Brokaw on Letterman: Syria Not Obama's 'Finest Moment,' Probably Emboldened Putin

Appearing on Thursday's CBS Late Show aired early Friday morning, former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw discussed the Russian invasion of Ukraine with host David Letterman and observed: "...when chemical weapons were used in Syria and they were discovered, I didn't think it was President Obama's finest moment. He said there's a red line, then he kept moving that sucker....[Vladimir Putin] might have taken the measure of President Obama and said, 'I may be able to test this guy'....it has that appearance." [Listen to the audio]

That analysis was prompted by Letterman noting: "And people are saying this [Russian invasion of Ukraine] is because of the negotiations, or the unilateral negotiations regarding Syria, when he [Putin] stepped in looking for weapons of mass destruction...and Obama had to sort of acquiesce that because it was not a bad idea. So now he [Putin] feels like he can get away with this. Is that part of it?" Brokaw replied: "Well, I think that's pretty astute."

Ironically, on Thursday morning's NBC Today, co-host Matt Lauer and MSNBC Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough condemned Republicans who suggested Obama's mishandling of Syria helped embolden Putin to invade Ukraine.

Here is a transcript of the March 6 Late Show exchange aired early on March 7:

12:14 AM ET

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TOM BROKAW: This is a very dangerous game that he's [Vladimir Putin] playing because he's taunting the west, Europe and the United States, at the same time saying, "I'm going do what I want to do."

DAVID LETTERMAN: And people are saying this is because of the negotiations, or the unilateral negotiations regarding Syria, when he stepped in looking for weapons of mass destruction and getting rid of the nuclear – whatever he was going do, and Obama had to sort of acquiesce that because it was not a bad idea. So now he [Putin] feels like he can get away with this. Is that part of it?

BROKAW: Well, I think that's pretty astute. I don't know for sure what was in his [Putin's] mind, but the fact is that when chemical weapons were used in Syria and they were discovered, I didn't think it was President Obama's finest moment. He said there's a red line, then he kept moving that sucker, as they say, you know, all over Syria. And at one point, President Putin comes in, puts in an editorial op/ed page piece in the New York Times about, "We're back." Then he sends – he's got very skilled diplomats here at the United Nations and running the foreign ministry – he gets them involved. So I think he might have taken the measure of President Obama and said, "I may be able to test this guy." I don't know that for sure, David, but it has that appearance.

LETTERMAN: And is there now some question as to how many, how much, what percentage of these weapons in fact have been taken out of Syria or do we know that they have been transferred?

BROKAW: Well, we know that some have been taken out but we don't know how many.

LETTERMAN: We don't know how many. And what will happen? Will he [Putin] – he's not going to give Crimea – he's going to take it over, he's not going to give it back, is he?  

BROKAW: He's not going to give it back.

LETTERMAN: So what do we do? Just sit around and hope for the best?

BROKAW: Well, the President today announced some sanctions, but I must say, even in the White House they must think they're pretty weak. You know, it's about visas, and if you have money here you can't get it out of here. That doesn't have much of an impact, frankly, on the Russian economy. A lot of people believe that you just better get used to the idea that there are going to be Russian troops in Crimea for some time. And that they will be protecting the Russian population and their interests there in Ukraine and Crimea will be divided to some point.

The people in Ukraine look across the border and they see the Poles and the Romanians and the others who are doing business with the west living much better than they are. And they say, "Well, we want to do business – that's what we want to be a part of." He [Putin] doesn't want to let them out of his sphere of influence.

LETTERMAN: Is it true that the thought remains in all of these former Soviet states that for a certain generation they like the way things were better when it was all taken care of than leaving it to chance of democracy and capitalism?

BROKAW: Yeah, a lot of them do. I mean, Gorbachev, who I think will be treated very well by the long reach of history, is an anti-hero in his own country. They hated what he did because they used to get a check every week and know that they were going to have a house and some food.

The oligarches don't feel that way. There's a small knot around Gorbachev – I mean around Putin – who've gotten fabulously rich. I mean, unbelievably rich. They own coastlines in Italy and France and they've got big investments in this country. They're really doing well. But it doesn't permeate the rest of the country. And so those folks who are out there living at the bottom of the food chain are saying, "You know, it was kind of better the other way."

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— Kyle Drennen is News Analyst at the Media Research Center. Follow Kyle Drennen on Twitter.