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STATE OF THE UNION WITH CANDY CROWLEY

Interview with John Kerry; Classified Briefing for Congress Today; New from Kerry: Sarin Used in Attack; Striking Syria: The Mood in Congress Now; Obama Turns to Congress on Syria; Obama's Credibility and the U.S. Global Image; Discussion with Reps. Adam Smith, Eliot Engel and Scott Rigell

Aired September 1, 2013 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


GLORIA BORGER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Crisis in Syria and conflicting signals at home.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have decided the United States should take military action.

BORGER (voice-over): But not so fast.

OBAMA: I've made a second decision. I will take this case to Congress.

BORGER (voice-over): At stake, American credibility.

Did the president blink in the face of Assad?

Will the U.S. Congress deliver the same blow as the British Parliament?

And what happened to the president's red line?

This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons.

BORGER: The secretary of state, John Kerry, joins us. And then CNN's Christiane Amanpour and Fareed Zakaria weigh in.

Today the state of the Obama presidency on this special edition of "State of the Union."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BORGER (on camera): Good morning and welcome to Washington. I'm Gloria Borger in for Candy Crowley.

This morning there is growing urgency and apprehension over President Obama's surprise request for congressional approval of military action against Syria. This morning Secretary of State John Kerry told me the U.S. now has evidence that Syrian forces used sarin in the August 21st chemical attack that killed 1,400 people. Members of Congress will get a classified briefing on that in a couple of hours. And also this morning, U.N. officials promised an impartial and credible investigation, but did not say when their results would be announced.

Earlier today, I spoke with Secretary of State John Kerry.

Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for being with us this morning. I have to say that it was a surprise yesterday when the president announced that he was going to seek congressional approval for military action in Syria. Can you tell us now whether this administration is prepared to act even if Congress votes no?

KERRY: Well, we don't contemplate that the Congress is going to vote no, Gloria. I believe this case is powerful and grows more you powerful by the day. I can share with you today that blood and hair samples that have come to us through an appropriate chain of custody from East Damascus, from first responders, it has tested positive for signatures of sarin.

So each day that goes by, this case is even stronger. We know that the regime ordered this attack; we know they prepared for it; we know where the rockets came from; we know where they landed; we know the damage that was done afterwards; we've seen the horrific scenes all over the social media. And we have evidence of it in other ways. And we know that the regime tried to cover up afterwards.

So the case is really an overwhelming case, but the president really felt very strongly that the Congress of the United States weighing in makes our nation stronger in whatever action we take.

BORGER: But -- but doesn't it worry you that you have put this heavy responsibility on a Congress that is notoriously paralyzed and divided?

KERRY: We have confidence. There are good people in the Congress of the United States. I know they have been -- politically, it's been difficult, but this is a matter of national security; it's a matter of the credibility of the United States of America. It's a matter of upholding the interests of our allies and friends in the region, Jordan, which is threatened by what is happening, Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, all of which, as I said the other day, are just a stiff breeze away from chemical weapons being used.

I mean, there are huge interests here. And in the long term, Gloria, what we may or may not have to do if we cannot find a peaceful resolution with Iran, or what we need to do with North Korea -- all of these things are part of a continuum of decision-making that is made in foreign policy, and we believe the Congress of the United States will recognize that responsibility and do what is right.

BORGER: But, Mr. Secretary, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, says that in fact President Obama has gone -- these are his words -- "from leading from behind to not leading" by going to Congress. He says that it "raises doubts about the United States' reliability and determination." Can I get your response on that?

KERRY: Absolutely, of course you can. The fact is that the president of the United States is leading and he's leading very powerfully and he's leading in the right way. If he didn't do this, I can hear all of the critics saying, "Why didn't the president go to Congress? Why didn't the president -- he could have asked. He had time to ask. It didn't make a difference. I mean, all of those arguments...

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: But then they could ask "Why didn't he go sooner?"

