Return to Transcripts main page


Crisis in Syria: The Debate Begins

Aired September 3, 2013 - 23:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Pushing for military intervention in Syria. But meeting with skepticism from the public and in the Senate.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: Make me proud today, Secretary Kerry. Stand up for us and say you're going to obey the Constitution.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: The choice was made to lead from behind.

TAPPER: Senator Marco Rubio is our guest.

Boots on the ground. Secretary of State John Kerry seeming to leave the door open and struggling to close it.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: I don't want to take off the table an option.

TAPPER: Former top generals weigh in.

And bracing for impact? A live report from the Middle East as dawn is about to break in Syria.



TAPPER: Good evening. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to this special hour of CNN. For the next 60 minutes, we're taking you deep inside the critical drama unfolding here in our nation's capital.

As we speak, all the angles, all the contingencies, all the tensions on Capitol Hill, as the Obama administration pushes for a strike on Syria, despite serious misgivings from the American public.

We'll talk to top military minds. We'll talk to key lawmakers like Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a potential presidential hopeful. And Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. They have been tasked with this decision on your behalf.

And we have some breaking news this evening. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee announcing it will take up a revised bill tomorrow authorizing use of force in Syria. The bill has a 60-day limit on it with an option to extend that for another 30 days.

At this very moment, President Barack Obama is over the Atlantic Ocean on a flight to Sweden, just hours after top members of his Cabinet began pushing their case before lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and before you, the public, as to why striking Syria is the best course of action to end the horrific bloodshed we've seen there and to preserve U.S. national security interests.


TAPPER (voice-over): Today the president sent his team to the Senate to make his case.

KERRY: Are you going to be comfortable if Assad, as a result of the United States not doing anything, then gases his people yet again?

TAPPER: Facing public opposition and a skeptical Congress, they said using chemical weapons against your own people is so evil, it's only been done three times.

KERRY: The third instance was used by Adolf Hitler to gas millions of Jews. It was used by Saddam Hussein in order to gas Iraqis and his own -- Iranians and his own people. And now it's been used by Bashar al-Assad.

TAPPER: White House officials this morning proclaimed that they had momentum, winning support for strikes from the top two House Republicans. But just hours later, Obama's team was facing tough questions.

Would President Obama order a strike against Syria even if Congress says no?

KERRY: Well, I can't tell you what the president is going to do because he hasn't told me.

TAPPER: There was chiding for two years of mixed messages and inaction when others have been calling for arming vetted rebel groups.

RUBIO: Instead, the choice was made to lead from behind.

TAPPER: There were seemingly mixed messages about this mission. Designed to send a signal to Assad to not use chemical weapons but not specifically tailored to remove him from power.

RUBIO: Have we taken into account what the implications could be of an Assad that could weather a limited strike and what that could mean for the long-term prospects?

KERRY: He will -- I mean, he will weather it.

CHUCK HAGEL, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The goal of removing Assad from office, as the president has stated, is still a policy of this administration.

TAPPER: And what of the president's promise that there will be no boots on the ground?

KERRY: I don't want to take off the table an option.

TAPPER: So maybe boots on the ground?

KERRY: Whether or not they have to, you know, answer a shot in order to be secure, I don't want to speak to that.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), FOREIGN RELATIONS: I didn't find that a very appropriate response regarding boots on the ground.

TAPPER: Kerry attempted to clarify.

KERRY: There's no door open here through which someone can march in ways that the Congress doesn't want it to while still protecting the national security issues of the country.

TAPPER: Well, as long as that's clear. And casting a shadow over all of this, the legacy of the Iraq war, waged when Kerry and Hagel were on the other side of the table.

KERRY: So we are especially sensitive, Chuck and I, to never again asking any member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence.


TAPPER: And as we said the breaking news this evening, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which heard that testimony today from Secretaries Kerry and Hagel, and from General Dempsey, they will take tomorrow up the bill -- the revised bill authorizing use of force in Syria.

So much to hash out tonight. I've got a whole team here to help me do it. I want to welcome our new chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, along with chief domestic affairs correspondent, Jessica Yellin, as well as our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, and chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

Here's the question. I had a lot of tease.


I want to -- a question I want to pose to all of you. Assuming that Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is President Obama's biggest problem here, the biggest one keeping him up tonight, what is the second biggest problem? What is the thing that he is worried about second most?


GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: No. I bet you think I'm going to say Congress. But what -- I'm not. I'm going to say public opinion. Because I think Congress is driven by public opinion and right now 6 out of 10 people in this country don't want to go to war with Syria in any way, shape or form. And I think in order for the president to get some of those liberal Democrats on board, who don't want to use force and maybe some of those Republicans, they have to start seeing a shift in public opinion. And that is what the president needs to do. Maybe by addressing the public at some point about this. And that's why Kerry was out there over the weekend and that's where you're going to see more and more administration folks out there.


DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: If I were President Obama, what would be -- what would be keeping me up tonight is what if the people on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and everywhere else are right about the worry that this actually won't deter or even degrade Bashar al-Assad. Maybe it will embolden him and maybe it will open a Pandora's Box in the Middle East that he doesn't know how to stop.

TAPPER: Maybe it will make matters worse.

BASH: And -- maybe will make matters a lot worse. And you know what? You sort of alluded to this, I know, on your show all week. The president probably feels that way, too.


BASH: Which is why -- which is he's been so reluctant to get to this point even though we've known that this problematic for two years.

BORGER: (INAUDIBLE) lines to get --

BASH: Exactly.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF DOMESTIC AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: If the president strikes Assad, what if Assad uses chemical weapons again?

TAPPER: Again.

YELLIN: Not immediately the day after, but, say, two months later or three months later? If Iran unleashes Hezbollah on Israel. If Iran chooses to attack the U.S. or Israel, what does the president do? Does the U.S. escalate?

I mean, these are real questions, and one of the reasons maybe he decided in the end, he doesn't want to go it alone. He wants to enlist Congress and get the American people (INAUDIBLE).


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, the trouble is, and which strikes me, is the administration has made such a do-or-die case for action. That our very credibility is at stake not only with our enemies, Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, North Korea, and our allies. Our credibility at stake. So if he loses this vote, the damage will be devastating, embarrassing and difficult to play down.

And he would then be faced with two bad options. Either a political crisis that he loses the vote, goes ahead with the military action or a military crisis where he's set up this great horrific result of a no vote, and he doesn't -- you know, he doesn't do anything.

BORGER: That's why this is so stunning to me. The president deciding not right away to go to Congress because that I might have understood.

TAPPER: No, he decided on Friday evening.

BORGER: After the -- after the Brits had their vote and that was clearly a turning point for him. But he has effectively put a very important part of his presidential legacy in the hands of a dysfunctional and paralyzed institution, which by the way hasn't exactly friended him.


OK? So it's --

TAPPER: But we should also --

BORGER: It's a bit of a problem.

TAPPER: And we should also note that I mean, this is -- this president and his team are known for campaigns, Jessica. You and I as former White House correspondents we've seen them wage lots of public campaigns. There really hasn't been a serious campaign from the White House until recently.

YELLIN: But can -- can I tell you -- I'm sure you know this, too, but talking to Democrats, I know that they are working incredibly hard, unusually hard for this White House to get the votes right now. And they are pulling in resources that they don't normally pull in behind the scenes.

BORGER: Like AIPAC, for example, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, right? Which hasn't always been aligned with this White House.

BASH: But the thing that actually to me -- from my perch on Capitol Hill, which is remarkable to watch is, not only are they launching a campaign, they're launching it with Congress. So I was also thinking, you know, if I'm also the president, I'm thinking, well, what if I did this for the past five years? What would my -- what would my legacy look like? Because he has had such disdain, really open disdain for Congress, and Democrats and Republicans, and he hasn't gotten them on board with things domestic and international.

And he is -- and I know that this is a unique situation but he's working them so hard. If he used 1/100th of this force, maybe he could have changed things.


TAPPER: I have to intrude right there, Jim, Jessica, Dana and Gloria. Don't go anywhere. We're going to keep coming back to you guys for analysis throughout the show.

Senator Marco Rubio has been speaking out about Syria for the last two years after the hearing this evening. I asked him where he stands now in this heated debate.


TAPPER: Welcome back to CRISIS IN SYRIA: THE DEBATE BEGINS. Breaking news tonight, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will take up a revised bill tomorrow, authorizing use of force in Syria. It has a 60-day limit on it with an option to extend that for another 30 days.

A member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Marco Rubio has been speaking out about Syria for the last two years. After the hearing this evening, I asked him where he stands now in this heated debate.


TAPPER: In your view, inaction is not an option. In a statement last week, you said, quote, "My advice is to either lay out a comprehensive plan using all of the tools at our disposal that stands a reasonable chance of allowing the moderate opposition to remove Assad and replace him with a stable secular government or at this point simply focus our resources on helping our allies in the region to protect themselves from the threat they and we will increasingly face from an unstable Syria."

So exactly if you were president right now, what would you advocate?

So exactly, if you were president right now, what would you advocate?

RUBIO: Well, first of all, if I had been in charge of the situation, we wouldn't be at this point. This point that we face now where we have very few good -- we have no good options -- is the result of two years of inaction. You know, there was a time not that long ago when Assad was on the ropes, when we had a chance to actually try to engage moderate elements in the rebels, empower them, make sure they were the most effective fighting force on the ground.

