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Key Republicans Say They'll Back Obama; Crisis in Syria; Interview with Rep. Alan Grayson

Aired September 3, 2013 - 12:00   ET




MICHALE HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Michael Holmes. Thanks for your company today.

MALVEAUX: Well, of course we start here. President Obama full speed ahead. A campaign for military intervention in Syria. The president simply gambling that Congress will approve his plan despite skepticism in the capital, as well as across the country.

HOLMES: Yes, nobody doubting this is going to be a tough sell for the administration. President Obama has been meeting with the House speaker, John Boehner, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the leaders of just about every key national security committee.

MALVEAUX: Later today, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, will head to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for first public hearing on possible use of force in Syria. Now, some in the administration have called this blitz a flood the zone strategy.

HOLMES: But will the president get the support he needs? The key question. Well, earlier, the president made his case to top lawmakers and indeed the American people.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to thank the leaders of both parties for being here today to discuss what is a very serious issue facing the United States. And the fact that I've had a chance to speak to many of you and Congress as a whole is taking this issue with the soberness and seriousness that it deserves is greatly appreciate and, I think, vindicates the decision for us to present this issue to Congress. As I've said last week, as Secretary Kerry made clear in his presentation last week, we have high confidence that Syria used, in an indiscriminate fashion, chemical weapons that killed thousands of people, including over 400 children, and in direct violation of the international norm against using chemical weapons. That poses a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region. And as a consequence, Assad and Syria needs to be held accountable. I've made a decision that America should take action, but I also believe that we will be much more effective, we will be stronger if we take action together as one nation. And so this gives us an opportunity not only to present the evidence to all the leading members of Congress and various foreign policy committees as to why we have high confidence that chemical weapons were used and that Assad used them, but it also gives us an opportunity to discuss why it's so important that he be held to account.

This norm against using chemical weapons, that 98 percent of the world agrees to, is there for a reason, because we recognize that there are certain weapons that, when used, can not only end up resulting in grotesque deaths, but also can end up being transmitted to non-state actors (ph), can pose a risk to allies and friends of ours, like Israel, like Jordan, like Turkey. And unless we hold them into account, it also sends a message that international norms around issues like nuclear proliferation don't mean much. And so I'm going to be working with Congress. We have sent up a draft authorization. We're going to be asking for hearings and a prompt vote. And I'm very appreciative that everybody here has already begun to schedule hearings and intend to take a vote as soon as all of Congress comes back early next week.

So the key point that I want to emphasize to the American people, the military plan that has been developed by our Joint Chiefs and that I believe is appropriate is proportional. It is limited. It does not involve boots on the ground. This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan. This is a limited, proportional step that will send a clear message not only to the Assad regime, but also to other countries that may be interested in testing some of these international norms, that there are consequences. It gives us the ability to grade Assad's capabilities when it comes to chemical weapons. It also fits into a broader strategy that we have to make sure that we can bring about, over time, the kind of strengthening of the opposition and the diplomatic and economic and political pressure required so that ultimately we have a transition that can bring peace and stability, not only to Syria, but to the region.

But I want to emphasis once again what we are envisioning is something limited. It is something proportional. It will degrade Assad's capabilities. At the same time, we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition, allows Syria ultimately to free itself from the kinds of terrible civil wars and death and activity that we've been seeing on the ground.

So I look forward to listening to the various concerns of the members who are here today. I'm confident that those concerns can be addressed. I think it is appropriate that we act deliberately, but I also think everybody recognizes the urgency here and that we're going to have to move relatively quickly. So with that, to all of you here today, I look forward to an excellent discussion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, (INAUDIBLE) write the authorization and does that undercut any of your authority, sir?

OBAMA: You know, I would not be going to Congress if I wasn't serious about consultations and believing that by shaping the authorization to make sure we accomplish the mission, we will be more effective. And so long as we are accomplishing what needs to be accomplished, which is to send a clear message to Assad, degrading his capabilities to use chemical weapons, not just now, but also in the future, as long as the authorization allows us to do that, you know, I'm confident that we're going to be able to come up with something that hits that mark.


MALVEAUX: So the president says that he is confident that he is going to get the votes to pass his resolution. A short time ago he got some backup from a key leader, Republican leader, House Speaker John Boehner. Let's listen.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: Good morning to all of you.