KERRY: The president made his decision first. And he announced his decision. His decision is that he believes the United States of America should take military action to deter Assad from using these weapons and to degrade his capacity from doing so. Now, that's the president's decision. But he wants the Congress of the United States...

BORGER: No matter what Congress does? No matter what Congress does, the president...

KERRY: He has the right to do that no matter what Congress does. That is his right and he asserted that in his comments yesterday. But the president believes and I hope we will prove to the world that we are stronger as a nation, our democracy is stronger, when we respect the rights of the Congress to also weigh in on this.

And since it is not an emergency overnight as we saw in a place like Libya where people were about to be slaughtered; since we have the right to strike at any time if Assad is foolish enough to engage in yet another attack, we believe that it is important before this takes place to have the full investment of the American people and of the Congress.

BORGER: Well, what are you telling the Syrian opposition now, who was -- they are clearly counting on military action sooner rather than later, and now it's been delayed?

KERRY: Well, sometimes the wheels of democracy require us to take an extra day or two to provide the legitimacy that our founding fathers contemplated in actions that we take. And I talked yesterday with the president of the Syrian opposition. I believe he understands that America intends to act, that we are going to continue to support the opposition, that we may even, as a result of this, be able to provide greater support to the opposition and do a better job of helping the opposition to be able to continue to fight against the Assad regime.

I think that they will be stronger, we will be stronger in the end. And it's amazing to me to see people suddenly standing up and taking such affront at the notion that Congress ought to weigh in. I mean, I can hear the complaints that would have taken place if the president proceeded unilaterally and people said, "Well, why didn't he take the Congress..." BORGER: But, Mr. Secretary, it seems that -- I think the questions are being raised because it seems that, from the onset of this over the last couple of weeks, it seems that the president was poised to take action sooner rather than later. You came out and said it matters if nothing is done.

KERRY: It does matter, Gloria. None of that has changed.

BORGER: So -- so people are raising -- why didn't he decide to go to Congress immediately if it was so constitutionally important?

KERRY: Because the president needed to gather the evidence and have -- ask me and others to make judgments and ultimately to make the case to the American people.

BORGER: Did he conclude that he didn't have enough political support in the country to go to it alone this...

KERRY: Absolutely not. The president of the United States asserted yesterday, you know, that he has the right and I believe he has that right. But the president made, I think, a very courageous decision. Just because he disappointed some people who thought -- who thought, without any basis, that he was setting up to go take a strike doesn't mean that he didn't reserve the right to make the judgment that he made.

No decision is made by a president until the decision is made. And this president did not make the decision until he finally came to the conclusion that he wanted to take this to Congress in order to have the greater strength of the American people speaking as a whole.

I think it's a very -- I personally believe, at a time when the institutions of governance are being doubted by many people, I think this is a very courageous decision. I think it is a big presidential decision, and no one should misinterpret it, particularly Assad or the opposition.

BORGER: But it's also risky, Mr. Secretary, isn't it?

I mean, the risk is, if Congress were, and I know you don't expect this, but if Congress were to vote no and then the president were to strike, wouldn't that set up a constitutional crisis?

KERRY: The president has the right and he has asserted that right that he could do what's necessary to protect the national security of the United States at any point in time.

The president believes that we are stronger as a nation when we act together, the branches of government that are designated with powers with respect to foreign policy. And so the president has made his decision.

And he courageously went out yesterday and announced his decision to the nation and the world. He believes that this -- this outrageous attack by Assad merits the United States joining with others to stand up and defend the international norm with respect to the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons.

The president announced that decision and now he has asked the Congress of the United States representing the American people to join in with him in that decision.

BORGER: Mr. Secretary...

KERRY: And we are stronger as a nation when that happens.

BORGER: Let me ask you about our coalition. When you were running for president in 2004, you said that in Iraq we should not have relied on what you called "a coalition of the few." Isn't that what we have here right now?

KERRY: Well, I think we have a coalition of more than a few. But this is a situation that is going to go grow as the evidence comes out.

