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France In, U.K. Out on Syria Intervention; How the Arab World Views Obama; "Mindful of the Iraq Experience"; Could Action in Syria Hurt U.S. Economic Recovery?; North Korea to U.S. Diplomat: Stay Away

Aired August 30, 2013 - 16:30   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm John Berman. Back to the World Lead, there was once such disdain for France and its opposition to the world in Iraq, that restaurants across the country started calling French fries, freedom fries, remember that? So who would ever imagine that 10 years later, France would be one of the only countries to align itself with the U.S. for intervention in Syria. That's pretty much how things stand after the U.K. parliament shutdown British Prime Minister David Cameron's emotional appeal for military action.


DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons. It is very clear tonight that while the house has not passed a motion, it is clear to me that the British parliament reflecting the views of the British people does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.


BERMAN: Our Elise Labott is now live at the State Department with the latest on the international reaction to a possible strike. What is the latest, Elise?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: Well, John, the latest is they'll definitely be calling them French fries at the White House once again. But I think that France obviously considered a very close ally, the fact that the British did not -- are not taking part I don't think is very important. Tactically certainly the U.S. is willing to go it alone and has the military resources to do so, but I think symbolically it is a bit of a blow.

There are other countries supporting the U.S. politically and militarily. You have the Turks, a neighbor of Syria. They're willing to help out. The Turkish government said their military sis on the ready and you have a bunch of Arab States, Saudi Arabia if they don't participate in the campaign will be at the back door on the way out. It's a very large political coalition that will certainly be willing to lend their support and rhetoric as soon as this is over. BERMAN: We should make not that the British prime minister's office a few minutes tweeted out that Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama did speak today. They had a nice conversation. At least they're still friends. They have that going for them. Elise Labott at the State Department. Appreciate it.

Back in 2009, just days after his first inaugural, the newly sworn in President Obama sat down with Al Arabian News and offered a hand of friendship to the Arab world.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Ultimately people are going to judge me not by my words, but by my actions, and my administration's actions.


BERMAN: So how is the Arab world judging the president's potential military action in Syria right now? Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief for Arab television. He joins me talk about this. You actually conducted that first interview with President Obama all the way back then. It seems like an awfully long time ago. So how does the Arab world now view that hand of friendship that he offered?

HISHAM MELHEM, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, AL ARABIYA TELEVISION: There's no doubt that President Obama's stature and reputation in the Arab world has taken a beating long before the war in Syria. From the beginning, especially after his Cairo speech, which was really a transformation in many ways, the reputation of the president began to go down for a variety of reasons.

One of them is the fact that he did not deliver on his strong position against settlements in Palestinian occupied territories. Later on when he pursued the policy of engaging Iran, that did not appeal to countries particularly in assault and battery -- Saudi Arabia and the gulf. And then the way they see his thumping of Mubarak, they feel if he's not going to stand by an ally for 30 years, he's not going to stand by any of us. So that was a momentous event and then later on his handling of Syria and other issues.

BERMAN: The big question then is what now? You heard Secretary of State John Kerry say a key issue for the U.S. right now is credibility. The U.S. needs to take some kind of action against Syria to maintain credibility around the world. I assume that means in the region as well. If they do carry out the kind of limited strike that seems to be on the table right now, will that be enough for the United States to maintain its credibility in the region?

MELHEM: I'm not sure. The president's credibility was violated, a year ago last August established his so-called famous red lines and Bashar Al-Assad violated them and now the president is trying to restore his credibility by talking about limited action to deter --

BERMAN: Are you saying it may be too late to be credible? MELHEM: I think it is too late to be credible especially if the operation is to be narrow focused because there is a down side to that. Any option that will remain Assad to remain in power, he will look powerful. The opposition close to the United States will be frustrated, the Islamists in Syria will be emboldened. They will say this is America, turned you down again and the mother of Arab states will see it as another sign of weakness and Iran will be emboldened.

BERMAN: Let's talk about the Arab League for a second here. Those Arab nations are not exactly taking a bold stand themselves right now. They've spoken out against the alleged chemical attack in Syria, spoken out against Bashar Al-Assad, but they're not ready to support any kind of military action here. What do they really want?

MELHEM: Well, the Saudis and Jordanians and others, their intent is to get rid of this regime. They want to see Assad out and they want a tactical defeat of Iran and Hezbollah. They're not going to participate openly like some did like Qatar in Libya. One of the reasons we have this tragedy in Syria is the regional powers are unable to provide the leadership, Europeans on their own cannot provide leadership and because of the dithering of the Obama regime, there is no leadership. Everybody is waiting for an American leadership. They cannot do it on their own.

BERMAN: Hisham Melhem, bureau chief for Al Arabiya, thank you so much for joining us. Appreciate your time here.

Coming up next on THE LEAD, the Politics Lead, George W. Bush says President Obama has a tough choice on Syria. The question is, is he already boxed in? We'll have our panel here to weigh in on that.

