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U.S. Proceeds With Caution In Syrian Quagmire; U.S. Surveillance Conducted On Syria Round The Clock Now; Interview With Senator Bob Corker Of Tennessee; Will The U.S. Strike At Syria Prior to G-20 Summit?
Aired August 31, 2013 - 15:02 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: In the last hour we heard President Obama make his powerful statement saying he has, in fact, already decided the United States should take military action in Syria. But he also said he wants congressional authorization before he gives the execution order. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: After careful deliberation, I have decided the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. That's why I made a second decision. I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.
For the last several days, we've heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree. I ask you to take this vote for our national security. I am looking forward to the debate.
In doing so, I ask you, members of Congress, to consider that some things are more important than partisan differences or the politics of the moment. Ultimately, this is not about who occupies this office at any given time. It's about who we are as a country. I believe that the people's representatives must be invested in what America does abroad.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: We are covering every angle of this story from here in Washington, indeed, around the region and the world.
Jill Dougherty is over at the State Department, Barbara Starr is over at the Pentagon, Nick Paton Walsh is at the United Nations watching what is going on.
Jill, let's start with you. A major speech by the president, certainly, enormous implications, the big take away right now, I think the biggest takeaway is if you thought the U.S. was going to strike in the coming hours this weekend, indeed, in the next few days, not so fast. It's going to be at least until the week of September 16th -- September 9th I should say, September 9th, a week from Monday, when Congress ends its break and gets back into session.
JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Right. And Wolf, you know, we are getting the first reaction now. This is coming from the Syrian national coalition spokesperson speaking from Doha, in Qatar, saying they were taken by surprise by President Obama's decision, that there is great disappointment. And they fear, although they say yes, maybe it should, we will wait and see how it goes in Congress, but they are saying our fear now is that this lack of action could embolden the regime. And they repeat the attacks in a more serious way, so we are quite concerned.
And you would have to say that's definitely an expected statement, because they really wanted some type of action immediately, very strong action. And already, we are kind of critical of the president's limited objectives and limited strike that he was talking about. So that's the immediate reaction, and I think others -- you know, it can work both ways for the president internationally. Some might say he is following democracy, et cetera. Others might say, as Representative King said, he is advocating his responsibility.
BLITZER: Strong words from Representative Peter King of the house and homeland security committee.
Let's go to the pentagon right now, Barbara Starr is standing by. The military, they are ready, they have all their contingency plans, they have got all their strike options, they are ready to go. But the president is saying, you know what, just hold off for a while. Let Congress debate it and authorize it first.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Wolf, those five warships remain on station. No indication that they are going to move away any time soon. They may be replaced by other ships with their tomahawk missiles.
The military question at hand perhaps now is, as Jill would say, does this embolden either the Assad regime or others in the region? What happens if Assad starts moving more of his military around? The U.S. military is going to have to retarget, you know, look for those delivery systems, the artillery, the aircraft, the missiles, the rockets. Look for the commanding control centers. Assad has time now to evade, if you will, from what he thought might have been hit by those tomahawk missiles.
Also in the region, the president made a case. Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan could be at risk from Assad feeling emboldened, so we'll see in the coming days. I think the fundamental question that maybe some military people are scratching their heads on is what happens if Assad undertakes another chemical attack in the coming days? What happens then? And right now there is just no answers to that.
BLITZER: Are they assuming, or do they have hard evidence that in recent days since August 21st and all the talk of the U.S. strike, the Syrian military, they have started hiding, moving around some of their assets that could be vulnerable? Do they have hard evidence that's going on, or is that just an assumption of the department of defense? STARR: I think it's a bit of evidence and assumption. Right now, there are satellites, U.S. spy satellites, over Syria literally 24/7. And what we know from our sources, they tell us that the U.S. intelligence community is conducting around-the-clock surveillance, looking for anything that is different -- people moving around, equipment, material, things showing up where they didn't used to be or things disappearing, if you will.
So it's exactly what you said, Wolf. The surveillance is underway. They will have to be ready to go again, if you will, whenever and if the president orders. They have a target list right now, but in the coming days, that target list, those locations, are likely to change.