And it's another reason why the president believes there is a value in going through this process. I've talked with a number of nations who have offered to be helpful. No decisions have been made about what shape that will take. But I believe that there are many -- the Arab League has already spoken out, voices as far away as Japan, New Zealand, Australia; other places have spoken out.

I think the world takes enormous affront at this incredible abuse of power, this -- this attack on decency and incredible crime against humanity. I think voices will grow over the next days as people see the evidence.

BORGER: And -- and...

KERRY: And that evidence is becoming more powerful every day. As I've mentioned to you, we now have the additional evidence of the signatures of sarin gas from the first responders.

BORGER: Is this from the United Nations? Is this from the United Nations?

KERRY: No, this is independent. This came to the United States. It's independent.

(CROSSTALK)

KERRY: But it is confirmation of the signatures of sarin. And so the case gets stronger by the day. And I believe the case for action will grow stronger by the day.

BORGER: And, Mr. Secretary, let me ask you, in speaking with members of Congress this week, it seems to me that some of the -- a lot of the disagreement with the administration is not so much based on the evidence of the use of chemical weapons, but I think the questions are largely about whether your plan for a so-called surgical attack will actually deter Assad.

So it seems to be more substantive. And my question to you is how can you be sure that a surgical attack will not just be a slap on the wrist, as John McCain might say, but will actually deter him from the use of these chemical weapons?

KERRY: I think, Gloria, there are a number of ways that there are messages that could be sent in an attack, without going into any details, that would make it very clear that, if he were to attempt to do it again, things could be considerably worse, number one.

But, number two, let me return that question around on anybody who asks it. How can you -- what happens if you don't do it? You can be absolutely certain, 100 percent, that you will have sent a message that he can do this with impunity, that it doesn't matter.

I'd far rather be where the president of the United States is ready to show him that he can deter and degrade his capacity to do this with the obvious threat that more could be done if necessary as opposed to sending him a message that the chemical weapons convention that has been in place since 1925 as a result of World War I no longer means anything, that the world is going to look the other way and that Iran and North Korea and Hezbollah and others will look at the United States and say nothing means anything.

That's what's at stake here. And the president has made his decision. This is squarely now in the hands of Congress. And I have confidence that my colleagues -- my former colleagues in the United States Senate and my friends in the House, they will do what is right because they understand the stakes.

BORGER: And, Mr. Secretary, is the president's legacy also on the line here?

KERRY: You know, this is not a time for legacy and all of that discussion. This is a time to recognize that here in this country we have a very important decision to make about the United States and its credibility, our values, our interests, the interests of our friends.

I ask any American just to think what will Iran think with respect to America's efforts to not have it have a nuclear weapon if we are not prepared to enforce the chemical weapons convention with respect to Assad? What will North Korea think? What will any group in the world think if the United States is unprepared to follow through?

The president has made it clear he is prepared. But he wants our nation to speak with one voice. He wants our nation to be united through the elected representatives of the people who now have an opportunity to exercise their prerogatives with respect to American foreign policy.

I think it's a courageous decision by the president. I think he ought to be congratulated for respecting and not exercising the power of the imperial presidency, where he just goes off and does what he thinks is right without regard to that. The president knows he has the power to do this, but he is empowering the Congress to empower the nation through the decision that we make together.

BORGER: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary, for being with us this morning.

KERRY: Thank you.

BORGER: And now I want to bring in CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, who's in London, and Fareed Zakaria, the host of "Fareed Zakaria: GPS," who joins us from Istanbul.

Let me go to you first, Fareed. It certainly sounds like the secretary is saying that, even if Congress votes no, the president would use some type of military force against Assad.

Do you think that's a wise decision?

ZAKARIA: I think the decision-making has been so confused and muddled that it is difficult to put the word "wise" in front of anything they're doing right now.

(LAUGHTER)

The administration has hesitated between nonintervention and intervention. And it is caught between those stools. You know, for a long time President Obama had explained in a very disciplined way that this was a messy internal civil war and the United States couldn't do much to affect it.