And in other world news, he's been in a North Korean jail cell for almost ten months with almost 14 years to go on his sentence and his best chance to get out may have just gone up in smoke.


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone. The Politics Lead, we do live in a country with a lot of scars. One of the major shadows hanging over the possible military action in Syria is the U.S. invasion of Iraq and all the political bruises still associated with him. Today the man who ordered that invasion weighed in on the situation facing his successor.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: The president's got a tough choice to make. If he's decides to use our military, he'll have the greatest military ever backing him up. I was not a fan of Mr. Assad. He's an ally of Iran and he's made mischief. I refuse to be roped in.


BERMAN: The question is, is President Obama already roped in? And what are the political implications here? I want to bring in our political panel, Democratic strategist and former senior spokesman for Hillary Clinton's campaign, Mo Elleithee, CNN chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash, and Republican strategist and president of New Frontier Strategy, Phil Musser.

Mo, I want to start with you because it seems to me we're in a kind of political twilight zone here. There was a reporter for the "Boston Globe" who tweeted in if you told me that John Kerry would be giving a speech supporting confronting the Middle East, it would have blown your mind. How hard is this for the Democratic administration to be doing right now after everything that happened in Iraq?

MO ELLEITHEE, FORMER SENIOR SPOKESMAN, HILLARY CLINTON CAMPAIGN: I would hope it's not easy for any administration or either party. I agree with President Bush. This is a tough decision that the president has to make --


ELLEITHEE: I do, I agree with President Bush. No one wants to us be using military force. At the same time, we don't want to sit there and encourage people or allow people to use chemical weapons on their own or on anyone. So I don't envy the president for making --

BERMAN: There have been a lot of Republicans on the phone and on e- mail saying look at the Democrats now it's a much different tune than we saw in 2004.

ELLEITHEE: I'd be careful if I were them. This is not the time to be politicizing them.

BERMAN: Phil, on the subject of being careful here, where are the Republicans? I spoke to Senator, you know, Jim Inhofe a little while ago and I've heard from a number of them people who very much were in support of an invasion of a country for the alleged possession of chemical weapons and now seem to oppose a limited action against a country that seems to have actually used chemical weapons.

PHIL MUSSER, PRESIDENT, NEW FRONTIER STRATEGY: I think there's a little bit of wanting to understand the strategic end game here. I think what we saw from the administration today was I give credit to Secretary Kerry, he did a good job in laying out the humanitarian nature of the case. You want to see more clarity, more engagement, more briefing. A lot of this happens behind closed doors, it's tough to gauge.

So Republicans and Democrats really are on a lot of different places on this issue. This truly isn't a clear-cut partisan issue one way or the other, which makes it more complicated. President Obama is in a tough spot. He's at 44 percent approval, that's his low water mark. The public and the country don't approved of the way he handles foreign affairs and they're looking at this and trying to figure out what's really going on.

I don't think the level of education has been there yet. The administration is clearly trying to take the first step in that communications challenge to explain the critical necessity of this. Whether that works in the vacuum of social media and the world we exist today is to be determined.

BERMAN: Dana, bring us back to earth here from the twilight zone. There a lot of members of Congress who have said the president needs to bring this to Congress to get some kind of vote of support. Have I two questions. One, if they actually held a vote in the next few days, what do you think would happen? And, two, deep down inside do you think the members of Congress want to be on the record with a vote?

BASH: To answer your second question first, no. I don't think many of them do want to be. Some really do. Some genuinely have said in letters and in statements that they fundamentally believe that the constitutional responsibility of Congress is to authorize any kind of military force, no matter how small or how big. So you definitely have that wing. Under Democrats and Republicans, as you were saying, doesn't fall on party lines.

But to answer your first question as to whether or not it would pass, it's hard to -- the true answer is it's sort of an unanswerable right now because we don't know what the "it" is yet. But what we do know is that neither the White House nor even the House speaker, his loyal opposition leader, his U.K. parlance, doesn't want to have a disaster on his hand, which is an embarrassing vote in the U.S. that would hurt his credibility.

BERMAN: One of those who would have supported a vote would have been former law professor then state senator, then presidential candidate, Barack Obama. It now doesn't seem as important to him to get that congressional approval.

ELLEITHEE: I think he's certainly working closely, consulting with Congress. You saw him today stress that, you saw Secretary Kerry stress that. There have been a lot of read-outs from both sides talking about how they just communicated with the president. I think he is very sensitive to making sure that Congress is in the loop as he weighs what decisions he is going to make. Remember, he still hasn't made the decision.

BERMAN: Phil, quickly, campaign issue down the line? Syria? You think we'll ever hear about it again in the campaigns?

MUSSER: Honestly impossible to predict potentially. It's really a lose-lose politically for the president. If this vacuum continues where there is no decision, that will define this presidency quickly if approval continues to tube, it will become a political issues.