BLITZER: Barbara Starr is over at the Pentagon.
All right, Barbara, thank you very much.
Nick Paton Walsh is our man at the United Nations right now.
Nick, I assume they're breathing a little bit easier. Ban Ki-moon, the U.S. secretary general, other U.N. officials that the U.S. has, at least, delayed for 10 or 15 days, any notion of a military strike?
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I suppose on one hand he made it clear he thinks military action is appropriate, but yes, there is this 10-day delay now, which will feed into Ban Ki- moon, the secretary general here. There should a fiscal solution of some description. And of course, when asked earlier, his spokesman said, look, is a war without a resolution legal, he said look, they underscore the importance of the U.N. chapter which effectively said it wouldn't be.
What this time period now presents by Barack Obama does do is significantly increase the likelihood that we will have heard from U.N. inspectors their report before Congress meets or around about when they begin that process. We don't have an exact timeline from the U.N. In fact, they are very keen to stay away from it, but they also stress they will expedite this process as quick as possible, and we're talking about samples being taken from the latest chemical sites in Syria. Flowing seems to the hag at this point. They are being process now. They are probably going to start back at some point in the laboratories tomorrow. When those results come back, which could take a week, and of course information processed from interviews from survivors and witnesses, that's when the report comes together. But I should point out, Wolf, this is simply just establishing whether those weapons were used, but it's going to be very helpful to barrack Obama and the court of international public opinion, and of course if he's trying to convince congressmen -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Nick, thank you.
Senator Bob Corker is joining us. He is a key member of the senate foreign relations committee. He is joining us on the phone right now.
You heard the president, Senator Corker. What did you think? SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE (via phone): Well, you know, Wolf, I've been urging for some time that the president come to Congress, and I'm glad he's made that decision. I knew early on they wanted to go ahead and take military action, so that part was not a surprise. But coming to Congress may at this point, in the history of our country, be exactly the right thing to do.
And I just sent an e-mail to the White House chief of staff. Obviously I was on a call in the situation room a little bit earlier today before the speech, but they now need to use every ounce of energy they have to make a case for the American people and the Congress, but to do both, I feel like that case has not been made. And I think you know that I support a surgical proportionate response to what's happened. I do want to know how that's been carried out. I do know Congress is not going to know every detail of that, but that's not, you know, typically what you think occur. But the way the resolution reads, what they're going to do, all those things are important. And again, I hope the president, he will not talk about those things publicly, that's not appropriate, but the president now has a big case to be made. I hope he will use every ounce of energy to make that case. I think that's important for our country, I think that's important for the world.
BLITZER: If the vote were today, how would vote, Senator Corker?
CORKER: Well, again, I want to see the resolution. I sent an e-mail off quickly wanting to see what it is that they wish to have authorized.
BLITZER: What if it were simply an up or down vote, do you authorize the president of the United States in response to the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons against its own s civil civilians, do you authorize the president to use military force against targets in Syria?
CORKER: Well, I've been out, you know, in front of this all along supporting a proportional surgical strike. I do not want to see boots on the ground. As a matter of fact, I don't want to see anything that alters our stated policy, which is to enable the Syrian opposition to equipping and training to continue to carry this out until the balance and I want to see that happen.
I will say I was just in the area two weeks ago, and arms had not been flowing, no ammunition is flowing, so I'm dismayed at our lack of support for the opposition at this point. But on an up or down vote, again, I do want to see the details, but I've been on the front end saying that I think this is an important thing for us to do. But now, very, very important for the president to make the case to the American people and to really get his heart into this.
I saw his PBS interview the other day, or portions of it, and I just did not think that he was saying those things are important for the American people to hear. So, look, I have been very involved in this. I was just on the Syrian border of Turkey and Jordan. I was just in Iraq. I see what's happening in the rain. Not every Congressman, not every Senator, obviously, has taken the time or had the privilege of going and being able to do that. So it's very important for our president, again, to use every ounce of political capital he has to sell this, and I hope that's what he's going to be doing over the next week.