But now, all of a sudden, this has huge implications for American interests spanning North Korea, Iran, the entire credibility of the United States. So then why are we talking about two days of strikes?

And you see the same tension, the same confusion in this whole issue of Congress. As you say, if this is as massive and important a violation of international law, standards, decency compelling American action, then, as you were pointing out, the United States should have acted and acted quickly. The president seemed to have made that determination. And then, all of a sudden, he wanted it both ways on this one, as well.

So I think that you have these two confusions between intervention on the one hand and nonintervention and trying to have it both ways.

And on the president, presidential authority and congressional approval, and in both cases, the administration seems to want to have it both ways, but it can't.

BORGER: Christiane, both ways, they want to have it?

AMANPOUR: Well, you know, Gloria, here is the thing. It's generally assumed and viewed that none of the world leaders have made a compelling public case for the strategic necessity of stopping the carnage in Syria over the past two and a half years. Now things have changed and the bar is raised by international law because weapons of mass destruction have been used, and that is a crime, as you heard Secretary Kerry said, against humanity. It's the most egregious crime under international humanitarian law. But now both President Obama and Secretary Kerry have made very strong cases over the last couple of days, and in your interview, Secretary Kerry was incredibly, incredibly strong. And I'd be really surprised after that if the United States doesn't go ahead.

I think, though, what's really important at the moment is what's being viewed overseas. The Syrian opposition is saying that, right now, as we speak, this delay is being met by the Assad regime moving people out of harm's way, moving military and other personnel, putting them, they say, into civilian places like schools that would be incredibly complicated when it comes to targeting.

Also, in Syria and amongst Hezbollah, all of those people today are celebrating what they are describing as U.S. capitulation in the face of their strength. That is the kind of stuff they do in this regard.

BORGER: Thanks so much, Christiane and Fareed.

And when we return, making the case to Congress and to the American people. I will be joined by a group of panelists who had to make and carry out decisions to use U.S. firepower. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BORGER: And when we return, making the case for the use of force. Some members of our panel have had to make such decisions before. We're going to ask them about the lessons they learned and about the uphill fight facing this president right now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BORGER: And more on the situation now in Syria with quite an august panel, if I do say so, retired U.S. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, who led the U.S. Central Command; John Negroponte, who was the director of the -- of national intelligence during the Bush administration; CNN national security analysts Peter Bergen and Jeremy Bash, who served as Leon Panetta's chief of staff, both at the Department of Defense and at the CIA.

Thanks to all of you for being here this morning.

Jeremy, let me start with you. You have been in these meetings where the national security team has to make a decision like the president made the other day. It seemed clear to us he was heading in one direction, going for the use of force, and then suddenly stopped and decided to go to Congress.

How does something like that occur?

JEREMY BASH, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF TO LEON PANETTA: Well, I think, Gloria, the president did two things yesterday when he came out. First of all, he said he wants to seek congressional authorization, but then he did something else, which is he said "Here's where I stand; here's what I favor."

And I think he saw, as the case for action grew because the intelligence case was so strong that it was going to be to his benefit.

Sure, there are some risks in going to Congress...

BORGER: Share responsibility with the Congress?

BASH: Well, I think, you know -- let me tell you a quick story. Peter Bergen wrote a great book about the bin Laden operation called "Manhunt."

BORGER: He did.

BASH: You know, during that time, one of the first things that then CIA Director Panetta did was he brought congressional leaders into his office -- Chairman Mike Rogers of the intelligence committee -- and said, "Here's what we're looking at in terms of where bin Laden may be hiding, four months before the operation.

Why did he do that? In part to get buy-ins that, if something, heaven forbid, something went wrong in that operation, Congress would have our back.

BORGER: So is this about buy-in, do you think, General? I mean, he needs -- he needs that, but he also needs to give the military some kind of clear direction.

ZINNI: That's right. And what concerns me most is not the immediate action; it's the long-term action. We know what can happen, what the alternatives are, what the Assad options may be. Our question would be, for the military, "Are you prepared to react to those? What's the long-term strategy?"

