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Last updated: 2 june, 2009 - 11:29 GMT

Obama interview: the transcript

Barack Obama

Mr Obama spoke at length about the Middle East situation and the Israel-Palestine conflict

US President Barack Obama has given his first interview to the BBC, speaking to North America correspondent Justin Webb about the Middle East.

Here is the full transcript:

Justin Webb: It's really good to be here. Let's turn straight to your big speech, a hugely important speech you're making in Cairo on Thursday. Many Muslims think they're owed an apology, actually, for the Bush years, and the sins that, in their view, were committed by the United States during those years. Is this speech in any way an apology?

President Obama: No. I think what we want to do is open a dialogue. And - you know, there are misapprehensions about the West, on the part of the Muslim world. And, obviously, there are some big misapprehensions about the Muslim world when it comes to those of us in the West.

And it is my firm belief that no one speech is going to solve every problem. There are no silver bullets. There are very real policy issues that have to be worked through that are difficult.

And, ultimately, it's going to be action and not words that determine the path, the progress - from here on out. But it did seem to me that this was an opportunity for us to get both sides to listen to each other a little bit more, and hopefully learn something about about different cultures.

Justin Webb: You say both sides. So I take, from that, that Muslims listening to this speech you are hoping will also be changed by it. And their attitude to the United States, perhaps, changed. And what needs to change on-- on the behalf of those you are actually speaking to?

President Obama: Well, let's just take one small example. The US Muslim population is more numerous than the populations of many majority Muslim countries.

So this notion that somehow America is detached, is removed, sees some clash of civilizations as inevitable - I think a lot of the the propaganda and dogma that's churned out there is inaccurate.

Now the flipside is is that, in the wake of 9/11, what is also true is that in a whole host of our actions - and sometimes in our words - America has not been as careful to distinguish our very real need to hunt down extremists who would do us harm, something that's necessitated by our self defence.

And broader policy differences, or cultural differences that exist, that are best approached through diplomacy and conversation and some self reflection on our part. And so that's the kind of back and forth that I think is gonna need to take place.

And - last point I made, because I should actually correct myself, when I said both sides. There are actually many sides to this. Because one of the misperceptions about the Muslim community is that it's somehow monolithic, setting aside differences between Shia and Sunni.

The Muslim country that I lived in when I was a child, Indonesia, obviously, is very different from Pakistan, very different from Saudi Arabia. And so we have to also recognize that there are going to be differences based on national identity, and not just faith.

Justin Webb: You're making this speech in Cairo. Amnesty International says there are thousands of political prisoners in Egypt. How do you address that issue?

President Obama: Right. Well, look - obviously, in the Middle East, across a wide range of types of governments, there are some human rights issues. I don't think there's any dispute about that. The message I hope to deliver is that democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion - those are not simply principles of the west to be hoisted on these countries.

But, rather what I believe to be universal principles that they can embrace and affirm as part of their national identity, the danger, I think, is when the United States, or any country, thinks that we can simply impose these values on another country with a different history and a different culture.

And I think the thing that we can do, most importantly, is serve as a good role model. And that's why, for example, closing Guantanamo, from my perspective, as difficult as it is, is important.

Because part of what we want to affirm to the world is that these are values that are important, even when it's hard. Maybe especially when it's hard. And not just when it's easy.

Justin Webb: Do you regard President Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler?

President Obama: No, I tend not to use labels for folks. I haven't met him. I've spoken to him on the phone.

He has been a stalwart ally in many respects, to the United States. He has sustained peace with Israel, which is a very difficult thing to do in that region.

But he has never resorted to, you know, unnecessary demagoging of the issue, and has tried to maintain that relationship. So I think he has been a force for stability. And good in the region. Obviously, there have been criticisms of the manner in which politics operates in Egypt.

And, as I said before, the United States' job is not to lecture, but to encourage, to lift up what we consider to be the values that ultimately will work - not just for our country, but for the aspirations of a lot of people.

Justin Webb: A lot of people are looking for specifics in your speech. And one of the areas, they're gonna be fascinated by, hanging on your every word, is Israel and the Palestinians, and what you say about that. You made it very clear, in recent weeks, to the Israeli government, that you want settlement building to be frozen in existing settlements. They've made it equally clear that they're not gonna do that. So what happens now?

President Obama: Well, it's still early in the conversation. I've had one meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I think that we have not seen a set of potential gestures from other Arab states, or from the Palestinians, that might deal with some of the Israeli concerns.

I do believe that, if you follow the roadmap approach that has been laid, if Israel abides by its obligations - that includes no settlements - if the Palestinians abide by their obligations, to deal with the security situation, to eliminate incitement, if all this - surrounding Arab states, working with the quartet, are able to encourage economic development and political development, then I think that we can actually make some progress.

So, you know, one of the things, in the 24/7 news cycle, is very difficult to encourage is patience. And diplomacy is always a matter of a long hard slog. It's never a matter of quick results.

Justin Webb: I'll accept that. But you have a senior member of the Israeli cabinet, the transport minister, saying, "I want to say in a crystal clear manner that the current Israeli government will not accept, in any fashion, that legal settlement activity be frozen." I mean, you've got a job of work, and I at least put it like that.

President Obama: Always have a lot of work. Yeah. I mean, nobody thought this was gonna be easy. If it was easy it would have been done. But I do think that we're going to be able to get serious negotiations back on track. And we're going to do everything we can. Because not only is it in the interest of the Palestinian people to have a state, it's in the interest of the Israeli people to stabilise the situation there. And it's in the interest of the United States that we've got two states living side by side in peace and security.

