who could be making a comeback in the big apple in a big way. Tuck in your pants leg. The Politics Lead is next.

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TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. The Buried Lead now. With the long list of problems affecting New York City right now, education, the growing gap between Wall Street and the working poor, traffic that will make you bite your steering wheel, nothing is less important and has demanded the attention of city hall less than the decades-long fight over the right to own a ferret. Jason Carroll is live in our New York newsroom with more on this pressing issue -- Jason.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I don't know if it's a debate that rises to that level, but let's just say this, ferrets were initially banned over concerns as you know that they can possibly transmit rabies and because of potential attacks on children. Animal activists have been saying all along that they are no more dangerous than an average dog or cat and it looks like New York City's mayor agrees.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CARROLL (voice-over): When you think about four-legged hairy animals living in New York City, perhaps this comes to mind or this. But the debate that's really making the fur fly is actually about these.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They don't bite hard. They're gentle. They're playful.

CARROLL (on camera): I'm not doing this.

(voice-over): The question is will New York City do it? And by do it, we mean legalize the ferret, an animal the butt of jokes in movies.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: What happened to your dog?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is not a dog. That's a ferret.

CARROLL: Apparently, no joking matter to New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio whose office wants to lift the ban. Ariel Jasper started the petition to allow ferrets back.

ARIEL JASPER, FERRET ADVOCACY: It's just to have the five boroughs excluded doesn't make sense.

CARROLL: In 1999, the city's health department added ferrets to the list of animals such as pythons, lions, that cannot be kept as pets. That same year, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani learned how much some people just love their ferrets.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Something deranged about you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, there isn't, sir. There's more states --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Excessive concern that you have for ferrets is something you should examine with a therapist.

CARROLL: While the current mayor did not return our e-mails or calls, the Board of Health confirmed, it received a petition from his office asking it to amend the health code to allow the keeping of ferrets in New York City. Public hearings will be held before the board takes a vote on the petition. The public already weighing in.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's silly. It's dumb.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CARROLL: It should be noted that Mayor De Blasio has been very outspoken about issues such as providing affordable housing. We should note that an at same time he's made it very clear he's opposed to using horse-drawn carriages in Central Park. So despite some of the criticism that he has received, he seems to be animal friendly mayor. The vote on the furry little critters should take place sometime this September -- Jake.

TAPPER: Jason Carroll, thank you so much. Glad to see city hall getting to the people's business of ferrets. Don't forget, premiering tomorrow, on CNN the decade that changed the world, the space race, Vietnam, free love, the British invasion, all of it chronicled in the ten-part series "The Sixties" from executive producer, Tom Hanks, Thursday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern and 9:00 p.m. Pacific, on CNN.

Make sure to follow me on Twitter @jaketapper and check out our show page @cnn.com/thelead for videos, blogs, extras. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer. He is next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM" -- Mr. Blitzer.