We shouldn't assume away what might happen, that this might be one and done. And I can prepare all kinds of responses, but I'd like to know that we have buy-in to take this all the way through, that there's a strategy and not just an immediate operational focus on this.

BORGER: You'd like to know that, too, huh?

JOHN NEGROPONTE, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Yeah, indeed. And another point I'd make is about the international element. Even if you can't get U.N. Security Council approval, there are things you can do to get a bit more international buy-in.

Secretary Kerry mentioned the neighboring countries that are concerned, Jordan, Israel and so forth. There's a whole international community that is watching this situation. So now, over the next several days with the laying out of all the information and the intelligence and so forth, I think you may, at the very least, gain understanding of what we're doing, if not explicit approval from a growing number of countries.

So I think that's a positive thing.

PETER BERGEN, CNN ANALYST: Yeah, unfortunately, you know, so far, you know, obviously a U.N. resolution is out of the question. NATO, unlike in Kosovo, you know, hasn't said, hey, we've got a humanitarian need to intervene. The Arab League has said this is a heinous crime, but they've stopped short of saying, you know, we're in favor of military action.

So these kind of international bodies that have a lot of legitimacy so far aren't getting to the point where they're saying this is OK. Now, that could change.

NEGROPONTE: I'm not suggesting a decision by the international community; I'm suggesting better understanding. And maybe it will provoke a little internal debate in their own countries.

And we certainly know some countries like the Gulf countries, the GCC countries, are very sympathetic.

BORGER: But the question I have here is what message are we now sending to Assad? What message are we now sending to Iran? What message are we now sending North Korea?

We were heading in one direction. Oh, wait a minute, we're not.

BASH: I think it's about actually building consensus here. And, actually, the message, I think, will be powerful when, as I expect and I hope, Congress votes to approve this. I think it will be good to say... but they might not.

BORGER: But they might not, Jeremy.

BASH: They might now, but the president has said that he has the authority and the constitutional power to go forward in any event. But it will be better; it's preferable, once Congress is briefed, once Congress has the opportunity to consult, it's better if Congress votes to authorize this.

ZINNI: I would also say that CENTCOM, U.S. Central Command, also has Iran in its area of responsibility. We've laid down red lines on Iran on weapons of mass destruction programs. So the implications here can clearly carry over there.

Now, what does it mean for the planning that they have done in regard to Iran so far?

BORGER: And if you're in Jerusalem right now, what are you thinking, Peter?

BERGEN: Well, you know, this could -- as Jeremy says, this could work. I think the president is somebody who's a calculated risk-taker and will take risks if he thinks there's going to be a big payoff. A congressional support for this would be a big payoff.

The bin Laden raid was an enormous risk. He risked basically, if that had failed, to be a one-term president. Taking on Hillary Clinton when he was a junior senator from Illinois seemed it was a calculated risk.

So I think, if the payoff is big enough, he'll take a risk. Obviously, this is a risk, but it might work. BORGER: Let me ask you, do you think the president looks prudent or does he look weak -- or both?

ZINNI: Well, I -- frankly, I think he looks prudent. And I don't doubt his resolve on this. I actually don't doubt it. I don't think he's looking for an excuse to get out from a box or a situation that he painted himself into. Diagnosing...

BORGER: Although he did paint himself into a box.

ZINNI: ... why they changed -- why they changed their approach late last week, I wonder if the British -- the decision of the U.K. Parliament wasn't a watershed event in that regard. And I wouldn't rule out the British Parliament coming back and maybe having a different view after they've seen a week's debate.

Other point: let's not forget we have the G-20 meeting next week, of all places, taking place in St. Petersburg. So there is going to be some interesting discussion there.

BORGER: If there is a conversation between the president and Putin, I'd like to be sitting in on that.

ZINNI: Well, I think and hope that there will be.

BORGER: Because Putin said today that the evidence on chemical weapons is what he called "utter nonsense." So I'm sure they'll be having a discussion on that.

