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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Did Obama Administration Lack In Preparedness To Deal With Syrian Chemical Attack?; Former Obama Aide Now One Of Fiercest Critics Of Administration's Stance On Syria; Is Obama's Influence Waning In Middle East?; Nyad Finally Makes History

Aired September 2, 2013 - 16:30   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Now, it's time for our national lead.

President Obama has had the complicated issue of Syria sitting on his desk for more than two years. He first pushed for diplomacy and a political solution for Assad to step down on his own and now, for Congress to approve U.S. military action. It's been a long road for the president when it comes to Syria and evolving one when it comes to using U.S. force.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: After careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime target. I will see authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.

TAPPER (voice-over): President Obama surprised even many on his own national security team when he decide that he would seek congressional authorization to carry out strikes against the Syrian regime, even though he does not believe he needs it.

OBAMA: Our power is rooted not just in our military might but in our example, as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

TAPPER: A vote that won't come until next week at the earliest, a tone at odds with the fierce urgency conveyed just a day before by his secretary of state.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: History would judge as all, extraordinarily harshly, if we turn a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings.

TAPPER: But even as John Kerry minced no words, Obama that day, Friday, continued to choose his judiciously.

OBAMA: If and when we make a decision to respond, there are a whole host of considerations that I have to take into account, too, in terms of how effective it is.

TAPPER: Kerry, Friday, was projecting resolve, at the same time the president was expressing his frustration.

OBAMA: Part of the challenge that we end up with here is that a lot of people think something should be done but nobody wants to do it.

TAPPER: Those urging action such as Senator John McCain say the president's desire for congressional endorsement should have been taken into account before his administration conveyed action was imminent.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Our allies are dispirited, and our enemies are encouraged. The Free Syrian Army has suffered a real blow to their morale because they were believing that Bashar al-Assad would be severely punished for the massacre that he has perpetrated.

TAPPER: Part of the president's mindset? According to aides, President Obama during the course of his presidency has developed something of an ambivalence about the use of U.S. force. Drones notwithstanding.

OBAMA: I assure you nobody ends up being more war-weary than me.

TAPPER: And yet he has also convinced, aides say, that it would be more consequential to ignore the intelligence that Assad's regime violated the ban on the use of chemical weapons on their own people.

OBAMA: We have currently rules in place dealing with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But if there's a sense that over time nobody's willing actually to enforce them, then people don't take them seriously.

TAPPER: And year after year of diplomatic efforts have failed. Optimism expressed about Assad expressed in March 2011 was followed by new sanctions against him later that year. I asked then-Secretary of State Clinton about it on ABC News.

You at one point seemed to have optimism that Assad was a reformer.

HILLARY CLINTON, THEN-SECRETARY OF STATE: We had hoped so. We heard what Assad said about what he wanted to do for reform. But when it came to it, he responded, as we have seen, very violently.

TAPPER: Then came the off-the-cuff remark about a red line in 2012.

OBAMA: A red line in 2012 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.

TAPPER: An equation that he talked about in an interview with "60 Minutes" four years ago when he was just coming to realize the difficulty of the job. OBAMA: A lot of times when things land at my desk, it's a choice between bad and worse. And as somebody pointed out to me, the only things that land on my desk are tough decisions because if they were easy decisions, somebody down the food chain's already made them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: One of the fiercest critics of President Obama's decision to seek congressional authorization may be Frederic Hof, former State Department special adviser for transition in Syria in the Obama administration, a former Obama aide. He wrote over the weekend that, quote, "The events of the past 10 days suggest that there was no administration forethought to the possibility of a major chemical incident in Syria; there was no plan in place to respond to a major chemical attack by a regime that had already demonstrated its deep and abiding contempt for the president and his red lines. The results of this mystifying lack of prepardness have been abysmal."

Let's get some analysis from Jeremy Bash. He was chief of staff to former defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta. And he's now the founder of Beacon Global Strategies, a consulting firm.

Jeremy, thanks for being here. You just heard some of what Frederic Hoff wrote. He also called Obama's decision to ask for congressional approval "strategically appalling." He said you could defend it constitutionally, but the idea that you would make it seem to the world that there's going to be a strike and then step back and say but now we're going to seek congressional authorization, it sends the wrong message. What do you make of Fred Hof's criticism?

JEREMY BASH, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF TO LEON PANETTA: Thanks for having me, Jake.

I think Mr. Hof is just making a silly argument here. From the get-go, the president has been clear: Assad's use of chemical weapons on a large scale is a hideous crime. It crosses a red line. And we've got to respond. We've got to respond militarily.

