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Obama Speaks at Great Synagogue; Crisis in Syria

Aired September 4, 2013 - 12:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Meantime, thanks so much for watching, everyone. AROUND THE WORLD starts right now with Suzanne Malveaux and Michael Holmes.


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Michael Holmes. We'd like to welcome our viewers here in the United States, also right around the world.

MALVEAUX: Prepare for round two in the battle over whether or not the U.S. should launch a military strike against Syria. Now the new debate starting this very hour.

HOLMES: It is. This time in the House, not the Senate. It is expected to be heated. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, they're all back on Capitol Hill.

MALVEAUX: They are set to start testifying any minute before the House Foreign Affairs committee about plans to attack Syria. We're going to bring that to you, that live hearing, as soon as it starts.

In the meantime, on the Senate side, the Foreign Relations Committee could vote on authorizing the use of force as early as this afternoon.

HOLMES: Lawmakers considering a revised bill that would authorize 60 days of limited military strikes. It does have an option for an additional 30 days. All of it with no boots on the ground.

MALVEAUX: And today marks two weeks since more than 1,400 men, women and children were killed near the Syrian capital. The U.S. insists that Syria's president used chemical weapons on its own people. Now, the Syrian leader denies that. But you can see the horrific images of victims triggering this intense debate around the world about how the international community should respond.

HOLMES: Now, at the same time, the Obama administration officials and Congress are debating what to do in Syria, literally, the president is overseas, of course, he's looking for support from leaders there.

MALVEAUX: He is in Sweden right now. A stopover on his way to the G-20 Summit in Russia. Now just a short time ago he spoke to reporters talking about the red line warning that he gave Syria last August. Listen. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: First of all, I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world's population said the use of chemical weapons are abort and passed a treaty forbidding their use, even when countries are engaged in war. Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated that in a piece of legislation entitled the Syria Accountability Act, that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for.

And so when I said, in a press conference, that my calculus about what's happening in Syria would be altered by the use of chemical weapons, which the overwhelming consensus of humanity says is wrong, that wasn't something I just kind of made up. I didn't pluck it out of thin air. There's a reason for it. And when those videos first broke and you saw images of over 400 children subjected to gas, everybody expressed outrage. How can this happen in this modern world?

Well, it happened because a government chose to deploy these deadly weapons on civilian populations. And so the question is, how credible is the international community when it says this is an international norm that had to be observed? The question is, how credible is Congress when it passes a treaty saying we have to forbid the use of chemical weapons?

And I do think that we have to act, because if we don't, we are effectively saying that even though we may condemn it and issue resolutions and so forth and so on, somebody who is not shamed by resolutions can continue to act with impunity.


HOLMES: Now, President Obama first used the words "red line" last summer, you may remember, setting the bar for what could have brought the U.S. into the conflict more directly. It was in this White House news conference.


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


MALVEAUX: The president also said he hopes Russia's leader will change their minds and support outside military action inside of Syria. Now, Russian President Vladimir Putin, today, said that's a possibility if they see proof that Syrian troops used chemical weapons against civilians.

HOLMES: Setting a bit of a high bar, really, on what would make him happy and convinced about it.

Meanwhile, the president, of course, as we say, he's in Stockholm at the moment ahead of the G-20, which takes place in St. Petersburg. He's just been speaking at The Great Synagogue in Stockholm. Let's listen to that.



I want to thank Prime Minister Rienfeldt, Alina Fosner Carosi (ph) and Rabbi Naro (ph) for welcoming me here to The Great Synagogue, the heart of the Jewish community here in Stockholm.

This evening is the first night of the Jewish high (ph) holidays Rosh Hashanah. And for our Jewish friends it's a time of joy and celebration to give thanks for our blessings and to look ahead to the coming year. So to all our Jewish friends here in Sweden, in the United States and around the world, especially in Israel, I want to wish you and your families a sweet and happy new year and shanatova (ph).

Days such as these are a time of reflection. An occasion to consider not just our relationship with God, but our relationship with each other as human beings. And we're reminded of our basic obligations to recognize ourselves and each other, to treat one another with compassion, to reach out to the less fortune among us, to do our part to help repair our world.