But that didn't happen. And the result is that the country of Syria became flooded with foreign fighters and radicals associated with al Qaeda. And now you have this mess on your hands where, on the one hand, Assad is using gas against his own people, and on the other hand, you have large portions of the Syrian country under the control of Islamists linked to al Qaeda.

TAPPER: I get that but --

RUBIO: So now --

TAPPER: What would you do -- I understand that.


RUBIO: You're assuming that I would have inherited this problem. And here's my answer to you on that. The answer is, the ideal scenario, the ideal outcome in Syria is one in which Assad falls and is replaced by a stable moderate government. But I will confess to you now that that may no longer be possible. One of the things we need to work through, we have a hearing tomorrow where some classified information will be shared with us and we'll know more after that.

But it is the -- it is the highest outcome, the best outcome we could hope for, but it's possible that it's no longer possible, that that outcome is no longer possible because the large number of radical Islamists who now find themselves in Syria means that if Assad were to fall, if he stays in power, that's obviously bad, because it empowers Iran and so forth.

But if he falls, it's also possible it could trigger a second civil war, inviting sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing in terms of Alawites and Christians being targeted. So we are really in a bind here, and again, directly the result of the president's mishandling of this entire situation.

TAPPER: But just to -- just to play out what you're saying, you're saying one of the options could be Assad falls and then there's chaos in the streets and you're saying that would actually be worse than Assad staying in power?

RUBIO: Well, I think they're both bad outcomes. That's my point from the very beginning, because in foreign policy, it's not just about making the right decision, it's about making the right decision at the right time. There were options available to us two years ago, potentially one year ago, even nine months ago, that are no longer on the table, potentially, now.

So, again, look, you know, the -- Secretary Kerry has stated that he believes that the rebel elements on the ground or actually -- the moderates are actually doing better. He's going to try to make that case tomorrow in a -- in a closed hearing so we'll hear him out.

But I have serious reservations about whether that is true. My point to you is we are now in a situation where no ideal outcome is possible. And to use a football analogy, if you're down nine points with five seconds to go in the game, there's not anything you can do to win the game, because there's no such thing as a nine-point play in football.

It's the same thing with regards to this. We may have reached the point now because of the total mismanagement of this administration --

TAPPER: Right.

RUBIO: -- where there is no possibility of a good outcome.

TAPPER: Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul decidedly do not want a strike.


SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: U.S. military force is justified only to protect the vital national security interests of the United States.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I haven't had one person come up to me and say they're for this war. Not one person.


TAPPER: Now many of the Tea Party supporters that helped you win your seat in the Senate feel the same way as Senators Cruz and Paul. How will you convince them that military action is worth it if you ultimately come to that conclusion?

You do seem to be a strong supporter of some strong action. You're -- you just seem to be concerned that maybe this wouldn't be strong enough.

RUBIO: Well, I'm concerned that no matter what we do at this point, we're not going to get the outcome that's in our national security interests. I think that military intervention is one of the tools in the toolbox of our foreign policy.

I'm just concerned that there is no military intervention at this stage that could actually lead to that possible outcome. For example, what the president is advocating is basically a symbolic action. And by his own admission, he's called it a shot across the bow. And now they're saying that the stated purpose is to prevent Assad from using weapons in the future.

But I'm not sure that the kind of strike that they have in mind would do that. Assad is using these weapons because he's trying to survive. I mean literally survive both physically and politically. I don't think three days worth of missile strikes is going to dissuade him from doing whatever it takes to survive in the future.

And so I think that's the problem that we face. Look, I hate to keep going back to the same point, but we may have reached the point now where there is no good outcome possible in this -- in this conflict. And, again, it is the direct result of the mismanagement of this administration.

TAPPER: But you have not yet made up your mind, right?

RUBIO: Well, we have a hearing tomorrow. It's a classified hearing where they'll share more information with us. I think it's important to hear all that out.

Look, on this national security stuff, for me, it's not partisan. It's not political. We need to do what's right for the country. It's national security, we're not debating here what to name a post office. I mean this is a very serious issue with very significant ramifications.

I argued forcefully today that the Syrian conflict does directly touch upon our national security in vital ways. I continue to believe that. But I also am frustrated that we are now hamstrung in terms of the options available to us because this president chose to lead from behind for two years.

TAPPER: All right, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, thank you so much for your time.

RUBIO: Thank you.


TAPPER: Gloria Borger and Dana Bash are back with us.

Dana, I want to start with you. It didn't sound as though Secretary Kerry, Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, didn't sound as though they changed Marco Rubio's mind, even though he does seem to support, in theory, some sort of military intervention. How successful was the Obama team today on Capitol Hill?