Now, some say he should have moved on out and taken the strike without consulting Congress. But what he's doing here is he's trying - he's being very clear. He's saying look, here's where I stand. This is my view. This is what I think we ought to do. Who is with me? Who's going to stand with me? And you heard John McCain say today if the United States doesn't do this for our interests in the Middle East, it will be a catastrophe.

TAPPER: How would you describe how President Obama has evolved on the use of force? As you heard in the piece just then, I know very few - I don't know anyone in the White House who thinks that the President Obama of 2013 would have supported the surge in Afghanistan that he supported in 2009. Is he more reluctant to use U.S. force, U.S. troops? Is he just more skeptical of U.S. involvement in general? Where do you see him in this?

BASH: I think he's been very careful. And I actually think from my perspective at the CIA and the Pentagon, almost every decision that went to the White House that involved troops or using military force, he's really scrutinized, he and his team have gone over with a fine- toothed comb. There's no bravado, there's no hey, we're just going to use military force wherever. But he has used it. He doubled down our forces in Afghanistan, he participated in the coalition operations in Libya, he sent special operations force 150 miles to get Bin Laden in Pakistan. He's authorized a wide range of counterterrorism operations in Yemen and elsewhere in the world.

So he has applied and used military force very strategically and very effectively. He's not afraid to use military force. What he doesn't want is a rush to judgment. And here, our military leaders, General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs -

TAPPER: Very skeptical, yes.

BASH: They have said, first of all, be careful, Mr. President, when we apply military force in the Middle East. And by the way, in this case, it's okay to take a deep breath. Wait 10 days, wait two weeks, wait even 30 days. Why? Because Assad can't hide things that we're probably going to hit. He can't radar stations. He can't hide buildings. He can't hide headquarters. And by the way, if he does go underground or puts women and children around that, it's going to make it hard to fight the enemy.

And so in some ways even just saying that we might strike you and putting destroyers off the coast and building international coalition and having this debate in Congress, that in itself is a huge deterrent to Assad.

TAPPER: All right, just one last quick question. Your old boss, Leon Panetta, he wanted to arm rebels. And he admitted to this in testimony in February. Should the administration, should the president have taken his advice?

BASH: Well, he said he supported it, and then in June when they crossed the red line, the president announced that military support.

TAPPER: All right. That's a diplomatic answer.

BASH: Thank you, Jake!

TAPPER: Jeremy Bash, thank you very much.

Coming up on THE LEAD, you can practically hear the drum beats of war. But does President Obama have enough juice to get Congress to support strikes in Syria? We'll ask our political panel.

Plus, it was the worst nuclear disaster this side of Chernobyl. And an already very bad situation in Japan keeps getting worse. We'll tell you the latest no good news from Fukushimia, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Now for some politics. They stood in the president's own driveway and slammed his leadership on Syria. After a meeting at the White House today, senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham were very clear about the fact that they want to see more action, more planning and more clarity from President Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: We don't want endless war. John and I -- John knows better than anybody, war is a terrible thing. We want sustainable security. And Syria is a cancer that's growing in the region. And for two years, the president has allowed this to become, quite frankly, a debacle.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Let's bring in our panel. Senior editor for "The National Review," Ramesh Ponnuru. CNN political contributor and Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, and CNN senior political analyst, Ron Brownstein.

First thing I have to say is, I can't think of a time - and Ron, you were the one that brought this up - where a cabinet and a White House staff was probably as surprised by the president's decision as Saturday or Friday night after the president decided okay, we're going to do strikes - or I want to do strikes, but we're going to let Congress do it. Nobody in the national security team had been planning on that. I mean, are they - they're not going to admit it to anybody. But you have to believe that they're not delighted with that.

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: You know, this is the president that was elected on the anti-war platform. Let's never forget that -

TAPPER: Anti Iraq war.

ROSEN: Anti Iraq war in 2008. Let's never, ever forget that. And so I think - I kind of want to do this, but I'd really like it if you guys came along with me. I mean, that's sort of the way progressives tend to feel about going to war and taking military action. It's not a comfortable thing to do. And I think - McCain was right in one thing. What he was right in was that there's been a hesitancy in this administration to go this far. But what he's wrong about is that it's not Barack Obama hasn't been a good leader. It's because Barack Obama has had the priority to be cautious about taking these kinds of steps. That's what he was elected for.

TAPPER: And how about that? How about that argument? He's not being weak - we should all be ambivalent about war. We should all be cautious about use of force. What do you make of that argument?

