Barack Obama discusses the US-Russian relationship – and much more
Asked if the burden of the presidency is easier or harder for him now, a noticeably greyer Obama explained that we has just passed through “an extraordinary period in world history.”
“We had the worst recession since the 1930s here in the United States,” the American Commander in Chief told Itar Tass in an exclusive interview. “Obviously, a lot of my focus has been on: how do we put people back to work, stabilize the financial system…”
On this score, Obama noted that Russia has been “a good partner in that process, and we’ve successfully stabilized it,” while admitting at the same time that “the economy worldwide is still weak,” which adds greatly to the “burdens of the office.”
The American leader then mentioned his efforts to end the war in Iraq, saying that “we should have all of our troops out by the end of the year.” As far as the ongoing war in Afghanistan goes, Obama would only say that “we’ve begun a transition towards Afghan responsibility.”
The Afghan war, which Barack Obama inherited from his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, has been draining precious resources from the US military and government since October 7, 2001, when Washington launched “Operation Enduring Freedom” following the attacks of 9/11. Bringing about an end to this war, which has resulted in the death of some 1,600 US servicemen, was a pledge the Democratic president made on the campaign trail to the White House.
The interview then turned to the issue of Obama’s efforts to raise America’s national debt ceiling, a bitter struggle that pitted Democrats against Republicans as a wary world – uncertain of the consequences of an American default – watched in apprehension. After months of nervous handwringing, however, Congress finally awarded the US government an additional $2.4 trillion, thus narrowly averting a worst-case scenario.
Obama blamed the political confrontation on a “divided government.”
“Well, what's happened is that right now we have a divided government,” he admitted. “In 2010, Republicans won control of the House of Representatives. In our system of government, Congress is a co-equal branch with the presidency. And when you have a party that has different views in the House of Representatives, that means that there are going to be conflicts and arguments and disputes.”
On the primary question of the US-Russian reset, Obama said he believes that he and Dmitry Medvedev have been “extraordinarily successful partners,” which explains the progress between the two leaders.
“I think it's important for us to look back over the last two years and see the enormous progress we've made,” Obama said. “I started talking about reset when I was still a candidate for President, and immediately reached out to President Medvedev as soon as I was elected. And we have been, I think, extraordinarily successful partners in moving towards a reset.”
In highlighting the strengths of the bilateral partnership, Obama mentioned the passage of the New START treaty, ratified on April 8, 2010 by Presidents Medvedev and Obama, which limits the number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 a piece. There is also new hope that Russia will finally be accepted into the 153-member World Trade Organization.
Meanwhile, the biggest hindrance to full partnership between the two former Cold War enemies – a US-built missile defense system in Eastern Europe – was also touched upon by the American leader.
“We're actually having an important conversation around missile defense issues,” he said.
Russia has warned the US and NATO on numerous occasions that if it is not included as a full-fledged partner in the missile defense project, which the Russian military believes has the capacity to eventually “surround” Russia, another arms race will occur.
Obama expressed his admiration for President Dmitry Medvedev, calling him “a strong patriot” and a man who “fiercely defends Russian interests.”
The US president said, Medvedev “recognizes that the way for Russia to prosper is to engage with the world multilaterally and bilaterally. And he's widely respected as a consequence.”
At the same time, Obama did not fail to mention the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, who has been “fully supportive of this reset process, and as a consequence…our relationship has greatly improved over the last two years,” he said.
Overall, according to the American leader, the key to a successful relationship hinges on economics, and on this score he expressed enthusiasm for President Medvedev’s ambitious modernization program, as well as Russia’s enormous talent pool.
“Now, moving forward, I think the key is economics,” Obama said. “President Medvedev has talked about modernization in Russia. There is such enormous potential for Russia, not just given all its natural resources and the extractive industries like oil, but also incredible scientists and mathematicians and engineers.”
“President Medvedev, I think, is exactly right that if we're partnering together in a bilateral way, we can improve trade,” Obama continued. “You can have a Russian version of the Silicon Valley that's creating value in new industries and new technologies. We want to cooperate on that.”
Finally, President Obama mentioned other areas of cooperation, which he calls the “people-to people” contacts that will help to fortify the US-Russian relationship.
“We've been working hard, for example, to revise our adoption and visa rules successfully, so that we can increase people-to-people contact,” he stressed. “All those things are, I think, going to continue to improve the reset process over the next several years."
Will the US president pay another visit to Russia this year? Obama, who is quietly gearing up for next year’s presidential elections, expressed hope that he would be able to squeeze in a trip.
“You know, I have to say that, obviously, we're very busy right now in the United States. So I have actually put on hold most foreign travel, other than the travel that I have to attend to- the G20 summit, the APEC summit in November. On the other hand, I have wonderful memories of my visit with my family to Russia just a few years ago. And I would very much look forward to going back. And hopefully, we can arrange something in my schedule. I don't know if it will be this year, but we'll continue to explore it."
The interviewer mentioned that on August 4, 2011, Barack Obama will celebrate his 50th birthday, and forwarded the question: What developments in the world, in the United States, in your personal life, were the most important for you?
“Well, I think that the most important would be the day I married my wife, and the day my two daughters were born,” he replied. “Those are the dates that will always be most important to me.”
The American leader went on to recount a number of other significant events that have affected him.
“If you think about the extraordinary changes that have taken place during my lifetime – everything from changes in the civil rights movement that ultimately allowed me to become President of the United States and the growing equality – racial equality here in the United States; the end of the Cold War, which, when I was born, obviously no one would have imagined that we would now be partners on the international stage, Russia and the United States; Nelson Mandela being released, which signified, I think, the yearning of freedom all around the world; and now what's happening in the Middle East.”
“I think the most profound changes have had to do with the human spirit and people longing for their ability to have opportunity. And that's something that has made this world a better place.
“And on the economic side, the Internet has transformed the world in ways that none of us could have imagined. And so communications shrunk the globe, made us all interconnected. And that's why it's that much more important that we foster understanding and communication between our peoples as two of the most powerful countries on Earth.
When asked what he would wish for, Obama placed heavy emphasis on peace.
“What I'm hoping for more than anything is that we are able to drive towards a more peaceful world. And as President, I have a great responsibility to try to mediate conflicts around the world, to try to deal with the terrorist threat in a way that allows all countries and all peoples to live in peace.”
“And I also wish for the world economy to strengthen, because when the world economy is growing, millions of people are lifted out of poverty and have opportunity. And they pass on the education and the skills to their children and their grandchildren. And I think that the more prosperous people are, the less likely they are to engage in war and conflict.
Admitting that these were dreams that probably cannot be completed “in my lifetime or anyone's lifetime,” he stressed that it is important that we “always strive in that direction.”
Happy Birthday, Barack Obama.