The use of chemical weapons is a barbarous act. It's pretty clear to me that the United Nations is unable to take action. NATO's not likely to take action. The United States, for our entire history, has stood up for democracy and freedom for people around the world. The use of these weapons has to be responded to and only the United States has the capability and the capacity to stop Assad and to warn others around the world that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated.

I appreciate the president reaching out to me and my colleagues in the Congress over the last couple of weeks. I also appreciate the president asking the Congress to support him in this action. This is something that the United States, as a country, needs to do. I'm going to support the president's call for action. I believe my colleagues should support this call for action.

We have enemies around the world that need to understand that we're not going to tolerate this type of behavior. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it's necessary.

Thank you all.


HOLMES: But the president, of course, still has to convince quite a few other members of Congress.

MALVEAUX: Our chief political correspondent Gloria Borger joins us, as well as our senior White House correspondent Brianna Keilar at the White House.

So, Gloria, I want to start off with you here because, you know, this is one of the biggest policy decisions of his presidency and he's gambling on Congress. And we've seen this split when it comes to debt ceiling, budget, immigration reform, you name it here, but we have seen two very powerful Republicans take the president's side here, Senator John McCain and the speaker of the house, John Boehner. Is this somehow going to be different?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think it's not going to be a partisan issue. You know, this is more sort of a hawk versus dove issue. This is more a question of whether you not only believe in the chain of custody of these chemical weapons leading to Assad. Let's put that aside. But I think this also is about whether you believe that a surgical strike can actually achieve what the president says it's going to achieve, which is to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again in the future.

The thing to me that's so interesting to watch about this, guys, is the personalities that are involved here. When you consider, for example, John McCain. John McCain, who always wanted a really robust involvement in Syria, wanted to arm the rebels, wanted to do this a couple of years ago, has believed the president has behaved badly, now finds himself in a situation where he is defending the president, trying to get his Republican colleagues, particularly the libertarians, to go along with the president in a policy, by the way, that he does not really support because he believes it would be catastrophic, to use his words, if the Congress did not back up the president's decision for this kind of a surgical strike.

You know it's a - it's a -- politics is always really personal here and you have all of these former members of Congress now going to testify today before committees that they were on. You know, Chuck Hagel, John Kerry, talking to their former colleagues about why they need this authorization. This is a - you know, it's a - it's a -- it's almost like a drama that's playing out here on personal -- on very, very personal lines. Each of these men coming to this story with an awful lot of history.

HOLMES: Yes. Brianna, let's bring you into the conversation here as this horse trading continues. I'm curious whether you're getting a sense. We're now two weeks out from this chemical attack and goodness knows when any action might actually take place. I'm wonder if you garnered any sense there that there was no real plan for what would happen when this stated red line was crossed. The red line got crossed and everyone went, what now?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's something the White House is definitely sensitive to, Michael. And there are White House officials who insist that the president has had options for months, even as long as a year, about how to respond to this. But I think what you see in some of the recent developments is that, under these conditions, and I think perhaps the size of this chemical weapons attack, that it may have been unforeseen. I think that it obviously did take some off the cuff calibration when it came to how to respond and sort of the different things that were, in fact, in play here. Obviously when Britain wasn't going to go it with the U.S., you've seen this strategy where the White House has instead looked inside of its own borders.

I will tell you, just having spoken with White House officials following this meeting with members of Congress, they feel very encouraged. If they felt encouraged yesterday talking to Senator McCain and Senator Graham, feeling like, you know what, they were able to get perhaps some momentum in the Senate, which honestly is seen as a much lighter lift than the House, I think today they feel like they have a lot of momentum.

Is this a done deal? No. There are a number of member - and you heard Nancy Pelosi say that -- who are going to be redisent (ph) to do this. But I think that when you have House Speaker John Boehner making a strong case, especially when a lot of his Republicans may not be on board, and Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, saying President Obama has not drawn a line, humanity has drawn a line. And then you have Eric Cantor getting on board and you have these key senators. I think there is something to be said for momentum, even though this is still going to be difficult to pass Congress. But if it is going to pass Congress, this is what is need.

HOLMES: Brianna, thanks so much. And you, too, Gloria. Appreciate that.

MALVEAUX: Here's more of what we're working on for this hour.

Of course, Syria, topic of debate. Around the world, from China to Europe, countries are weighing in on what next. What to do. We're going to get reaction.