BASH: I think for the most part they were most successful frankly than I thought they would be going in, especially a couple of days ago, mostly with --

TAPPER: Democrats. Yes.

BASH: The Democrats than Republicans. But what we just saw from Marco Rubio and also with Rand Paul was one of the many interesting subplots going on in today's drama, which is 2016. Watching them, you could almost feel them understanding and see them understanding the pressure on getting this moment right. Looking forward politically.

TAPPER: And how you -- how you vote for a war could be very important.

BASH: It's huge.

TAPPER: Look at Hillary Clinton.

BASH: Look at the Hillary Clinton and the guy sitting in the witness chair, John Kerry.

TAPPER: Senator John Kerry. Absolutely.

BASH: Who thought he, along with a lot of other senators, thought they were making the right vote at the time, voting for authorization for the Iraq war, and opinion turned and it came back to bite him and he had trouble explaining it.

BORGER: You know, for a lot of members of Congress, the no vote is the easy vote this time.

TAPPER: Yes. BORGER: Whereas with Iraq, voting for the war in Iraq was the -- was the easy vote. So it's tough. But when you talk about the drama up there today, what was so amazing to me was watching the agony of John McCain.

Imagine this man, who ran against Barack Obama, does not like his policy, believes that we should have been more robust, we should have done this two years ago, we should have armed the Syrian rebels, we should go in and take out Assad, and what is he going to end up doing? Defending President Obama to recalcitrant, hell-no Republicans in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, making the case for the president because he thinks it would be, as he said over the weekend, catastrophic if Congress went one way and the president went another way.

TAPPER: And the debate goes to the House tomorrow. And let's bring in right now two very outspoken members of the House of Representatives, Florida Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, joins us live from Miami, and Republican Congressman Michael Burgess is in Dallas.

Thank you both for being here with us tonight.

Congressman Burgess, let's start with you. You were quoted recently as saying that the case on Syria is thin. You heard what happened at the hearing today. We also learned tonight that your colleagues in the Senate drafted a new resolution limiting authorization for action in Syria in 90 days maximum.

Does any of this sway your opinion or are you still a likely no vote?

REP. MICHAEL BURGESS (R), TEXAS: I'm still a likely no vote. I suppose it's interesting that the authorization for force that was put forth by the administration over the weekend when we had the classified hearing was really pretty broad. And yet at the same time, the activity or the action proposed was described as a pinprick or a shot across the bow.

Well, which is it? Is it a shot across the bow or is it an all- out assault on Bashar Assad? And, you know, look, I don't think that cruise missiles launched at runways, at his military installations are really going to change his mind much one way or the other the following day. But I can guarantee you this. Saddam Hussein will never use chemical weapons against his own people again. That perhaps the type of --


TAPPER: You said -- you said --

BURGESS: That ought to be taken toward Bashar al-Assad.

TAPPER: OK. I see what -- I misunderstood when you mentioned Saddam Hussein. Congresswoman, I want to bring you in here. You mentioned on CNN that there are, quote, "Dozens of countries ready to stand with the U.S. on military action." Right now we only really know of a handful. Can you tell us or in any sense guide us towards which countries you're talking about in terms of dozens? And why is there so much secrecy surrounding potential allies?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D), FLORIDA: Well, my understanding from the briefings that we've been given is that there is -- there are dozens of countries that are ready to stand behind the United States politically, diplomatically, and militarily. We have some countries that -- that will participate with us militarily, and again, dozens of countries that are ready to be supportive in a variety of ways.

But, you know, I think what's important here is making sure, one, particularly given Senator Rubio, my colleague from Florida's comments that we -- that we put politics aside. You know, straddling the precarious fence of trying to criticize President Obama while at the same time also acknowledge that we have national security interests in the region is not the appropriate approach to be taking.

What we need to do here is ask ourselves some questions, as members of Congress. We have an opportunity to debate this authorization. Are national security interests in question? Yes, no question that our ally Israel, Jordan, Turkey, they would be in jeopardy potentially if there is not a certain and severe response from the United States --

TAPPER: Let me get Congressman --

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: -- against Assad's use of chemical weapons.

TAPPER: And let me get Congressman Burgess to weigh in. Do you agree with that? Are U.S. national security interests at stake in the region?

BURGESS: Well, if they are, then a limited launch of cruise missiles that you announce well in advance is not going to achieve the desired effect. And I too would be interested in knowing that the countries that are -- that are going to be standing with us because that has been problematic. It's like we've got a coalition of the invisible here.