BLITZER: I'm sure he is going to do the best he can. It would be a real embarrassing political accumulation for his presidency if he were to lose that vote in either the Senate or the house.
My own gut tells me, Senator Corker, he will have the vote in the Senate. You'll be with him, of a whole bunch of other Republicans. Most of the Democrats presumably will be with him in the Senate. It's more problematic for him in the house. Do you want to give us your assessment of what it looks like in the House of Representatives where there is a Republican majority, but he has a lot of opposition against plenty of Democrats who don't want to use force in Syria.
CORKER: Yes. So I do think -- look, I think it is problematic, and it could be problematic in both bodies. Again, for people who aren't on committees of jurisdiction or just haven't been with the arena may not necessarily understand what's happening there. And as they're out visiting town hall meetings and other places, look, the American people today are not supportive of this. And one of the things that we are likely to do, it is not just to represent the people of our state or districts depending on whether we're senators or congressmen, but also to get out and to explain and promote ideas that we believe are in the best interests of our country.
Today, I do not think the country is there. And I think it's very important for the president to lay out why he wishes to do this. And candidly to us, privately, how he wishes to do this. But Wolf, I would say, look, in my own state of Tennessee, as forward as I have been on this, I can tell the American people are very concerned about entering into a conflict like we have had in Iraq, like we have had in Afghanistan, and I want to say I do not want to see that, either.
So, I want to see something that's surgical, that's proportional, and again, we need to carry out the policy that he's announced has been carried out overtly right now which, again, I have an issue with. But we need to go ahead and move on in strengthening the ability of this vetted opposition to do what they're doing.
I tell you, I have been in these refugee camps. The Syrian people are upset with us for having said we are going to do something, but having not followed through. And to me it's dismay at the way we've been carrying out the support, quote, quote, quote, of this "of the vetted opposition."
So to me, there are two things that need to be talked about publicly, to be explained to the American people. And I hope the president, again, will use every ounce of energy he has, otherwise it could be saying by some as him having second thoughts and using this as a way to actually not carry out what he stated that he wishes to do.
BLITZER: Yes. Well, the president himself said he doesn't want another Iraq, he doesn't want another Afghanistan, he doesn't want U.S. boots on the ground, U.S. troops on the ground, doesn't want a prolonged operation, it would be very limited. But as you know, Senator, a lot of our viewers know, once you start something, there are unintended consequences and you don't know where it winds up.
We have to leave it there. Always a pleasure to speak with you, Senator Corker. Thanks very much for joining us.
CORKER: Thank you.
BLITZER: Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, key member of the Senate relations committee.
We are going to take a quick break. Christian Amanpour is standing by live in London. General Anthony Zinni, the retired former commander of CENTCOM. He will be here as well.
Our special CNN coverage of the crisis in Syria continues right after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: We are not considering any open-ended commitment. We are not considering any boots on the ground approach. What we will do is consider options that meet the narrow concern around chemical weapons, understanding that there is not going to be a solely military solution to the underlying conflict and tragedy that's taking place in Syria.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: That was the president yesterday at the White House. Today in the Rose Garden, he went further, saying he has finally made a decision to use military force against Syrian targets as a result of its use of chemical weapons, but he will first go to Congress, get a debate in Congress the week of September 9th when Congress resumes, gets back into session, and then formal authorization from the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Jim Acosta is our senior White House representative getting some more information.
What else are you learning, Jim?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I just came out of a background briefing with senior administration officials who laid out how the president came to this decision.
And Wolf, this is very much, I think, very interesting to our viewers. President Obama, according to senior administration officials, came to this decision last night at 7:00 to change his mind in terms of how to go about doing this. He decided at 7:00 yesterday evening to go ahead and seek congressional authorization. He came to that decision after basically going on a walk, adviser says, with his chief of staff Dennis McDonough, and then during the evening, he started hashing it out with his national security team. A senior administration officials telling reporters who were gathered for this background briefing that there was a robust debate about the president's decisions, because in the words of, and not the exact words, of one senior administration official, this is a decision that comes with some risk. It is not without risk, because obviously they can't foresee what might happen in the Congress. They can't foresee what might happen in Syria with respect to the Assad government and what they might be doing with their temperature cal weapons.