These values are at the heart of the great partnership between Sweden and the United States and the values define the life of the man we remember today, Raoul Wallenberg. Last year we marked the 100th anniversary of Wallenberg's birth. I was proud to send my greetings to you ceremony here in Stockholm. Today we're honored to be joined by those who loved him and whose lives he touched, members of the Wallenberg family, including his half-sister Nina, and the family of his late half-brother Guy (ph), Wallenberg's colleague Gabriella Kassius (ph), and some of the countless men and women whom Wallenberg saved from the Holocaust.

We just had a wonderful visit together. They showed me some incredible artifacts. Some of the Swedish passports Wallenberg used to protect Jews in Budapest. I saw his diary and his own passport, including a picture of him as he was and he will always remain, young and determined and full of energy and an enormous heart.

And I'm here today because, as Americans, we cherish our ties to Wallenberg as well. He was a son of Sweden, but he also studied in America. I know he spent most of his time in Ann Arbor, but my understanding is he spent some time in my hometown of Chicago as well.

He could have remained in the comfort of Stockholm, but he went to Nazi occupied Hungary, in partnership with the U.S. war refugee board. To this day, schools and streets in America bear his name. And he's one of only a few individuals ever granted honorary U.S. citizenship. So he's beloved in both our countries. He's one of the links that bind us together.

Wallenberg's life is a challenge to us all, to live those virtues of empathy and compassion, even when it's hard, even when it involves great risk. He came from a prominent family, but he chose to help the most vulnerable. He was a Lutheran and yet he risked his life to save Jews. "I will never be able to go back to Stockholm," he said, "without knowing inside myself I've done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible."

So when Jews in Budapest were marked with that yellow star, Wallenberg shielded them behind the blue and yellow of the Swedish flag. When they were forced into death marches, he showed up with the food and water that gave them life. When they were loaded on trains for the camps, he climbed on board too and pulled them off.

He lived out one of the most important (INAUDIBLE), most important commandments in the Jewish tradition, to redeem a captive, to save a life. The belief that when a neighbor is suffering, we cannot stand idly by. And because he refused to stand by, Wallenberg reminds us of our power when we choose not simply to bear witness, but also to act. The tens of thousands he saved from the camps, the estimated 100,000 Jews of Budapest who survived the war in no small measure because of this man and those like Gabriella who risked their lives as well.

It also calls to mind the compassion of Sweds who helped to rescue so many Jews from Denmark 70 years ago this year. And this legacy shines bright in the survivors who are here today and in the family trees that have continued to grow ever since. Children and grandchildren and great grandchildren who owe their very existence to a Swedish hero that they never knew. I cannot think of a better tribute to Raoul Wallenberg than for each of us, as individuals and as nations, to reaffirm or determination to live the values that defined his lifer and to make the same choice in our time.

And so today we say that we will make a habit of empathy. We will stand against anti-Semitism and hatred in all its forms. We will choose to recognize the beauty and dignity and worth of every person and every child. And we will choose to instill in the hearts of our own children the love and tolerance and compassion that we seek.

You know, one of those whom Wallenberg saved later today this story. He was a young boy in hiding when they came for the women, including his mother. "And my mother kissed me," he said, "and I cried and she cried and we knew we were parting forever. But then two or three hours later, to my amazement, my mother returned with the other women. It seemed like a mirage. A miracle. My mother was there. She was alive and she was hugging me and kissing me and she said one word, Wallenberg."

Today we stand in awe of the courage of one man who earned his place in the righteous among the nations and we pray for the day when all people's nations find the same strength to recognize the humanity that we share and the summit (ph) in our own lives our capacity for good to live with tolerance and respect, to treat everyone with dignity and to provide our children with the peace that they deserve. So thank you very much. It is a great honor to be here today. And on behalf of the American people, we want to say to the Wallenberg family how truly inspired and grateful we are for all that he did. Thank you.


MALVEAUX: President Obama there at The Great Synagogue in Stockholm. And he's making the case here for the European community that, you know, comparing what happened in the Holocaust with what happened in that chemical attack in Syria two weeks ago, making the case that there needs to be some sort of military intervention or involvement. That's why you see some of the - the symbolism there today. And -

HOLMES: There was, yes.