TAPPER: Congresswoman --

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Well, Michael Burgess, you were -- you were at the classified briefing the other day like I was. And it was pretty clear, and laid out for us which countries were ready to stand with us militarily. I'm certainly not comfortable sharing that on national television. But the bottom line is, we do have national security interests in jeopardy, and we have interests in the region that must be protected.

I certainly don't want Israel to be next or Jordan or Turkey to be next, and have the stability of the region further degraded. And then there is the moral imperative that we have, as the strongest nation on earth, to respond when a dictator like Assad violates a nearly 100-year international norm against using chemical weapons as a legitimate weapon of war.

There were, as I said yesterday, and I've said for the last several days, you know, as a mother, to me I have an indelible searing imprint on my mind --

TAPPER: Congressman --

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: -- after seeing the pictures of those babies lined up. And we have a moral responsibility to respond, and it's essential that we use our deterrent ability to make sure this doesn't happen again.

TAPPER: Congressman, do you think that the United States has a moral imperative here?

BURGESS: It took 18 -- well, look, it took 18 years to hold Saddam Hussein accountable for his use of gas against the Iranians in his own people. So, you know, the moral imperative may take longer than a weekend to play out. But here's the problem, Jake. I don't see how you've made anything any different with a strike that's been proposed.

What will make a difference is if you enforce regime change in Syria. And apparently that's not an option. Boots on the ground, although there were some -- a little bit of ambiguity in the Senate hearing, it is not one of the options. So sending cruise missiles into an airfield in --


BURGESS: -- Damascus may make everyone feel better, but at the end of the day you're not accomplishing --

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Let's be clear here.

BURGESS: -- a change.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Let's be clear -- let's be clear here. There was no ambiguity about whether boots on the ground would be in question. There will be no boots on the ground. Secretary Kerry made that very clear, and in fact, went so far as to say that he would be supportive, that the administration is supportive of specifically including language in the resolution that prohibits boots on the ground. So let's not -- let's not try to lead the people astray here or create ambiguity where it doesn't exist.


TAPPER: All right. Congresswoman Wasserman --

BURGESS: But the problem is --

TAPPER: Congressman -- BURGESS: -- if we're not willing to have the follow through, how are you going to effect the change in the leadership in Syria? There's not going --


TAPPER: Just some of the -- some of the heated debate we -- we expect to hear in the House of Representatives tomorrow.

Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, Congressman Burgess, thank you so much for joining us. And Dana and Gloria.


TAPPER: Stick around because we have a lot more to talk about.

Coming up, it's morning in the Middle East as the world and Bashar al-Assad wait for a decision from the United States. We will go live to the region just as President Obama heads overseas in search of a little help from his friends.

You're watching a CNN special, CRISIS IN SYRIA: THE DEBATE BEGINS. Stay with us.


TAPPER: Dawn is breaking in the Middle East. Welcome back to our special coverage of the crisis in Syria. I'm Jake Tapper. And as day one of the public debate wraps up on Capitol Hill, it's already tomorrow in war-torn Syria.

Arwa Damon joins me now live from Beirut, just about 50 miles from Damascus.

Arwa, you have Wednesday's newspapers. What is the story in the Middle East today?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it most certainly is all centering around whether or not there is going to be a missile strike potentially by the U.S. and its allies. You've got Lebanon's leading daily English newspaper talking about Obama winning key backing on Syria.

Some of the Arabic media here, this paper in particular talking about how the Syria debate is actually about much more than just Syria itself, that it has to do with a broader regional policy that centers around yes, the protection of America's number one ally in the region, Israel. This paper also talking about the potential for a U.S. strike. A lot of editorials debating what the possible fallout of military action is going to be.

Interestingly, too, Syrian state television was airing an hour- long documentary that gives, from their perspective, an in-depth look on U.S. policy towards the Middle East over the last few decades, specifically talking about how American meddling in the Middle East has always been to serve Israel's purposes, playing up the role of what they call the resistance, whether it's the Syrian government itself or Hezbollah here in Lebanon. But this most certainly is a region that's bracing itself at this stage for that possible strike -- Jake.

TAPPER: Arwa Damon, thank you so much. In the middle of a fierce debate here in Washington, President Obama just ordered a plane for a three-day overseas trip to Sweden and Russia, the site of the G- 20 Summit where he'll continue his full court press to try to find friends willing to show their faces and voice their support for his plan.

I want to bring in columnist for Bloomberg View, Jeffrey Goldberg, CNN's Jessica Yellin is back with us, and Andrew Tabler, author of the "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria."

America's best friend and most famous public ally, the U.K, has already opted out. They're not going to participate in this. Where are the U.S. allies, Jessica? This makes George W. Bush's coalition of the willing look like the League of Nations. There's no one really coming to the fore, except for maybe France and Turkey.