Thanks to all of you for being here with us this morning.

And when we return, congressional reaction to a troubling question from President Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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)

BORGER: We'll hear from three members of the House --- they have to decide, don't forget -- as well as the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. That's when we're back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BORGER: And recapping today's big news, earlier on this program, Secretary of State John Kerry told me the U.S. now has blood and hair samples indicating the Syrian regime used sarin in that August 21st chemical attack that killed some 1,400 people.

A short time ago, I asked House Intelligence Committee Chairman Congressman Mike Rogers about the impact that that could have on the debate in Congress.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BORGER: Don't you think a lot of your colleagues believed that the president decided for a vote because he wanted a congressional buy-in to share responsibility?

REP. MIKE ROGERS, CHAIRMAN, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, listen, why shouldn't Congress share in the responsibility? If you believe in the War Powers Act, which I do, in you believe in the Constitution of the United States, that firmly puts in the first article that the responsibility for Congress to provide for the general defense, that means that we're involved in this discussion.

And we should be. And I think it sends an excellent decision to the rest of the world, a very stern, very firm decision that we're serious about the proliferation of chemical weapons.

You think about a country like North Korea, that many believe has a large stockpile of chemical weapons and biological weapons, pursuing its nuclear program, same in Iran, same in other places in the world, we better send a very clear message in a unified way that we're not going to tolerate proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, let alone their use.

If you don't send that message, that has real-world consequences.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BORGER: Well, those are very strong words from the House Intelligence Committee chairman.

And now I'm joined by three members of Congress who are going to get a classified briefing from members of the Obama administration in a couple of hours. And they come at this from a very different point of view.

Before we go to them, let's go to our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash.

OK. We don't have Dana Bash, but we're going to go right to those members of Congress.

So joining me now is Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat and he is the ranking on the Foreign Affairs Committee; Representative Scott Rigell we have also with us, who's been pushing President Obama to make his case to Congress. He has about 140 signatures on a letter, asking for that, which the president now intends to do; and from Seattle, Washington, we have Congressman Adam Smith. He's the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, and he just returned from the Syrian border.

Let me start with you, Congressman Smith.

Is there anything that you have heard from the president so far and from the secretary of state, John Kerry, this morning that has convinced you to change your mind? I know you were very skeptical about this mission and whether it could succeed.

REP. ADAM SMITH (D), WASH.: I'm skeptical about whether or not the use of U.S. military force in this case will accomplish the very legitimate goal. I think what Mike Rogers said about the proliferation of WMD and how awful it is, what Assad has done, is absolutely accurate.

I think the international community needs to rally and try and stop this.

The question is whether or not the burden can fall simply on U.S. military. We don't have a U.N. resolution, we don't have the Arab League, we don't have a substantial support from the international community right now to move forward with military action.

So I don't question at all the awfulness of the situation or the need to hold Assad accountable. It's a matter of how you do that and whether or not military action really will accomplish that goal.

BORGER: And I would have to say that if the president were looking for key allies, you'd be one of them, given your position in the House.

And let me turn to Eliot Engel, who's another ranking member in the House, important to the president.

You have a different point of view.

REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D), N.Y.: Well, I think absolutely the president is correct; I think that we cannot allow Assad or anyone else to gas his own people and get away with it.

I was the author of 2003 Syrian Accountability Act and I've been watching Syria for it a long, long time. This is a brutal dictator of a brutal regime. I think there is no question that sarin gas was used. And it's a war crime.

And the question is can we afford to sit idly by and just allow this to happen? And if we do, every despot in the world, every dictator in the world, every terrorist group in the world will feel free to use it because there are no repercussions.

BORGER: Congressman Rigell?

REP. SCOTT RIGELL (R), VA.: Well, my views are more closely aligned with Ranking Member Smith on this. The president laid out three objectives. He said we want to hold the regime accountable -- I agree with that -- also to deter future use of chemical weapons and then to degrade the ability of the Assad regime to do this again.