Justin Webb: What George Bush Senior did, concentrate the minds of the then Israeli government, was freeze loan guarantees to Israel. I don't want to ask you the specifics, because, obviously, you don't want to say at this stage. But are there, potentially, sanctions, if I could put it like that, that you could employ, that you would consider employing, against Israel if this Israeli government doesn't do what you want it do?

President Obama: I think that I've said my piece on this matter. We're going to continue negotiations. We think that it's early in the process, but we think we can make some progress.

Justin Webb: What the Israelis say is that they have managed to persuade you, at least, to concentrate on Iran. And to give what, behind the scenes, they're calling a bit of an ultimatum to the Iranians - that, by the end of this year, there must be some real progress.

President Obama: Well, the only thing I'd correct on that is I don't think the Israelis needed to convince me of that, since I've been talking about it for the last two years.

What I have said is that it is in the world's interests for Iran to set aside ambitions for a nuclear weapon. But that the best way to accomplish that is through tough direct diplomacy.

Now, what I was very clear about was that, although I don't want to put artificial timetables on that process, we do want to make sure that by the end of this year, we've actually seen a serious process move forward.

And I think that we can measure whether or not the Iranians are serious. My personal view is that the Islamic state of Iran has the potential to be an extraordinarily powerful and prosperous country. They are more likely to achieve that in the absence of nuclear weapons that could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region.

Not just responses from Israel, by the way, but potentially other states in the region. And if what's preventing them from seeing that reality is 30 years of loggerheads between Iran and the United States, then this may be an opportunity for us to open the door and see if they walk through.

There's no guarantees that they respond in a constructive way. That's part of what we need to test.

Justin Webb: A couple of former members of the National Security Council actually have suggested that you should go further, though, and that Iran should be regarded in the same way as Japan. That, in other words, nuclear reprocessing should be accepted, but monitored by the international community. Is that remotely possible?

President Obama: I think that the key, right now, is to initiate a process that is meaningful, that is rigorous, between not only the United States and Iran, bilaterally, but also continuing with the P5 plus one discussions, in a way that's constructive. Without going into specifics, what I do believe is that Iran has legitimate energy concerns, legitimate aspirations. On the other hand, the international community has a very real interest in preventing a nuclear arms in the region. Now-

Justin Webb: But could Iran have the right to reprocess energy?

President Obama: Now one point that I want to make is that in my speech in Prague, I talked about how we need to reinvigorate a much broader agenda for nuclear nonproliferation - including the United States and Russia drawing down our stockpiles in very significant ways, to the extent that Iran feels that they are treated differently than anybody else. That makes them embattled.

To the extent that we're having a broader conversation about how all countries have an interest in containing and reducing, over time, the nuclear proliferation throughout. That, I think, has to be part and parcel of our broader agenda.

Justin Webb: You're going on to Europe, to Normandy - scene of the great Allied coming together. Have you convinced European leaders, taking a sort of broad look at Europe, as a whole, that it is necessary, sometimes, to use force to get your way in the world? And I'm thinking, obviously, particularly of Afghanistan. But almost in a wider sense, a kind of Venus and Mars issue. Are the Europeans gonna be more on board now to the American way of thinking?

President Obama: Well look, I think any student of European history understands that the devastation of, not just two world wars, but centuries of war across the continent - and across the channel - means that Europeans understand better than anybody the costs of war.

It is legitimate and understandable that they are hesitant. I think the United States has a similar attitude. That we should be thinking in terms of our national defense, not where can we initiate war. We had an attack against the United States that killed 3,000 Americans.

There have been multiple terrorist attacks planned, and some successfully executed, against European states. And, at some point we have to make sure that we are eliminating those networks that would do - could do - our citizens harm. That is our first job as a state, as a government.

Justin Webb: And European leaders are on board for that.

President Obama: I think that they are on board on that. Now there are going to be tactical issues, and strategies. And the politics of this can sometimes be difficult. Listen, the idea of US troops in Afghanistan seven years after 9/11, or eight years after 9/11, is hardly popular.

At some point we have to make the case that it is necessary. And I think that what we try to do with our strategic review was to give a broader framework of, not just military, but also diplomatic and development initiatives, that would move in tandem with the military.

And that framework, I think, is one that was heartily embraced by European leaders, by Nato. Now we just gotta execute. And execution's always tough, especially in a world recession where people are looking at their budgets.

Justin Webb: We're almost out of time, Mr. President. I wanted to finish by asking you a sort of personal question. We've been through all these issues, and they must weigh on your mind constantly. How do you relax? What do you read? What does President Obama do?

President Obama: Well nothing is better at pulling you out of your world than having a couple of children. So I've got a ten-year-old and a seven-year-old. And they're planning, you know, pool parties, and talking about homework, and trying to figure out how to get the dog back on the leash.

Justin Webb: And family life works in the White House?

President Obama: It really does. I mean, one of the huge benefits of being president is I now have this nice home office, and I go upstairs and I can have dinner with my family just about every night. And they can travel with me when they're able.

And so we've got, I think, a very good deal. And I'm grateful that I've got such a wonderful wife and kids. That's my main form of relaxation. If I can get in, a basketball game, or a round of golf, or picking up a novel every once in a while - that doesn't hurt.

Justin Webb: You reading anything at the moment?

President Obama: You know, I'm reading a book called Netherland by Joseph O'Neil. Almost finished. Excellent novel.

Justin Webb: We'll let you get back to it. I'm sure you have other things to do.

President Obama: Thank you so much.

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