MALVEAUX: And also the -- we're watching closely here. You see the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. That was in the corner of the screen there. A full screen now. They are just beginning to gather and, of course, there are going to be some key members of the administration, the secretary of the state, secretary of defense, as well as the chair of the Joints Chiefs, testifying before this committee. Yesterday it was the Senate side. Today it is the House side, where they will go before and try to convince this body that a military strike is appropriate inside of Syria.

We're going to have more on the other end of the break.


MALVEAUX: And we are watching the House foreign affairs committee hearing.

There you see in the triple -- quadruple boxes, actually, as each of them take their seat, Secretary of State John Kerry there preparing his notes, and they will soon make their presentations before this very important House committee to make the argument, make the case here, for a military intervention, military strike, inside of Syria.

And this is something the president says he wanted to do to seek authorization from Congress and this is part of the process.

HOLMES: Yeah, even though he says he doesn't need it and a demonstrator there. Of course, that's not unusual in these things.

We'll continue to monitor that. When things get under way, we'll take you there, live.

Right now, thought, let's bring in our team of journalists. Jim Sciutto is in our Washington bureau. Dana Bash is on Capitol Hill. She's on the line on the telephone. Jim Acosta is traveling with President Obama, joins us from Stockholm.

MALVEAUX: So, Jim, let's start with you first here. Obviously the president is heading to the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. That's his next stop here, a lot of discussion over what does the White House mean here when he talks about they might meet together with Vladimir Putin on the margins.

We know about these sidebar meetings. They're very critical. We've covered many of these over the years.

But do they really believe that that's a productive meeting, that that meeting could happen and that Putin would cooperate in some way, not to block the U.N. Security Council resolution for some action?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, I think we're just going to have to wait and see about that.

Honestly, the Obama administration, they have been complaining really out loud for the last couple of weeks now about Russia and what it's been doing at the United Nations. They feel sort of blocked by Vladimir Putin in any sort of effort that the United Nations Security Council to bring international action against Syria.

We heard the president talking about how he wanted to work with Vladimir Putin. He didn't use any of the language that he'd used in recent weeks where he said that Vladimir Putin seemed like the bored kid at the back of the classroom.

We didn't hear any of that, so the president has toned some of that down. But he did say that there's still sort of a wall that's in place that's blocking any cooperation between the United States and Russia on issues like Syria, and so I really think this is sort of a wait- and-see.

But one thing that's very interesting about what Vladimir Putin said in that interview in the last 24 hours that is making news AROUND THE WORLD, he said that he would have to wait and see whether or not the United Nations establishes some sort of proof that Syria's government is behind that August 21st chemical weapons attack.

Of course, the United Nations has said they're not looking for that kind of proof. They're only looking for proof that a chemical weapons attack occurred.

And I talked to an Obama administration official earlier today about those comments from Vladimir Putin and they sort of feel like maybe the Russian president has set sort of a false standard there.

So there's some suspicions, still some doubts, I think, inside the Obama administration about what Vladimir Putin is up to, Suzanne.


HOLMES: All right, Dana Bash is on the phone, and you're on the phone because you're on that stakeout waiting for members of the Senate foreign relations committee to come out of the classified briefing.

We're continuing to monitor what's happening on the House side. And, actually, behind John Kerry, you can see some protesters with red hands there, making their point about potential action in Syria.

What are you expecting to hear from those members you're waiting for on the Senate side? You know, a lot of people -- the president has been saying there's all this evidence that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack. Is the public ever likely to hear that evidence?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Unclear and at this point unlikely, but what the members of the Senate foreign relations committee -- and, by the way, this classified briefing has been going on for nearly three hours now.

John Kerry was a part of it and he left to go testify on the House side, which you were just referring to.

What we're waiting for and what is going to be really critical to find out from these members of the foreign relations committee is what their plans are with regard to what the Senate would actually vote on and what the committees, which will have the first crack at it, what they will vote on.

And we reported last night that we got the actual legislative changes that they agreed in a bipartisan way, the Senate foreign relations chair, Bob Menendez, and the top Republican, Bob Corker.

The changes they agreed to were to narrow the scope of authorization by putting a time limit on it, 60 days with 30 days -- a 30-day extension that the president wants, and also a no-combat, boots on the ground.

Well, guess what? They thought maybe that was the sweet spot. It wasn't. We're hearing that some of the more hawkish members of the committee, namely John McCain, want it to be more broad, and they're going to have to balance that with making sure that some of the more liberal members don't think it's too broad.