HOLMES: And Florida Congressman Alan Grayson is going to go join us live. He's here to tell us why he thinks President Obama's argument for military action in Syria doesn't make sense. That's coming up as well.



We're following world reaction over a possible U.S. strike in Syria, correspondents all over the globe.

HOLMES: We've got Jim Bitterman standing by in Paris. In New York, Nick Paton Walsh is at the U.N. And covering Asia for us, David McKenzie in Beijing.

MALVEAUX: Jim, first to you. France, one of the few countries that supports a possible strike but it will not do it alone. What kind of pressure do you think the French president is under now?

JIM BITTERMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think he's under growing pressure. There's going to be a debate in parliament here tomorrow and there are now some parliamentarians who'd like to see a vote at the end of the that debate.

Now normally this would not be the case. The president doesn't have to go to parliament to get authorization to use the military. And, in fact, he wasn't planning, too. He said he's not going to allow a vote on that.

Nonetheless, there are still some parliamentarians watching what's happened in Great Britain, watching what's going to happen in the United States who would like to have their say on this very important issue -- should the French intervene.

He said -- President Hollande said this afternoon, once again, that France would not intervene against Syria alone. And he also said this afternoon in reaction to something that was published this morning.

Some direct threats were carried in one of the French newspapers this afternoon after an interview between Bashar al-Assad and the newspaper, and Bashar al-Assad said he was going to threaten the interests of France if the government remained hostile to Syria.

President Hollande said just a few minutes ago that's just increased his determination that the Syrian regime must be punished.

Suzanne, Michael?

HOLMES: Yeah, and, of course, France, the former colonial power, when it comes to Syria as well, so invested in that regard as well. Thanks, Jim.

Let's move to the United Nations now. Nick Paton Walsh is standing by there. And, of course, Nick, everyone knows that Russia and China, permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, vetoed meaningful action in the past.

The U.N. often accused of being rather impotent when it comes down to it. Is there anything the U.N. is likely to come up with that Russia and China would say yes to or is going to be in any way meaningful?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You'll probably get the same intransigence you've seen over resolutions in the past year plus when it comes to Russia and China vetoing.

What the U.N. could come up with, though, and this is key, is they had inspectors on the ground inside Syria, lab tests are being done now in the Hague and the Netherlands of samples taken from those sites where allegedly chemical weapons were used.

Now we're waiting to see what those results will be, and of course, they will play enormously into global public opinion.

Barack Obama has said -- he refers to this building as being completely paralyzed, but let's face it. If they come forward with what they would claim would be independent credible tests saying chemical weapons were used, because their job is not to apportion in this, that's going to play out enormously.

So much focus on the time line, how fast can they produce anything from a week to three weeks before we see these results. I'm getting indications it would be sooner rather than later.

Today the U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, before he left for the G-20 had spoken to some members of the Security Council. We'll hear from him in about 45 minutes. That's more likely to be a technical update on progress of inspections, et cetera, rather than the vital yes or no.

But all eyes really on those inspectors, Michael, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. Nick Paton Walsh, thank you so much from the United Nations.

One reason that China is so supportive of the Assad regime, of course, it's all about economics. It's the money here. It was ranked as Syria's third-largest importer back in 2010.

So the Chinese, of course, watching all of this very closely. I want to go to David McKenzie in Beijing.

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne and Michael, China has made a pointed criticism of the U.S. and its potential strike on Syria, saying it would be dangerous and any unilateral action against the regime would not be helpful.

China has had a consistent view on the Syrian matter, saying it doesn't want any military action and it should be all decide politically and around the negotiating table.

Together with Russia, China has vetoed several actions or proposed actions by the U.N. security council to try to bring sanctions against Assad and his regime.

The Chinese have significant economic interests in Syria. Many analysts believe it's the knock-on effect that they're worried about because they're heavily dependent on oil from the Middle East for their energy needs.

So the feeling in China that the Libyan action against Moammar Gadhafi which they let happen overstepped its mark and led to regime-change in that country.

Suzanne and Michael?

MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you, David McKenzie in Beijing.

Now we have a sense of world reaction. I want to shift our focus back to the United States and, of course, talk about what members of Congress think.

The president said he is confident he will get those votes to authorize a strike in Syria.

HOLMES: Yeah, but he faces a lot of opposition. One of those that don't agree with the president is here to tell us why.

Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson said it's not the responsibility of the U.S. to intervene in Syria. Congressman, where are the holes in the administration's case, in your view? For example, one question might be, where is the imminent national security threat?

REP. ALAN GRAYSON (D), FLORIDA: There isn't one. It's not our responsibility. We're not the world's policeman. Many countries are against this. Nobody has stepped forward and said they will join us. And that's illustrative of the fact we're not actually acting in the manner one would act to vindicate international law.

The administration doesn't even talk about international law. They talk about international norms.

But beyond that, we're in a situation where we're not going to do anything that's going to do any good. No one in the administration says this will cause regime change, this attack that's being contemplated.

No one in the administration is even saying it will prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again.

So people scratch their heads and say, what's the point? It's expensive. It's dangerous. It won't do any good.

And the people are against it. We've had almost 20,000 people come to our Web site,, and sign our petition already.

MALVEAUX: And, Congressman, what do you think of the administration's case that they're making here, that a military strike is not only sending a message to the Syrian regime and to Assad that you can't get away with gassing children and using chemical weapons, but more importantly, it would send a message to Iran that if you do the same, we're going to do the same.

We're going to get you as well, that this would act as a deterrent for everyone in the region.

GRAYSON: That's nonsensical. That's the old "Domino Theory" from the Vietnam dredged up right now. Today you call it the "Obama-no Theory."

It just doesn't make any sense. If we want to deal with Iran, we should deal with Iran.

If we want to deal with Lebanon, we should deal with Lebanon. The idea that an ineffective strike against Libya, which will not change their capabilities, not change the regime, is somehow going to terrorize Iran into submission is a farce. It doesn't make any sense.

HOLMES: What does the U.S. do? The U.S. often talks about having a moral responsibility in these sorts of matters. You've got children being gassed, women and children. And not just gassed. You have 110,000 dead people and pretty much nothing has been done. What should the U.S. do?

GRAYSON: Humanitarian aid. There are 2 million refugees. The billion dollars that the English government the American government will waste on this attack, the $1 billion that we'll be spending on this attack, that could better be devoted to humanitarian aid, or, even better, to take care of our own problems here in the United States.

HOLMES: While the killing continues?

GRAYSON: If you were to ask my -- excuse me?

HOLMES: While the killing continues? A couple of hundred every day? GRAYSON: The killing is going to continue any way. This civil war has been going on now for years.

It's turning into a proxy battle between Shiite fundamentalists and Sunni fundamentalists. There's no contemplation that any attack that we launch will end the civil war.

I feel bad about it, but sometimes you have to recognize your own limitations. Otherwise, it's hubris.

MALVEAUX: Congressman, I want you to respond, if you can. We've been hearing from numbers of senators as well as congressmen in the House and we heard from Senator Lindsey Graham who really paints some very drastic picture here if the United States doesn't get involved.

Here is how he put it.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think the American people have to understand if this war goes another year, here's what's likely to happen. There will be tens of thousands of al Qaeda in Syria.

There will be a toppling of the king of Jordan, the last moderate voice in the region, a close ally to us and Israel. He'll be gone in another year because of the refugee problem.

The chemical weapons will be loose and in the hands of Hezbollah and may come our way. So the idea that Iran is watching every move we make in Syria.


MALVEAUX: So what? Do you just not buy his case? Do you think he's exaggerating in this situation if nothing happens?

GRAYSON: Yes and a partridge in a pear tree, also.

But the fact that whether or not we do this attack, whatever's going to happen is going to happen. None of the things that Lindsey Graham just said in that quote will be prevented by this attack nor could they be prevented by this attack.

What Lindsey Graham and John McCain are calling for is another war by America in the Middle East, another Arab country they want us to occupy in the name of humanitarianism.

I don't believe in humanitarian wars. I don't believe in humanitarian bombing. I don't believe in humanitarian missile strikes. And that's what they believe in.

MALVEAUX: Congressman Grayson, thank you very much for your perspective.

Obviously, it's a very heated debate and, members of Congress, the president has now said you are responsible, in part, for making this call.

HOLMES: Very, very polarized views. It's interesting just how many people are undecided on this even now.


Just ahead on AROUND THE WORLD, at a time when there are worldwide jitters over U.S. talk of possible military action in Syria, Israel test fires a missile in the Mediterranean.

We're going to get a live report from Jerusalem on the timing of this test.