RAMESH PONNURU, SENIOR EDITOR, NATIONAL REVIEW: Well, I think it reflects the fact that there are some good arguments on all sides of this. Unfortunately, if you split the difference with those arguments, you could end up with something that doesn't make any strategic sense. And that, I think, is one of the things that is going to cause a lot of reluctance on the part of Congress to vote for this, because they don't see what the strategic objective is. TAPPER: Ultimately, Ron, does the president's own ambivalence about this, even though half his statement on Saturday was very strong - does that help him sell it to Democrats? Or does that make it more difficult?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALSYT: That's a really good question. Look I think the ambivalence is very real. It's not only here; we saw it in the U.K. It's the end of a 20-year cycle. I mean, we went from Bosnia to Kosovo to Afghanistan to Iraq, believing that U.S. force could move the world in the direction that we wanted to see it go. And in Iraq, now Egypt, I think we've seen that very much - in Egypt's case, not only force but just intervention - we've seen that very much called into question.

And I think Syria is at the end. The ambivalence you're seeing with Syria is really the kind of rise and fall in the belief of our efficacy in our ability to change these societies in the way that we want. So ambivalence, I think, Jake, is embedded in this decision, here and everywhere else. Every other country that is considering it.

And yes, I do think that his ambivalence is at least a selling point with Democrats, because it suggests that he's not going to go too far, that he wants to make this limited. And of course, that becomes a problem with a McCain or a Graham on the other side. But they are no longer, I think, the majority opinion even in the Republican Party, which has been affected by the same changes that I'm describing -

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I want to get Ramesh to weigh in on that, and then I want to Hilary. Is that we are seeing - I don't want to call them isolationists, but the noninterventionists in the Republican Party really have a moment this year in the House when it came to the NSA vote. And you hear Rand Paul is a go-to voice on this. Is that - what is that a reflection of?

PONNURU: I think there's no question that the noninterventionist side of the argument has been gaining adherence with the Republicans. But this vote is, I think - they are going to be no votes from Republicans who are interventionists, who are internationals, but who just don't think this mission makes sense.

TAPPER: And Hilary, you're worried President Obama might lose this vote. I mean, you don't think he will. But you're worried it could happen.

ROSEN: Yes, but you know, this is what I think will happen, now having seen John McCain and Lindsey Graham go out with kind of this - on the one hand, on the other hand, this sort of backhanded compliment of the president today in terms of where he was going.

TAPPER: I didn't hear a compliment, but OK.

ROSEN: Well, that he was going to do the right thing in taking action. We're going to have - you know, because the President asked for it, four or five days of Republicans bashing of the president. They're going to say, oh, I believe in Syria but you know, this president hasn't led. He hasn't done this, he hasn't done that. And that's going to coalesce Democrats around the president. And so I think what's going to happen is they are going to get enough votes is my prediction from Democrats who trust the president to go to a limited degree and Republicans who are more internationalist and who see the very real issue that Syria is kind of the stalking horse for worries about Iran. So I think that coalition is going to end up giving the vote.

TAPPER: Thank you so much, Hilary Rosen, (inaudible), Ron Brownstein, great panel. We'll have you guys back again soon.

Coming up on THE LEAD, President Obama's administration was supposed to signal a paradigm shift in U.S. relations with the Arab world. By now he should have build loads of political capital, so why is this appeal for Syrian action falling somewhat flat in the Middle East?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Just days after President Obama's first inauguration, he made a pledge to extend a hand of friendship to the broader era of the world and usher in a new era of cooperation. Listen to what he said in an interview with the Arab TV network, Al Arabia.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: If we are looking at the region as a whole and communicating a message to the Arab world and the Muslim world that we are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest then I think that we can make significant progress.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Four years later, all hell seems to be breaking lose in Syria and it seems that countless threats from the administration about crossing red lines and possible strikes and maybe interventions just don't appear to have much cloud. In fact, a member of Syria's opposition national coalition was quoted in the "New York Times" as calling President Obama, a quote, "weak president," who cannot make the right decision when it comes to such an urgent crisis.

Joining me now is Hisham Melhem, Washington Bureau chief of Al Arabiya Television. He conducted that interview with President Obama about Mideast relations back in 2009. In fact, I believe that was the very first TV interview President Obama gave. I was very jealous as a White House correspondent at that time. I forgive you. It's OK.

Are you surprised in any way by what appears to be the president's waning influence in the Arab world for a president who gave you the first interview and went to Cairo and gave that speech, and made such a big deal out of wanting to extend a hand to the Arab world? HISHAM MELHEM, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, AL-ARABIYA TELEVISION: Right now, I'm not surprised. I was surprised earlier because the president seemed to many people in the region turning his back on the region after that famous Cairo speech with these lofty goals for a good relationship between the United States and the Arab and the Muslim world because he failed to stop the Israeli settlements because he did not stand up to the Iranian threat to the region, and because he had dump Mubarak immediately, but then you had Syria.