But needless to say, Wolf, the president was wrestling with the idea of seeking congressional authorization with senior officials. He didn't really share that with anybody. He was wrestling with this inside his head, and then started going to his chief of staff, his other advisers, with this decision he wanted to make. And just a number of things to note here, Wolf, one being that according to senior administration officials, they weren't really talking about seeking congressional authorization up until the point the president brought up this idea. And that when he decided to make this decision after that debate, a senior administration official says the national security team decided they were going to go ahead and then started going to his chief of staff, his other advisors, with this decision that he wanted to make.
And just a number of things to note here, Wolf, of one being that according t senior administration officials, they were not really talking seeking congressional authorization, up until the point the president brought up this idea. And that when decided to make this decision after that debate, a senior administration official say, then, the national security team decided, they were going ahead and support the president.
Now, how this affects things militarily, a senior administration official says that the joint chiefs chairman, Martin Dempsey, told the president that there wouldn't be any military ramifications on this, that essentially that their plans, their options for delivering a military strike on Syria would not be affected by waiting a week or two for Congress to authorize this.
And so, obviously there are lots of different questions to ask about this. But the headline here, Wolf, is that the president very late in the decision-making process decided to go ahead and seek this congressional authorization at roughly 7:00 last night. And administration officials also point out it was also last night when the president came to his final decision to use military force. But it's one that he's now going to invite Congress to share --Wolf?
BLITZER: Did you get a sense in this his briefing that you and other reporters had, that they were pretty confident they would get that vote in the house and the Senate authorizing the president to use force?
ACOSTA: They believe they are going to get the vote. And what they are going to say to the Congress, and the administration officials talked about this, a couple of things. One is they made a point of saying back in 1997, the Congress passed the chemical weapons convention that the United States and countries around the world have signed onto. So, they are saying that this red line not only belongs to the president, it belongs to the Congress, and that it's up to the Congress to enforce it as well as the president. And so they're going to be saying that.
But they also want to get the Congress more invested in this process. So, this came up a number of times during this briefing, Wolf. They say they are not seating any constitutional authority when it comes to war powers to the Congress. But they're saying in this circumstance, and perhaps in future circumstances, it would be best if the Congress were more involved in the decision-making process when it comes to taking military action. And so, the president made this decision here, and people are already started to going to ask the question, what about Libya? Libya was a different situation, senior officials say. They are saying, this question in the briefing, Wolf, they are saying in the situation with Libya, that there was a big humanitarian need, an immediate ne need, that rebel positions and towns where the rebel positions were being held were at risk of being wiped out. And so, time was of the essence at that point, and that is why the president decided to go along with NATO and deliver that military force there and not seek congressional authorization. That is what the senior administration officials are saying.
They realize that this is going to come perhaps as a bit of a surprise to Congress and the world that the president made this decision so late in the game yesterday evening, but they believe it buys them some time diplomatically. Around the world, they think it will go a long way for the world to see that the United States, not just the president, but the Congress is acting unified on this one.
And also, they want Congress to be more comfortable with the material. They say starting this weekend, the classified materials, not just the unclassified materials, but the classified materials will be available to members of Congress if they want to go through them. So they'll get a better read of the situation in Syria and what happened last week than what the general public has at this point, Wolf.
BLITZER: Jim Acosta with some new reporting from the White House. Good stuff.
Thanks very much, Jim Acosta.
Christiane Amanpour is joining us once again.
Christiane, you know, there is a lot of concern. Would the president launch a military strike before the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia towards the end of this coming week or wait until afterwards -- we now know he's going to wait until after that G-20 summit.