YELLIN: It is striking, and it's one of these instances where you start to wonder if the U.S. should start to look for a different set of allies in this case. For example, maybe Saudi Arabia, who has enormous interest in this instance, and the capacity truly to be of assistance, or even Turkey, which sits on the border with Syria and has a real interest.

I know we believe that that's never going to happen, but there's real reason to think that maybe these are the countries that could step up and actually say, hey, we can give you an assist here, and maybe part of the reason the president is taking this to the American people is to say there are other countries who are whispering in our ears and saying they want to help -- they care about this. I want some of these other countries to speak up.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG, COLUMNIST, BLOOMBERG VIEW: Look, it's a completely normal reaction on the part of Americans to say hey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, you think this is such a terrible problem, you have these big air forces that we -- we know you have them because we sold them to you.


And, you know, you go -- you go deal with this. I mean, this goes to that issue of the general fatigue that Americans have with dealing with the complexities of the unraveling Middle East and so that's what you're fighting against.

TAPPER: Andrew, the Arab League decried what the Syrian regime has done, and obviously some members of the -- some of the Gulf countries, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, in particular, will do some things to help out. But where is the Arab League in all of this?

ANDREW TABLER, AUTHOR, "IN THE LION'S DEN": The Arab League has put forth a resolution saying that the Assad regime should be held responsible for it, that they should be punished, but they stop short of actually saying that there should be a military strike.

Now the Obama administration is declaring that a victory as long as it's not opposed to it. But there's a lot of constraints within different Arab systems, different Arab societies about U.S. intervention. A year ago or two years ago, it might have been a very different case at the beginning of the Arab uprisings.

But now as war fatigue has set in, inside of Syria as the war has raged on, as the death toll has gone through the ceilings, people have begun to change their minds a bit.

TAPPER: "The New York Times," Jeffrey, referred to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group here in Washington, as the 800-pound gorilla. Participating in some of the lobbying efforts. How much of this debate is about protecting America's ally, Israel?

GOLDBERG: Well, it's actually being exploited to a certain degree because the truth of the matter is, Israel can defend itself against Syria. It can contain that threat, manage that threat. As we know, Israel has already launched missile strikes repeatedly on Syrian --

TAPPER: It took out their nuclear reactor.

GOLDBERG: Well, that's in 2007. But even recently they've been attacking missile convoys and the like. They've been dealing with the problem as it unfurls. There's a second order -- component to this, that is -- that is very much to do with Israel, which is Israel, like any American ally in the Middle East, needs America to have credibility and deterrent credibility in the Middle East.

And so Israel is worried that if Obama doesn't strike Syria, that the Iranians will take this the wrong way and say to themselves, oh, you know what? Obama is not capable of intervening in a military way in the Middle East. So we're just going to go build our nuclear weapon. It's probably a mistake to think that way but that's the way people are thinking.

TAPPER: And, Jessica, one of the things keeping Israel from bombing Iran is this promise from the United States that the United States will never let be Israel be attacked by a nuclear weapon, that the United States will take action. Do you think that Israel has a case to make if Obama doesn't act here then who knows what Netanyahu is going to do?

YELLIN: This is one of the situations where I think that the White House views that as a false equivalence. And I have a hard time seeing the equivalence there, and I know that you will disagree with me, but I think that there is --

TABLER: You might be wrong. But go on.


You might be wrong, but go on. Yes.

YELLIN: If the president believes that Iran poses a genuine threat -- he would take that action. But if he's drawn a line by accident or that he doesn't truly believe on Syria, that he doesn't actually want to take or that was a mistake of rhetoric, and he doesn't truly believe in it, I'm not saying that that's where he is, but if that were the case, that's a different -- you don't have to -- I mean, it's almost like a Hollywood scenario, where a president has to take an action because he said something and now has to stand up for his credibility.

TAPPER: I want to give Andrew the last word here.

TABLER: But he didn't just draw up any old power in the region, he drew it with the Assad regime, Tehran's major ally in the region. I can't imagine that the Iranians would read it any other way. Very simply, he laid down the red line, if he didn't mean it, he shouldn't have done it in the first place. It's like directly telegraphing it to Tehran and I think that they're taking it very, very seriously.

TAPPER: All right. Jeffrey Goldberg, Andrew Tabler, thanks. And Jessica Yellin, you stay with us, please, as we continue to hash out today's debate.

When we come back, will military action work and does it mean the start of another U.S. war? I'll talk to two former generals about the consequences of the president's decision.

You're watching a CNN special, CRISIS IN SYRIA: THE DEBIT BEGINS, and we will be right back.


TAPPER: Welcome back to our special, CRISIS IN SYRIA: THE DEBATE BEGINS.