So the leadership style of Barack Obama is not appreciated to put it bluntly by those friendly Arab countries towards United States. And they say the president does not give fear in the heart of his adversaries and enemies in the region, Iranians and the Syrians --

TAPPER: And what's the response since Saturday when he made I thought somewhat surprising announcement that he was going to seek congressional approval. How did leaders in the Middle East, how did Arabs take them?

MELHEM: Those Arabs are frustrated and angry privately.

TAPPER: Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar --

MELHEM: And Kuwait and Jordan, and not to mention the Turks -- in the neighborhood. They feel the same way that the president let them down. That the president is conducting foreign policy with a great deal of indecisiveness and they are baffled. They are puzzled. They don't know how to explain it and they tell you that what's left of America stature and what's left of the president's credibility is in tatters right now.

And on the other hand, you see the Syrians, Hezbollah, Iran, gloating. There's a headline before Syrian media and Lebanon, this is a victory for the access of resistance, which is euphemism for Hezbollah, Iran and Syria. So I don't think they are even daring the president to attack and declaring that the United States now is in historic state of retreat. This is again because the president did not engage in the situation in Syria. He ignored it. He doesn't even talk about Egypt publicly.

He subcontracted Iraq to Joe Biden. If there's a massacre in Iraq, Joe Biden picks up the phone (inaudible) and all that. The president is disengaged when it comes to these major issues and in the eyes of the leaders of the region, everywhere in the world, if the president is not involve when there is something at the magnitude of Syria, the use of chemical weapons then there is something wrong with foreign policy.

TAPPER: Let's reach back to the interview you did with President Obama, the very first TV interview he granted back in January 2009.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Ultimately people are going to judge me not by my words, but my actions, and my administration sanctions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now the -- his presidency is not over. He still could take action in Syria whether that's a good or a bad decision is not for me to say. But as of right now, how is he judged by Arab allies in the Middle East?

MELHEM: Wobbly, indecisive, not strong enough. Really, this is the weakness -- his style -- his style of leadership. He doesn't engage them. He doesn't talk to them as I said and he doesn't address these issues in the region. I mean, look at Egypt in the last few weeks and months. The Egyptian -- the new regime in Egypt called it a coup or whatever, you know, they are very unfriendly. In fact, they are opposing any kind of attack on Syria and he is losing the faith of the leadership in the Gulf, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, are trying to take matters on their own. They promised the United States that they will help in the military attack.

TAPPER: And Turkey, UAE and Saudi Arabia, there might be some other countries.

MELHEM: Exactly. I talked about it. This is the style of the Arabs too and I blame them because they should also take the lead because it's their region and it's their people and their future too. But at the same time, they say we need American leadership. Everybody is crying out for American leadership, the Turks, the Arabs and the Europeans. And given the weaknesses of the European, given the vote in the British parliament, given the fact that NATO ally Turkey is unable to lead, everybody is looking for the United States to lead and there was no leadership. The United States was AWOL.

TAPPER: Hisham Melhem, thank you so much. Appreciate it. Thank you for coming in again today.

She withstood the currents, potentially deadly jellyfish stings and the threat of being eaten by sharks, and then on the stretch run, her biggest challenge, schools of tourists with cameras. Swimmer Diana Nyad's inspiring story next, stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Some other headlines now in World News, it was the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl and it is only getting worse. Owners now say some radiation levels at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant are 18 times higher than they previously acknowledged, high enough to kill an expose a person in just four hours. Make shift tanks that hold hundreds of tons of toxic water used to cool the plant after the tsunami in triple meltdown maybe leaking. An expert says the only way to deal with all of it maybe dumping it into the ocean. Now these leaks aren't radioactive, but they could be toxic for U.S. relations in Central and South America.

Brazil's media says the U.S. National Security Agency spied on e- mails or cell phone calls or both from the presidents of Brazil and Mexico. The report cites journalist, Glenn Greenwald, who is favorite source is Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker. Brazil and Mexico are upset and the White House is kind of busy with Syria, but this should make for a fun meeting next month when the Brazilian president is scheduled to visit President Obama here in Washington.

And for Diana Nyad, the fifth time was a charm. Finally, she can cross that pesky, sharky, stormy jellyfish stinging swim from Cuba to Florida off her bucket list. She popped up at Key West this afternoon, 53 hours after she jumped into the water in Havana. But this is a journey she began in 1978 when she was still in her 20s. Who knew back then that she'd reach her goal when she was 64, gives that Beatles song a whole new meaning. Nyad is now the first person to make the 103 miles swim without the protection of a shark cage.

That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer. He is right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Mr. Blitzer, take it away.