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Ready for the Fight: Rolling Stone Interview with Barack Obama

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In regard to Wall Street, people are watching how the Justice Department has treated big players in the financial crisis, like Goldman Sachs, and saying, "Nobody's been put on trial." Other than some con men like Bernie Madoff and some insider trading, there hasn't been a single criminal prosecution of any of the individuals who actually made the decisions that wrecked the global economy. Despite all the fraud and manipulation, why is nobody on trial?
First of all, we're a nation of laws. So in some cases, really irresponsible practices that hurt a lot of people might not have been technically against the law. They might have been the wrong thing to do, but prosecutors are required to actually build cases based on what the law is. That's part of the reason we've passed Wall Street reform: to make much clearer what is prohibited and what is not, to set up rules and regulations that say, "You can't do this, and if you do do it, there are going to be consequences."

Now, that isn't to say that there may not be more wrongdoing out there. One of the things people have not been clear about, for example, is this recent housing settlement. It was based on banks violating civil laws with those auto-penning of foreclosures, and it was narrowly drawn so that banks have to put up billions of dollars to help families who have been affected, but it still leaves in place the possibility of prosecution. It doesn't provide any criminal immunity whatsoever. We've set up a task force not just with the federal government, but with state attorney generals, that as we speak are actively going through all the records, issuing subpoenas. They will, on the basis of law, make determinations as to whether there are prosecutions out there.

So you think there's still a possibility of criminal prosecution.
I think there's still possibilities of criminal prosecutions. But what I've instructed the attorney general to do is to follow the evidence and follow the law. That's how our system works.

What is very relevant, I think, is that you have a Republican Congress, and Republican candidates for president, who have actively stated that they want to roll back the financial regulations that have been put in place. They want to eliminate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is one more example of how they have drifted off of what had traditionally been bipartisan ideas. The notion that we would roll back an agency whose sole purpose is to make sure that consumers of financial products aren't defrauded, aren't tricked, aren't duped, and that will somehow make our economy stronger – after everything we've been through, that makes absolutely no sense.

James Hansen, NASA's leading climate scientist, has said this about the Keystone pipeline: that if the pipeline goes through and we burn tar sands in Canada, it's "game over" for the planet. What's your reaction to that statement?
James Hansen is a scientist who has done an enormous amount not only to understand climate change, but also to help publicize the issue. I have the utmost respect for scientists. But it's important to understand that Canada is going to be moving forward with tar sands, regardless of what we do. That's their national policy, they're pursuing it. With respect to Keystone, my goal has been to have an honest process, and I have adamantly objected to Congress trying to circumvent a process that was well-established not just under Democratic administrations, but also under Republican administrations.

The reason that Keystone got so much attention is not because that particular pipeline is a make-or-break issue for climate change, but because those who have looked at the science of climate change are scared and concerned about a general lack of sufficient movement to deal with the problem. Frankly, I'm deeply concerned that internationally, we have not made as much progress as we need to make. Within the constraints of this Congress, we've tried to do a whole range of things, administratively, that are making a difference – doubling fuel-efficiency standards on cars is going to take a whole lot of carbon out of our atmosphere. We're going to continue to push on energy efficiency, and renewable energy standards, and the promotion of green energy. But there is no doubt that we have a lot more work to do.

Part of the challenge over these past three years has been that people's number-one priority is finding a job and paying the mortgage and dealing with high gas prices. In that environment, it's been easy for the other side to pour millions of dollars into a campaign to debunk climate-change science. I suspect that over the next six months, this is going to be a debate that will become part of the campaign, and I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we're going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way. That there's a way to do it that is entirely compatible with strong economic growth and job creation – that taking steps, for example, to retrofit buildings all across America with existing technologies will reduce our power usage by 15 or 20 percent. That's an achievable goal, and we should be getting started now.

You came into office as a young president with no military experience. Can you tell us a bit about your experience with overseeing the Pentagon and how you've grown as commander in chief, how your leadership style has evolved?
I came in without having served in the military, but feeling a great reverence for our military, and in awe of the sacri­fices that our men and women in uniform make every single day. In the first year, the Pentagon had grown accustomed to basically setting the terms – not just tactics, but also strategy. There was some sense that we had a lot of hammers, so everything was a nail. In part because of really good work by Bob Gates, who I kept on as secretary of defense, and in part because of me really trying to engage and listen to the Joint Chiefs and have a frank and open and honest discussion, even when we had strong disagreements, they developed a sense that I care about our military – but that I very much believe in civilian control of our military, and that military decisions are in service of strategies and broader conceptions of diplomacy that are made here in this White House. And so I can say, with a lot of confidence, that at this point the relationship between me and the Pentagon is very good. I think they know I care about them and I respect them, and I think they respect me and listen to what I say. They understand that I'm the commander in chief.

The bin Laden raid was just one very dramatic expression of a very effective and constructive relationship that's developed, and our drawdown in Iraq is another good example. Iraq, obviously, still has challenges. I came in and I promised that I would end the war in Iraq in a responsible way, and we executed that plan. It wasn't as fast as some people would have liked. It was probably faster than some folks in the Pentagon would have liked. But we were able to arrive at an approach that has resulted in handing over to the Iraqis a country, a democracy, that allows them now to determine their own fate, and we're going through that same process now with respect to Afghanistan.

Let me ask you about the Middle East in general. Outside of Iraq, there seems to be more turmoil than ever – in Syria, Israel, Iran. What's your take on the region and the strategic challenges it poses?
What we've seen over the past year and a half is as significant a set of changes as we've seen since the Berlin Wall fell. I think the jury's still out in terms of how it unfolds. On the one hand, I'm very proud that we stood with the people of Tunisia when they aspired to democracy. I'm very proud of the fact that we stood with the people of Egypt and said that it would be unacceptable, from our perspective, to see all those tens of thousands of people in Tahrir Square subjected to violence, and that it was time to transition to democracy. I believe we did the right thing with respect to Libya, in a very surgical way, avoiding a potential massacre.

But what is also true is that these are countries that don't have deep democratic traditions. Because of repression, in part, the only organizing principle in these societies is religious, and there are sectarian divisions that date back hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years. As these transitions take place, democracy can easily turn to demagoguery, to civil strife. So it is going to be a bumpy road, and a challenging time. I think the American approach has to be to uphold core principles of universal rights, freedom and democracy. We're also going to have to show some humility, in the sense that we're not going to be able to completely impose our own vision on these countries.

How do you strike that balance?
What I've made very clear to the entire region is we have some core interests that we're going to protect, making sure that we don't have terrorists who are launching attacks against U.S. persons or interests for our homeland, and that's something that we're going to continue to pursue. We're going to make sure that friends of ours in a region like Israel aren't vulnerable to attack. But when we look back 20 or 30 years from now, we want to make sure that we were on the side of freedom and equality and justice. We're not going to always get it perfectly right, and there are going to be times when we're frustrated, because for all our good intentions, people still use anti-Americanism as an easy political tool to get the streets riled up.

The biggest worry I have in the region is actually economic. When you think about those young people in Tahrir Square, more than anything what they want is the same thing that people all around the world want. They want opportunity, they want the ability to get an education, get a job, raise a family. But this huge youth bulge that has taken place in North Africa and the Middle East demands that the region integrate itself with the world economy, to upgrade the skills of its population – including half its population of women, who too often are locked out of any participation in the economy. They have to start making things and designing things and selling things other than oil. If they don't move fast enough on that front, then that will make the project that much more difficult.

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