BASH: Remember the minute these members of Congress get back to town in a week and a half, this will seem like ancient history.

BERMAN: The fun of the debt ceiling will be back.

BASH: Absolutely.

BERMAN: Dana Bash, Mo Elleithee, Phil Musser, thank you so much for being with us. Appreciate it, guys.

You might be feeling the effects of the Syrian situation when you hit the road this holiday weekend. The possibility of the U.S. taking a swing at the Assad region is driving up gas prices. More on that in the money lead coming up.


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm John Berman, In the Money Lead, it is Labor Day weekend, the last chance to squeeze into that bathing suit if you could still fit into it all after a summer of hotdog eating contests. It's also a great indicator of the economy. AAA forecasts over 34 million Americans will travel this weekend, which is a post-recession high. The average gas price is $3.58 a gallon, which is down over 20 cents from last year.

But we've seen gas prices shooting back up over the past week. While the president considers the consequences of military action in Syria, one of them could involve your pocketbook. Let's get some analysis from Jim Lacamp. He is the senior vice president and portfolio manager with Macro Portfolio Advisers.

Jim, give us your sense of the worst case scenario for gas prices if there is action in Syria.

JIM LACAMP, MACROPORTFOLIO ADVISORS: Yes, John, if you're going to ask me about the worst case scenario then the conflict over there escalates and goes to Iran and to Iraq. And let's not forget that they're not done in Egypt either where the Suez Canal is. So if this escalates into some of these other countries then you could be talking about a disruption of global oil supplies. Not only that, speculators would come in and start driving up the price as well. So on a case scenario, you could see gasoline prices here in the U.S. go up to $5 or so. Now, I don't think that's what's going to happen but it very well could happen.

BERMAN: Now that you scared the pants off people saying $5 a gallon, if it does stay limited action, how long would that impact prices?

LACAMP: If it's a limited action, I think you're only talking a couple days. In the U.S., we have a lot more supply coming on. That's good news. We're importing less and less from the Middle East, that's good news, too. It will impact prices in the south, but you're talking about a limited reaction in the market, unless we have countermeasures that come out of that area, countermeasures from Syria and this thing slates at all. My best guess is it is a limited reaction, and prices escalate for a couple of days and prices will come back down. We don't have a supply or demand issue in this country.

BERMAN: What about the stock market in you always hear that the market hates uncertainty?

LACAMP: It does. If you look at previous Middle Eastern wars, the market was stifled until bullets started flying. They did pretty well after bullets started flying. In this case we have an entire set of different circumstances. September has been our worst month in the market going back 60 years. We have the Federal Reserve board, which hasn't told us if they're going to change their programs or not. We are expecting to hear about that next month. And we have the fiscal fight going on in Washington. We have a lot of moving parts that are going to impact the market and they're all happening in September. So you put Syria on top of that and it could create a more explosive market, more volatile market.

BERMAN: And, quickly, we have been on something of an economic recovery. Could this be a bump in the way of that recovery?

LACAMP: It very well could, particularly talking about oil and gas prices. Consumer rates have come down this year. We've seen incomes come down. The job creation has been mostly part-time and low-wage jobs. We haven't seen that really spread out through the economy. You listen to Wal-Mart and all these retailers. They're saying sales are down. You put higher gasoline prices into that mix and you're talking about a tougher second half of the year.

BERMAN: Jim Lacamp, thanks for joining us.

BERMAN: Coming up on THE LEAD, a quick look at the other important news up today, it did seem like there was the light at the end of the tunnel for an American prisoner in North Korea, then Kim Jung-Un's regime pulled a fast one that could put their regime in trouble with the U.S.


BERMAN: In other world news, North Korea telling a U.S. diplomat he's no longer invited to visit. Ambassador Robert King was supposed to fly to Pyongyang today to convince them to release an American citizen. That's not going to happen. Kenneth Bay got 15 years hard labor for supposed crimes against Kim Jung-Un's regime. That his health reportedly has gone downhill lately. The ambassador had planned to ask for his release on humanitarian grounds.

Firefighters in California say they've slowed down the monster burn that is one of the biggest in the state's history. The rim fire has been spreading in and around Yosemite National Park for around two weeks. It's charred an area of roughly the size of New York City now. But firefighters finally got their wing man, better weather. They say it contained about a third of the blaze, 100 percent expected in two or three weeks. It is still unclear how that fire started.

So the last day on a job is usually pretty touching, but touching is probably not a good word to use when you're talking about San Diego Mayor Bob Filner. The mayor's resignation officially takes effect at 5:00 p.m. today. He submitted it last weeks, succumbing to weeks of pressure to step down from a growing sex harassment scandal.

Nineteen women publicly accused Filner of inappropriately touching them and making lewd comments. He offered an apology for public failures but denied touching anybody. That is it for THE LEAD today. The good news for you Jake Tapper will be back on Monday. Wolf Blitzer is in "THE SITUATION ROOM."