But you know, Christiane, when all the world leaders get, the top 20 world leaders, together at that G-20 summit, this subject of Syria and U.S. military action is going to be really hovering over those discussions.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And it's just going to be a huge amount of hand wringing as has been going on for the last two and a half years. I mean, this is truly, these are truly extraordinary developments. You obviously have many different views in many different parts of the world about what should be done. But the bottom line is that 100,000 people have been killed in Syria, according to the United Nations, and that has happened since March of 2011. And the president and his allies have said that Assad must go, that this shouldn't stand, and et cetera. But they have not actually put any force or oomph or anything behind that.
Most people, many, many people, say they have actually kind of hidden behind the skirts of Russian and Chinese intransigents to not do what they actually don't want to do and that is getting involved in Syria. You know, they don't want to do it and therefore they're not doing it.
The problem now is that the game has changed. Weapons of mass destruction are something that the international community cannot, by legal conventions, they cannot turn a blind eye to. And as Jim Acosta says, you know in Libya, the White House briefers have said in Libya, time was of the essence because it was to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. That, of course, was true.
But that humanitarian catastrophe has befallen the people of Syria. A thousand plus people, 1500 according to the United States have been killed in just the latest illegal chemical weapons attack by many different countries' intelligence. There have been at least ten or maybe even, you know, several dozen attacks by chemical weapons. And in April, when I talked to the head of the free Syrian army who is supported by the west, by the United States, by the Europeans, by the Arab nations. He told me then after that chemical weapons attack that they were terribly afraid that if this was not met with some kind of punitive action, then Bashar Assad (sic), feeling the military pressure from the opposition, would continue to use these weapons, which of course, he has. So, this is a major issue that is simply being delayed now, the reaction to it. And who knows what's going to happen next.
BLITZER: We do know over the next days and weeks and months, presumably, it will continue to happen in Syria what's been going on for the past two-and-a-half years, the slaughter of a whole lot of people in this brutal, brutal civil war that doesn't look like that's about to end any time son.
Christiane, stand by. I want to take a quick break, resume our special coverage here. Retired U.S. Marine Corps general Anthony Zinni, who used to head - was the commander of the U.S. military Central Command, he is standing by live.
Also, has the president made the case to strike Syria? Has he made it well yet? Our special live coverage at the crisis in Syria will continue after this short break.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know well that we are weary of war. We've ended one war in Iraq, we're ending another in Afghanistan, and the American people have the good sense to know we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military. In that part of the world, there are ancient sectarian differences, and the hopes of the Arab Spring have unleashed forces of change that are going to take many years to resolve. That's why we're not contemplating putting our troops in the middle of someone else's war.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: President of the United States speaking in the Rose Garden just a little while ago. He is making it clear he is ready to strike Syria, but knowing America is so weary of war right now after Iraq and Afghanistan, the president also asking for Congress to approve military action.
A man who once led American troops in the Middle East, commander of the U.S. military Central Command is retired Marine Corps general Anthony Zinni. He's joining us now.
You heard what the president had to say. I know the military is ready for all contingencies, General, they always are. But you don't know, necessarily, when you start something what the unintended consequences are going to be. As much as the president says he doesn't want another Iraq or Afghanistan, you don't know where this winds up, do you?
GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI, FORMER CENTCOM COMMANDER, U.S. MARINES (RET.): No, you don't. And I'm always saying that a wise and prudent military commander plans against capabilities. The capability of the enemy to respond, react, counterattack is not against assumptions.
If you take us back to Iraq where we sort of assumed away problems -- there would be flowers in the street, a liberation, a cake walk, and many of us advised not to count on that. And I think it's prudent that we think in those terms. The president has said this is not a campaign, but we can't be sure that Assad won't continue to do this. If he continues to do unacceptable acts, you have to be prepared to respond.
Military commanders always ask two questions. If what, then what? If he does something that's not acceptable again, what do you want me to do? And I think that's critical in this.
BLITZER: Because I've spoken over the past week or so with a lot of military officers, and I think it's fair to say -- and you can correct me if I'm wrong, General Zinni -- that the most reluctant right now within the political, national security establishment in Washington are the military right now because they're worried about those unintended consequences. Political types, not always necessarily always that reluctant. The military could be the most reluctant warriors right now based on their own experience. But weigh in on that.
