By W.J. HENNIGAN

Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON -- In a spirited defense of his foreign policy, President Barack Obama said in an interview aired Sunday that normalizing relations with Cuba would bolster American influence there and that his diplomatic strategies to contain Russia and Iran are working.

The president, appearing on CNN's "State of the Union," countered critics who have called his foreign policy naive. He dismissed the idea that international leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin are outwitting him.

Obama pointed to Russia's growing financial crisis, including a steep devaluation of the ruble in recent weeks. Experts tie the decline mostly to falling oil prices, but said sanctions against Russia, pushed by the Obama administration, are contributing to the lack of confidence in Russia's economy.

"There was a spate of stories about how he is the chess master and outmaneuvering the West," Obama said of Putin. "Right now, he's presiding over the collapse of his currency, a major financial crisis and a huge economic contraction. That doesn't sound like somebody who has rolled me or the United States of America."

During the interview, recorded Friday before the president and his family left for vacation in Hawaii, Obama said he has been consistent in saying he will resolve problems diplomatically where he can, rather than rely entirely on U.S. military power.

"There is this knee-jerk sense, I think, on the part of some in the foreign policy establishment that, you know, shooting first and thinking about it second projects strength. I disagree with that," he said.

International sanctions on Iran, for example, combined with negotiations to curb its nuclear program, have led Tehran to slow its progress, Obama said.

"Since we began negotiations with them, that's probably the first year and a half in which Iran has not advanced its nuclear program in the last decade," he said.

Likewise, opening diplomatic talks with Cuba -- as the president announced last week -- offers the U.S. a chance to pursue a new strategy after decades of stalemate, Obama said.

"For 50 years, we've tried to see if we can overthrow the regime through isolation. It hasn't worked," he said. "If we engage, we have the opportunity to influence the course of events at a time when there's going to be some generational change in that country."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who later appeared on the show, criticized the decision on Cuba.

"We would be rewarding the failure that they haven't done anything," he said, adding in the absence of more progress from the Communist regime, the U.S. would be "endorsing their 50 years of oppression and repression in Cuba."

During his recorded interview, Obama also reiterated his intention to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

"We need to close that facility, and I'm going to do everything I can to close it," Obama said. "It is contrary to our values and it is wildly expensive. We're spending millions for each individual there. And we have drawn down the population there significantly."

The U.S. has released approixmately two dozen prisoners this year, including four detainees who were announced Saturday to have been sent home to Afghanistan.