Secretary of State John Kerry stumbled a bit today when discussing the possibility of boots on the ground in Syria. He twisted himself into a pretzel with hypotheticals and ultimately ended up here.


KERRY: I know the administration has zero intention of putting troops on the ground.


TAPPER: I want to brick in two former generals to talk about this. Anthony Zinni is the former commander in chief of CentCom and Michael Hayden is the former CIA director, he's now a principal with the Chertoff Group, a risk management firm.

I'm also joined again by chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto. General Hayden, we heard Secretary Kerry there talk about no intention, they have no intention of boos on the ground. But you really can't promise that when you're about to enter a military engagement, right?

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: No, you shouldn't try to promise it, Jake. I can imagine circumstances within a minute or two where you might have to do that. What if we use manned aircraft, penetrate Syrian air space, an aircraft goes down? You have to send search and rescue after that crew. You put people on the ground. This shows the difficulty of trying to craft language that's going to satisfy everyone.

At the end of all this, there's just going to have to be some faith and confidence between the president and the Congress. The Congress can't think of all the possible circumstances they might want to limit the president on and, frankly, the president can't live with very limited freedom of action when he's going to put Americans into harm's way.

TAPPER: General Zinni, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dempsey, we know he is skeptical of what force in Syria can accomplish. You may be heard a bit of that today. I want to play this exchange.


GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: The answer to whether I support additional support for the moderate opposition is yes.

CORKER: And this -- this authorization will support those activities in addition to responding to the weapons of mass destruction?

DEMPSEY: I don't know how the resolution will evolve, but I support --


CORKER: What you're seeking -- what is it you're seeking?

DEMPSEY: I can't answer that, what we're seeking.


TAPPER: "I can't answer that, what we're seeking." Was he trying to just stay in his lane? Was he further expressing skepticism? Translate that for us, General.

GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI, FORMER COMMANDER, CENTCOM: Well, I think one thing he's trying to do is not make any guarantees as to what military action can achieve. You know, it's in the mind of the leadership of the enemy, we're trying to compel them to do something. In this case, I think two things. One, to prevent him from future use of weapons of mass destruction. But also to try to convince him he can't win this on the battlefield.

I thought it was interesting what Secretary Kerry said today about this being resolved at Geneva Two, which led me to believe the strategy here is to convince Assad he can't win and convince the Russians that we need their support and there is a possible diplomatic solution with an interim government.

And I think General Dempsey is being smart to ensure that no one thinks he can guarantee a military act will achieve these kinds of objectives.

TAPPER: I want to bring in Jim Sciutto now.

SCIUTTO: General, it seemed that the administration had something for both the hawks and the doves, for the skeptics and the supporters. For the skeptics, hard limits on scope and duration of any military action there. For the -- for the hawks, those pushing for more action, he talked about a broader strategy, support for the opposition, even connecting it to the ultimate goal of removing -- not with this particular military action, but still removing Assad from power.

That's a difficult needle to thread. We saw the difficulty he had with the question of boots on the ground. Can he -- can the administration thread that needle?

HAYDEN: It's going to be very, very hard, as you suggest. I mean these are severable steps, all right? The administration has articulated what it is they want to do to be about chemical weapons and deterring and degrading their use. That may have some marginal impact on Assad's overall military power, but as General Zinni suggests, there's no one in uniform that's going to suggest this is going to drive him to a new political position.

TAPPER: There was also this tense exchange between Secretary Kerry and Senator Rand Paul about whether or not this military action should be called a war.


KERRY: You've got three people here who have been to war. You've got John McCain, who's been to war. There's not one of us who doesn't understand what going to war means and we don't want to go to war.

I just don't consider that going to war in the classic sense of coming to Congress and asking for a declaration of war and training troops and sending people abroad and putting young Americans in harm's way. That's not what the president is asking for here.

General, do you want to speak to that -- at all to that?

DEMPSEY: No, not really, Secretary. Thank you for offering.



TAPPER: General Dempsey, again with a little reluctance to play in the political realm of this. But is Secretary Kerry right? Is this not war?

HAYDEN: Look, it's a relative term, but I'll give you my personal thought. OK, making a political decision to -- on a relatively significant scale to kill people and break things in someone else's country that sounds like war. The laws of armed conflict will apply to what it is we do here.

TAPPER: Jim, very quickly, if you want to ask General Zinni.

SCIUTTO: This for General Zinni. The administration and General Dempsey has made the claim that a delay does not matter for the military effectiveness of the strike.

General, do you believe that?

ZINNI: I do. I think there's plenty of targets that we can service there. Many of them are fixed. He doesn't have robust, redundant systems. He can move some people around and a few things around. But remember, he's also in a war himself. He doesn't have many options and that much freedom of movement.