ZINNI: Well, you know, the most important thing for a military commander to receive is a sound strategy. You know, based on political objectives that are precisely stated so he knows how to fit his military strategy and plan. When we have a strategy that's half baked or not thought out or we lack a strategy, then we know the military is going to be with the round. And I think we've seen this in Iraq and Afghanistan, even going back to Vietnam and elsewhere where there is no really viable strategy, where the political objectives are unclear and where we see constantly changing objectives being given to the military.
You know, I was in Iraq and Afghanistan doing assessments both places. One of the things that struck me, particularly in Afghanistan, I was there in the tenth year. We had ten commanders in ten years. We had seven CENTCOM commanders, five chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And you know, every time we made these kinds of changes, and every time someone comes up with another good idea, it's the sergeants and the corporals and the captains at the bottom end that gets whipped around on this.
BLITZER: If the president of the United States were to call you, and he probably won't because you're retired -- but let's say he were to call you and say, General Zinni, I want your best, honest, most candid advice right now. We have the most absolute hard evidence the Syrian government killed 1,400 people, 400 of whom were children with chemical weapons that were banned for a long, long time. What should we do militarily, if anything? What would you say to President Obama?
ZINNI: I think, first of all, he's doing the right thing now. He's focusing this on the chemical weapons convention. This convention was ratified by Congress. So he is confining this to enforcing the convention and to applying military action in its enforcement. And I think that's where we have to keep the case.
The danger in the debate is, and I think you mentioned this, that we can get carried away on support for the civil war, and this debate can go far a field from that particular narrow focus. The only thing I would like to see from the president is he keeps talking about this not being a long-term commitment or not being a campaign. And, again, that presumes we're not going to see repeats of Assad's crossing red lines or doing unacceptable things. And the planning has to be then what if he does? And I would like to see a more drawn-out strategy if that happens.
I like the idea that he's going to Congress. Look, right now the polls show 79 percent of the American people are not necessarily in favor and do want the Congress to weigh in. The military likes to go into combat knowing we have the full support of the American people. And that's really voiced through the representatives in Congress. So, I do think this is a positive step in those terms.
BLITZER: That NBC News poll you're referring to yesterday said 79 percent of the American public do want congressional approval before military action in Syria. Sixteen percent said not required. So, if the president is looking at the polls, he has now decided he wants congressional authorization as well. He says that would be the right thing to do. He might not get it. There's no guarantee he'll get it. Probably in the Senate, my own sense is, maybe not in the House of Representatives. But it would be pretty embarrassing if he were to suffer a setback like that as David Cameron, the prime minister of Britain, suffered in the Parliament the other day.
One final quick thought. Take us inside the U.S. military Central Command right now. The Central Command is in charge of the Middle East. You have a lot of warships in the eastern Mediterranean, you've got a lot of assets in the Persian Gulf as well. What's going on as they're watching all these various political debates unfolding?
ZINNI: Well, the first thing is, obviously, your command and control structure is set up and tested. You have to have assured communications with all those moving parts that have to come together to execute this.
Secondly, you're prepared to protect yourself, your forced protection assets. You don't know what the response might be, where it might be, and I think it's prudent for all commanders, not just CENTCOM, to maybe heighten - if this attack goes down - heighten their own security levels just in case something happens. And I would think our embassies and State Department and other government agencies around the world would be doing the same.
But at this point, I think everything is set in place and they would just be ready and waiting for the execution order.
BLITZER: General Anthony Zinni, former head of the U.S. military Central Command. As usual, thanks very much for joining us.
ZINNI: Sure thing.
BLITZER: We'll continue our special coverage of the crisis in Syria right after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: Here's my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community. What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The president of the United States forcefully making the case for military action against Syria as a result of its alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians on August 21st. But he also said before he gives the order to launch air strikes, missile strikes, he wants Congress to debate the issue, then pass resolutions in both the House and the Senate. Dramatic announcement today from the president of the United States. Let's discuss and get some perspective.