Now my question is, one of them, is if after this limited strike, will the Assad regime still be in place?

Will he still be there with a military, with chemical weapons?

If that's the definition of success, I question that. BORGER: So you're just saying it's a slap on the wrist.

I want to play with you the president's now-infamous -- one of his statements about the so-called red line, which is giving so many people so much trouble. Let's listen to that and we'll talk about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BORGER: So Congressman Smith, let me go to you with this.

Did the president back himself into a corner on this that he can't get out of, so he's coming to Congress to help him out here?

SMITH: He stated a policy. He didn't back himself into a corner if he believes in that policy. And he's followed through on it.

But look, the difficulty is, you know, as -- and I'm very sympathetic to what Eliot had to say about wanting to hold these folks accountable, but you can look what happened in Iraq. Saddam Hussein did the same thing back, you know, post-1991, he used chemical weapons against his own people.

And it took a while, but eventually we did hold him accountable. We removed him at an enormous cost. We've seen what's happened with the Iraq war.

And the interesting thing is that this is going to send a signal to dictators that you can't do that.

Well, here we are not too many years later, and Assad is using chemical weapons.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: Well, what's your response to that?

Congressman Engel, let me let the congressman respond to that.

ENGEL: Well, my response to that would be those pictures, those horrific pictures of those children foaming at the mouth and gasping for breath. I mean, my God, we're the United States of America and we have to stand for something.

If we're not going to stand up to a thug like Assad and say we're not going to let your own people and commit war crimes, then who are we as a nation?

I think that we need to stand up and clearly say that this is unacceptable. Now we can argue about whether there should be a minimal strike or a maximum strike or whatever it is, but I cannot countenance the fact of sitting there and doing nothing while people are being gassed and war crimes are being committed.

BORGER: So Congressman Rigell, do you think Congress will be able to agree on anything on this?

I mean, I'm listening to the three of you; you're -- got different points of view here. Two of you are in the same party.

RIGELL: Yes. Party does not have anything to do with this. I really believe that. Maybe that's American idealism coming out of me, but I've not heard one member of my Republican conference mention anything about partisanship here. This is a most sobering decision that the president is rightly bringing to a Congress. This was the only constitutionally correct decision, in my view.

BORGER: OK. And let me just go around the table here, and I'll start with you, Congressman Smith.

If you had to vote today, how would you vote?

SMITH: I don't have to vote today. So we're going to have the debate in the next week or so and I'm going to give the president the chance to make his case. I think the arguments are compelling. It's just very, very difficult. There are a lot of awful humanitarian crises throughout the world. You know, it's hard to say when the U.S. is in a position to step in and --

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: OK. So I'm count you as skeptical.

How about you, Congressman?

RIGELL: If I had to walk over to the Capitol right now, I'd pull out my voting card and vote no, but I'm looking forward to the debate. This needs to happen. And we'll all learn from it.

BORGER: And you? I think I can guess.

ENGEL: Well, I would vote yes because the whole world is watching and so is Iran.

BORGER: OK. Thanks to all of you, Congressmen, thanks for being with us this morning.

And other lawmakers are complaining President Obama's willingness to go it alone in Syria seems like kind of a face-saving move. Coming up, how much the president's credibility and the U.S. global image has been damaged.

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BORGER: And when we return, has the president tarnished his image at home, abroad or maybe both? That's next.

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BORGER: And joining me with their perspective on the crisis in Syria, former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and CNN senior political analyst, David Gergen, who has advised four U.S. presidents.

Let me start with you, David, on this; you've seen what happened this week, which was kind of stunning, the White House seemed to be moving in the direction of the use of force, stopped. President decides to go to Congress. Secretary of state this morning tells us that if Congress votes no, they might go anyway.

So why did this occur? You've been in those rooms. You know what the discussions are.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Listen, I think that when David Cameron lost in the British Parliament, that forced his hand. He had no choice but to seek additional approval from somewhere, otherwise he was totally isolated. He didn't have the U.N.; he didn't have a willing coalition.