And the intensity of our intelligence collection, which I'm sure General Hayden could speak to much better than I can, allows us to do this continuous targeting. So I do think General Dempsey is right on this.

I might add on that last question about war, when you attack a sovereign nation, that's an act of war. We have -- you know, we haven't declared war since World War II, but we've fought in plenty of them since those. And I can remember Vietnam quite vividly.

TAPPER: Indeed.

Michael Hayden, Anthony Zinni, Jim Sciutto, thank you very much.

Coming up, John McCain addresses, quote-unquote, scandal head on after he's caught on camera not exactly paying attention. Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to our CNN special on the crisis in Syria. We want to get some final thoughts from our panel on today's Senate hearing with key members of the Obama administration facing -- I think it's safe to say a fairly skeptical board of senators.

Gloria Borger, what's your takeaway moment today?

BORGER: Was when John Kerry at the end of the hearing said, we are not going to war, we don't want to go to war. And then again promised there would be no boots on the ground, and he's talking about lobbing cruise missiles somewhere. And I was thinking, what is the definition of war then?

TAPPER: Right.

BORGER: If we're lobbing cruise missiles into another country, we're saying we don't want to go to war, we're not going to put boots on the ground, we're not going to be there more than 60 days.

BASH: Some people died.

BORGER: So it's not war.

BASH: That the definition.

BORGER: Well, that's the new --


BORGER: That's the new definition.

TAPPER: Well, he said not in the classic sense of war.

BASH: Right.

BORGER: Right.

TAPPER: Dana Bash, your moment today.

BASH: John Boehner standing in the president's driveway saying something supportive of the president. I mean, hands down for me, right, for me, from my perch on Capitol Hill. He didn't have to do that. There's no reason he had to do that. He -- I think personally believe that this is the right thing to do. He is very reluctant to say what he wants to do personally because his caucus is so fractured. But this --

TAPPER: Generally the speakers of the House don't necessarily take a good position or even vote.

BASH: Right. Right. I mean, you know, a position is one thing, voting absolutely is something that they generally don't do unless they want to make a point. But on this position, it's not going to change all those Republicans who are in the -- as you call, the hell no caucus.

BORGER: Hell no.

BASH: But it might persuade some people who are on the fence and it really does signal that what the president tried to do was get Congress on board, clearly the Republicans and the Democrats didn't necessarily think that this was the greatest idea, that they could get the votes. But once he did it, even the House speaker --


YELLIN: Do you think a yes vote can change domestic politics for him with Congress? BASH: No, no.





TAPPER: Why not? Why not ask?

BORGER: More miserable as a leader, don't you think?

BASH: Boehner.

BORGER: Yes. Boehner.

TAPPER: Boehner.

BASH: It could.

YELLIN: For being with Obama.


TAPPER: All I'm going to say this is a vote of conscience, a vote of conscience. Members can vote whatever they want.


BORGER: And by the way, they're not looking at polls.

BASH: And I should -- before you -- quickly point out that he said it personally, it could have sway. But they're absolutely not whipping this vote.


BASH: Meaning they're not going to twist arms.

BORGER: Right.

BASH: At all.

TAPPER: First comments from the Speaker's office after his public remarks were, it's up to the president to make this case.

BASH: Yes. And in that case they believe that.

YELLIN: The White House is twisting arms.

BASH: Yes.

YELLIN: The White House is twisting arms.

TAPPER: Your final thoughts. Your moment of the day?

YELLIN: You said it is a skeptical board of senators and it's also a bored board of senators.


My moment of the day was Senator John McCain caught playing poker on his iPhone during the testimony. I guess they're just like the rest of us and the mind wanders or so does the eye. He -- there's the video.

TAPPER: There's the photograph in the "Washington Post."



YELLIN: He lost.

BASH: He actually tweeted about this.

YELLIN: Showing how seriously our legislative branch takes things.

TAPPER: It was in the third hour. He acknowledged it was in the third hour. He's clicking the VIP poker.

BASH: And he -- and he, to his credit, played along with it, tweeted out and said yes, it's scandalous. That he got caught in the worst part of it but that he actually lost the game.

BORGER: He's been listening to his fellow senator, former senator, John Kerry. Used to it.

TAPPER: All right. Gloria Borger, Dana Bash, Jessica Yellin, thank you so much.

And thank you for joining us tonight. I'm Jake Tapper. Watch CNN tomorrow for live coverage of the congressional hearings on the crisis in Syria. And you can catch me on "THE LEAD" Monday through Friday at 4:00 p.m. Eastern and 1:00 p.m. Pacific.

Stick around for "PIERS MORGAN LIVE."