Joining us on the phone right now from Austin, Texas is the presidential historian Doug Brinkley. He's looking ahead, Doug, I suspect to his legacy. He didn't have to ask Congress for authorization, but he decided last night to do it, and now he has done that. What do you think? DOUG BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN (on the phone): Well, that's correct, and President Obama now has quite a sales job to do here. I mean, it's not just a matter of convincing some Republicans to go along with him, but liberals in Congress are right now saying, as you had Charles Rangel on, they're not for this. And he's going to have to convince the black caucus to go along with him. He's going to have to get environmental Democrats that are worrying about blowing up oil fields, for example, in Syria on its side.
So, you saw the prosecution of Assad starting yesterday with Secretary of State Kerry. I thought the president used strong words today. But it would really have to be a campaign here over the next 10 days where he's got to pull every ace up his sleeve and try to get as many votes as he can. It's going to be a very historic vote.
BLITZER: It certainly will be. Doug, hold on a minute. I want to continue this conversation, but I want to bring in our chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour. She's joining us from London.
Christiane, this is an exceedingly sensitive moment in President Obama's presidency, if you will. If you'll remember, in the first year of his presidency, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. A lot of people were wondering why was he entitled to the Nobel Peace Prize then? And people are reflecting a little bit right now. This is a seminal moment for this president going forward with authorizing military force in Syria.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, look, you're absolutely right. And already, certain quarters are talking about how the president may have rewritten or reestablished the War Powers Act.
But here's the thing. Right now, we've had this reaction in England, we've had the secretary, the foreign secretary William Hague. He tweeted that President Obama made a very strong speech. We've heard from sources that President Hollande of France was contacted by President Obama just before he came out publicly this afternoon. And President Hollande says he still stands ready to, quote, "punish, sanction Syria for what it's done," the Syrian regime.
I honestly can't imagine that the American people would not accept that the most banned weapons in international law, weapons of mass destruction, are something that can be used with impunity. And I think the president this afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week, made very, very compelling reasons as to why this violation of the highest norms of international law cannot be tolerated for the suffering, for the deaths, for the unacceptable attacks that have been committed. I am sure the American people can understand, even though they are tired of war, that this is something that cannot be allowed to stand.
So I think that's what the challenge will be going forward. With all due respect to Charlie Rangel, who you've just been talking to -- look, he is a war veteran. He in the Korean War won a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He knows the ugliness of war, and therefore, he knows the United States cannot sit back and tolerate others using weapons of mass destruction.
With all due respect to the former CENTCOM commander, General Zinni, who just told you obviously commanders want strategies and clear plans before they go into battle. He talked about the sergeants and the corporals. Clearly they also want strong leadership. But this is not about that. This is not about boots on the ground. This is not about engaging in a big war.
And we, Wolf, you and I and many reporters over the years, have been reporting on these limited strikes for decades. President Clinton operated many times against Iraq in this way, and it had actual results. It wasn't full scale war, it wasn't boots on the ground, but it kept Saddam Hussein boxed in his ugly little box there in Iraq, and he wasn't able to perpetrate attacks with weapons of mass destruction.
This is what's at stake here; this is what matters. And this is why it will be so interesting to see whether the president can persuade Congress and the American people that the laws that have been signed in their name banning these weapons have to be upheld and they cannot be used with impunity.
BLITZER: A very powerful case laid out by Christiane Amanpour.
Let's get some reaction to that from Doug Brinkley, the presidential historian. Doug, you know the American public is very war weary right now after 10 years in Iraq and 13 years or whatever in Afghanistan.
BRINKLEY: Well, yes, they are, but the president is going to have to give them a quick lesson in history, including Congress. I mean, in 1997, Congress passed the Chemical Convention, saying that that's one thing in the 21st century we're not going to be tolerating, is the use of chemical weapons to kill people. And Assad has just done that. He's created just such great instability in the Middle East. I mean, this is right at Israel's back door.