And he didn't have support at home, either from the Congress or in public opinion polls. He needed to have something that was with him.

And by the way, I think he's likely to win. There will be a lot of kerfuffle between here and there, but if you look back through history, starting with the First World War, presidents have sought congressional backing for use of force on 18 different occasions. They have never lost.

BORGER: Right. But this is a different Congress. This is kind of risky. You just heard those members of Congress, two Democrats disagreeing, one saying -- a ranking Democrat saying he wouldn't go with the president at this point.

GERGEN: It's a gamble. But I just think when you put all the cards on the table, that the Democratic majority in each chamber is likely to be with him, and I think Republicans will line up. There's not only -- there is the Israeli factor, there is the factor that there is, after all, abhorrent use of power by Assad. But there's also the fact there that, especially among Democrats, they don't want to cripple their commander in chief with more than three years left and to further diminish American influence in the world. I think those kind of arguments are going to have great weight as time goes on.

BORGER: And Nick Burns, let me ask you, what are the implications of this kind of delay for our allies in the region, or in Syria, for that matter?

NICK BURNS, FORMER UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE: Well, Gloria, there are some risks here.

Risk one is that Assad will misread this, not understand what the president is trying to do as David has described in terms of domestic affairs and believes that we're a paper tiger. And that will embolden him. The second risk is that Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, the coalition supporting Assad, will also feel that they have got license to continue what they're doing.

So the president needs to counteract those. I think he and Secretary Kerry have an opportunity now to reach out to Israel and to have Israel become much more vocal in support of what the United States is training to do and also to reach out to the Arab League. They'll be -- they're meeting today; the Arab League has not yet pronounced itself on whether or not it supports an American strike. And it should now.

I think with those two groups on board, Israel and the Arab League, then our international position will be greatly strengthened.

BORGER: David, you know, the president is embarking on the G20 summit in Russia. He is going to face Putin eye to eye. Putin has called this evidence of chemical weapons utter nonsense.

What do you think the president is prepared to say to Putin? I'm sure they're preparing something.

GERGEN: Whatever it is, it's going to be frosty on both sides. I don't think they will talk very much. I think a risk, and Nick was pointing out some of the risks, there is a very definite risk that Russia now will step up its armaments of the Syrians in preparation for an attack.

After all, this is their friend. They are going to say this is a wrongful action with no international support, illegal internationally and we're going to step it up.

So there are those risks, I think. I think the bigger risk, and what the president has got to work on here, is that you can say it's wise to have call for the Congress to do this, but the way he went about it, it was so jerky and unpredictable, that I think it's raised questions about just how firm a grip he has on the wheel as a commander in chief.

After all, starting with the drawing of the red line itself, which seemed to be sort of almost by the way, it's a red line, as opposed to a well thought-out plan, and now we have no apparent strategy for long term in the Middle East. Nick knows this better than I do.

But presidents need to be seen in control of events and guiding events, and not just reacting or bouncing around. I'd welcome Nick's views.

BORGER: Go ahead, Nick.

BURNS: I think David's right. The United States has to -- the administration has to regroup here. The Congress has to vote in favor of this resolution or else the credibility of the United States as a global power in the Middle East is going to be vastly reduced.

And it means also that the administration has to give the kind of powerful performance that Secretary Kerry gave this morning on all the Sunday shows, Gloria, including STATE OF THE UNION. He gave a ringing endorsement for why it's important for us to act.

We have to see that kind of consistency, resolve and strength from the administration. That's what the world is looking for. It didn't see it this week. I hope we'll see it in the next week or two.

BORGER: OK. Thanks so much to you, Nick Burns and David Gergen. Thanks again.

And at the top of the hour, a special edition of "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS;" he's in Turkey today, which shares a 500-mile border with Syria. And we'll be right back.

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BORGER: Stay with CNN for continuing coverage of the crisis in Syria. Thank you so much for watching STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Gloria Borger. Candy Crowley will be right back here next week. "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS" is next for our viewers right here in the United States.