So that -- there's no doubt that that's part of what they're talking about behind closed doors. It's almost like they've been sequestered for three hours and we're waiting to see what they come out and discuss.

MALVEAUX: All right, thank you, Dana.

I want to go to Jim Sciutto, and, of course, welcome here to CNN. Let's talk a little bit about this red line here.

It was just last August that the president said that there was a red line that would change the calculus on how the U.S. would respond to Assad. Today, we hear he says he didn't set this red line; it was a world community that set the line, or establishing this international law making chemical weapons unacceptable, or that it was Congress in ratifying this treaty.

Does this case that he's making about the red line, does it seem like it has some credibility when people listen to this?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, from the beginning. the administration has tried to internationalize the consequences of inaction, saying this is not just about Syria, that Iran, Hezbollah, North Korea, they're all going to be watching to see if the U.S. punishes Syria for using chemical weapons.

And, presumably, if the U.S. does not punish them, then they will be emboldened to do something similar.

Now the president and Secretary Kerry were doing something similar yesterday, trying to internationalize the mandate for action, saying it was not just the president who set this red line, that the international community, 98 percent of the world's population by banning chemical weapons that they have committed themselves to responding if those chemical weapons are used.

And both Kerry yesterday and the president again today mentioned the Syrian Accountability Act to try to bring Congress into this mandate as well, saying that Congress passed this act, which said that Syria's acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, and I have the act right here, threatens the security of the Middle East.

Now as you read the act, though, it says nothing about using military action to punish the use of chemical weapons. In fact, it's very specific about penalties. It's got things like prohibiting U.S. businesses from investing in Syria, restricting Syrian diplomats in Washington, D.C.

There's nothing in here about the penalty of military action. So, at best, this is a stretch. At worst, it's a fudge. It's possible that they're going too far here and that they could conceivably upset some of the members of the Congress who are now considering this.

MALVEAUX: All right, Jim, Jim and Dana, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

And, of course, I want to remind our viewers here. You're looking at the House foreign affairs committee hearing. It's about to get under way.

We're going to take a quick break. On the other side, we'll see if they actually start. It's going to be a very important presentation to see if they convince the House side that military action is necessary.

HOLMES: Lots more to come. Stay with us.


MALVEAUX: And let's go directly to that hearing. Secretary John Kerry beginning to testify before the House.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: ... returned unexpectedly and hurriedly to come back to be part of debate, and on behalf of the administration and the American people, I thank you for doing so.

I think it's -- I don't think -- I know it's no exaggeration to say that the world is not just watching to see what we decide here, but the world is really watching to see how we decide, frankly, whether or not we can still make or achieve a single voice speaking for the United States of America, the Congress and the president of the United States.

And they want to know whether or not America's going to rise to this moment, whether or not we will express our position with the unity that this moment demands.

The question of whether or not to authorize force, the chairman referenced my 28 years here. I had a number of occasions to make those votes and a number of occasions to make judgments about presidents who acted without coming to Congress. And I found that we were and are always stronger when we can act together.

First and foremost, I think it's important to explain to the American people why we are here. And I don't think it can bear enough repetition as people grapple with this at the end of summer, post- Labor Day, kids going back to school and a lot of other concerns on their minds.

We're here because, against the multiple warnings from the president of the United States, warnings from Congress, from many of you, warnings from friends and allies and even warnings from Russia and Iran that chemical weapons are out of bounds.

Against all of that, the Assad regime and only undeniably the Assad regime unleashed an outrageous chemical attack against its own citizens.

So we're here because a dictator and his family's enterprise, which is what it is, were willing to infect the air of Damascus with a poison that killed innocent mothers and fathers and children, their lives all snuffed out by gas during the early morning hours of August 21st.

Now some people in a few places, amazingly, against all the evidence have questioned whether or not this assault on conscious actually took place.

And I repeat again here today, unequivocally, only the most willful desire to avoid reality, only the most devious political purpose could assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it.

It did happen and the Bashar-al Assad regime did it.

Now I remember Iraq. And Secretary Hagel who will soon be here and General Dempsey, obviously, also remember it very well. Secretary Hagel and I both voted in the United States Senate. And so both of us are especially sensitive to never again asking any member of Congress to vote on faulty intelligence.

And that's why our intelligence community took time.