It's a big moment for the president. And you know, when Bill Clinton goes around and gives speeches, he often says his biggest regrets was that he didn't act sooner on international crisis when he was president, whether it's Rwanda or Bosnia or Kosovo. And I think this president has been getting some criticism that we should have done more in Syria sooner. But he's willing now to really put his entire foreign policy on the line.
I do think that he's trying to make the Obama red line the American people's red line. It wasn't about my feelings, it's about what we as a country stand for. And the question is will Congress bite. Will Congress say, yes, that was our red line, too. And it's just so partisan in Washington, and it will be very interesting to see where individual legislators fall down on this.
BLITZER: What do you think, Christiane, would do if the House of Representatives rejects that authorization?
AMANPOUR: I don't know. I'm not in those briefings. I just don't know. He said today he knew he could do this without congressional approval. He would prefer to get congressional approval and put it, you know, before the American people through their elected representatives.
I don't know, but I guess what I do know is that a huge case has now been made by the president of the United States, by the secretary of the state of the United States, by presidents of France, by prime minister of England, et cetera, of Great Britain, why this kind of unacceptable attack cannot be allowed to take place without being punished, without being -- the perpetrators being held accountable.
All of these have concluded that a chemical attack did take place, a very severe one. It meets the standard that President Obama himself laid out last year, a significant, large-scale chemical attack. If by President Obama's own count nearly 1,500 people, men, women, and children, have been killed by this, then that meets that red line. And if all these world leaders have said that this cannot stand, then it is allowed to stand, that is a major problem and it completely scrambles the credibility of any kind of world order. It is actually as significant as that.
It's not just, you know, it's not just something that we need to do something about, just do anything, this is so terrible. It's really about the world order, and United Nations knows that as well. Look, even Syria signed on to the Geneva protocol on -- against the use of chemical weapons back in 1925. That's even before the United Nations. This is long established. And this cannot be allowed to stand.
BLITZER: The more recent convention, the international convention banning chemical weapons, I think was 1993, Syrians one of half a dozen countries that didn't sign on --
AMANPOUR: Right, yes, that's in 1993.
BLITZER: -- but they did sign on earlier in the 1920s. You're right on that.
AMANPOUR: Right. And that's the -- that's international law. That is a precedent. And I think many, many people who have been looking at this certainly, you know, the legal experts that the British government has consulted, that the American government has consulted, the administrations. Clearly, there is a huge amount of legal precedence for holding accountable those who perpetrate the highest crimes under international law.
I've covered genocides that weren't met in Rwanda, for instance. In Bosnia, the genocide was not met by punishment until after it happened. And then when it did, it stopped the killing there. And these are incredibly important precedence. We cannot tolerate the use of nuclear weapons. We cannot tolerate the use of chemical and biological weapons. This is what we have grown up being taught. This is what is taught to us and taught to people at war colleges and taught to people presumably in legal classes, in international humanitarian law. So this is kind of a -- this is it. This is it. And what they do about it will stand the test of history.
BLITZER: Like so many of our viewers here in the United States and around the world, we love your passion, Christiane. Thanks so much. Don't go too far. We have much more to discuss. Christiane Amanpour in London. Doug Brinkley joining us from Austin, Texas.
Much more of our special coverage of the crisis in Syria right after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: This morning, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell agreed that this is the right thing to do for our democracy. A country faces few decisions as grave as using military force, even when that force is limited.
I respect the views of those who call for caution, particularly as our country emerges from a time of war that I was elected in part to end. But if we really do want to turn away from taking appropriate action in the face of such an unspeakable outrage, then we must acknowledge the costs of doing nothing.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The president making a dramatic announcement at the White House just in the past few hours, saying he has authorized the use of military force against targets in Syria because of its alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people, but also asking the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate to be his partners, to come onboard to debate the issue and then to formally go ahead and vote on authorization, legislation authorizing the president to go forward.
The president did not say he would -- if he loses that vote, he would not go forward with the military strike, but he wants military authorization from Congress. The week of September 9th, a week from Monday, the Congress will reconvene. They will debate, they will discuss, and then they will vote.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. My colleague and friend John Berman, he picks up on the crisis in Syria right now.