Yesterday “60 Minutes” aired an interview with President Obama that spent some time on Syria, and in the course of making some familiar arguments, Obama raised a couple of fundamental questions that don’t get asked often enough, about the United States’ interests, the nature of our presence in the Middle East and what our role is in conflicts there or anywhere else. At a time when we’re trying to pick our next president, there are questions that every candidate, Democrat and Republican, should be asked about whatever course he or she would follow in Syria.

Let’s start with this part of Obama’s interview:

Obama: I guarantee you that there are factions inside of the Middle East, and I guess factions inside the Republican party who think that we should send endless numbers of troops into the Middle East, that the only measure of strength is us sending back several hundred thousand troops, that we are going to impose a peace, police the region, and– that the fact that we might have more deaths of U.S. troops, thousands of troops killed, thousands of troops injured, spend another trillion dollars, they would have no problem with that. There are people who would like to see us do that. And unless we do that, they’ll suggest we’re in retreat.
Steve Kroft: They’ll say you’re throwing in the towel–
Obama: No. Steve, we have an enormous presence in the Middle East. We have bases and we have aircraft carriers. And our pilots are flying through those skies. And we are currently supporting Iraq as it tries to continue to build up its forces. But the problem that I think a lot of these critics never answered is what’s in the interest of the United States of America and at what point do we say that, “Here are the things we can do well to protect America. But here are the things that we also have to do in order to make sure that America leads and America is strong and stays number one.” And if in fact the only measure is for us to send another 100,000 or 200,000 troops into Syria or back into Iraq, or perhaps into Libya, or perhaps into Yemen, and our goal somehow is that we are now going to be, not just the police, but the governors of this region. That would be a bad strategy Steve. And I think that if we make that mistake again, then shame on us.
Kroft: Do you think the world’s a safer place?
Obama: America is a safer place. I think that there are places, obviously, like Syria that are not safer than when I came into office. But, in terms of us protecting ourselves against terrorism, in terms of us making sure that we are strengthening our alliances, in terms of our reputation around the world, absolutely we’re stronger.

Republicans sometimes defend George W. Bush by saying, “He kept us safe,” as though his presidency began on Sept. 12, 2001. But if your measure of keeping us safe is the number of terrorist attacks on American soil, you’d have to admit that President Obama has done a terrific job. That’s often lost amid all the talk about how “the world is burning.” And it raises a couple of stark and uncomfortable questions: What if the war in Syria, as awful as it is, doesn’t actually make much of a difference for the safety of Americans? And if that’s true, then how does that affect what we should do about it?

To be clear, there are many reasons we might want to intervene in various ways in a foreign conflict that go beyond our own security. But when it comes to the Middle East, we’ve been intervening for so long that we all assume that everything that happens there will, of course, have a profound effect on the safety of Americans. Obama may be exaggerating (a bit) his opponents’ desire for another full-scale invasion, but he’s right that they haven’t spent much time explaining what the United States’ interest with regard to this conflict is.

If you asked most Americans why the Middle East is so important to us, they’d probably say, “Well, that’s where the oil is.” But that’s not as much of a consideration as it used to be, with more fuel being produced within the United States and the promise of a transition away from fossil fuels in the coming years. And there are Middle East conflicts that don’t affect our access to oil at all — despite the nightmare in Syria, you can fill up your tank for around two bucks a gallon right now.

No one would argue that cheap oil is a reason not to get involved in Syria or anywhere else. But that’s one consideration that’s off the table. Should we intervene militarily because of the humanitarian disaster? If that’s the reason, then we should be clear about that and make our decisions accordingly — and those decisions would have a particular character. Do we need to intervene solely to fight the Islamic State? What if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has a better chance of pushing the Islamic State out of Syria than any of the disparate rebel forces do? Does that mean we should support him? Nobody’s arguing for that.

You can say that the United States should step up its military involvement in Syria because it’s close to our ally Israel. Which it is, but the truth is that Israel has lived next to a hostile Syria from the moment of its founding in 1948 and through multiple wars. Is there much reason to believe that the current situation is significantly more threatening to Israel than before? And if it is, would a stepped-up military involvement on our part make Israel any safer?

Then there’s the question of Russia. Last week I spoke to a former Bush administration Pentagon official whose expertise is in the Middle East, and he said passionately, “Putin is kicking our ass!”, which I think is a fair summation of how conservatives look at the current situation. Obama can barely hide his contempt at the idea that we’re in some kind of zero-sum belligerence contest with Vladimir Putin, and whichever one of us drops more bombs or puts more boots on the ground gets the manliness trophy. But if we’re concerned about Russia, we have to get specific there, too. What does Putin actually gain by his intervention in Syria, and what does he lose? What exactly do we lose if he shores up his ally Assad?

No one is going to claim that the Obama administration’s Syria policy has been a success. You can argue that if the president had been “strong,” then things would be working out swimmingly, and Syria would be well on its way to becoming a thriving democracy. Or you can argue that the situation presented nothing but bad choices from the beginning, and no matter what we did, we wouldn’t have been able to have much of a positive impact — and we might have made things much worse for ourselves by getting pulled into another quagmire similar to what happened in Iraq.

But either way, somebody else is going to be president in a little over a year, and he or she will have to make decisions about how to proceed in Syria. This is the time to press the candidates on this kind of question, the kind that doesn’t have easy, simple answers. We might not learn exactly what the candidates would do, but at least we could get a window into their thinking — and learn whether they have thought about it at all.