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Obama & Swedish Prime Minister Speak; Obama: "International Credibility on Line" on Syria; Syria Strikes Gain Support in Congress

Aired September 4, 2013 - 09:30   ET

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


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Much more effective. And, ultimately, we can end deaths much more rapidly if Russia takes a different approach to these problems.

In terms of my decision to take the issue to Congress, this had been brewing in my mind for a while. Some people had noted, and I think this is true, that had I been in the Senate, in the midst of this period, I probably would have suggested to a Democratic or a Republican president that Congress should have the ability to weigh in on an issue like this, that is not immediate, imminent, time sensitive.

When the chairman of Joint Chiefs, Mr. Dempsey, indicated to me that whether we struck today, tomorrow or a month from now, we could still do so effectively, then, I think, that raised the question of why not ask Congress to debate this in a serious way. Because I do think it raises issues that are going to occur for us and for the international community for many years to come. I mean the truth of the matter is, is that under international law, Security Council resolution or self- defense or defense of an ally provides a clear basis for action.

But increasingly what we're going to be confronted with are situations like Syria, like Kosovo, like Rwanda in which we may not always have a Security Council that can act. It may be paralyzed for a whole host of reasons. And yet we've got all these international norms that we're interested in upholding. We may not be directly, imminently threatened by what's taking place in a Kosovo or a Syria or a Rwanda in a short- term, but our long-term national security will be impacted in a profound way and our humanity is impacted in a profound way.

And so I think it's important for us to get out of the habit in those circumstances. Again, I'm not talking about circumstances where our national security is directly impacted, we've been attacked, et cetera, where the president has to act quickly. But in circumstances of the type that I described, it's important for us to get out of the habit of just saying, well, we'll let the president kind of stretch the boundaries of his authorities as far as he can. Congress will sit on the sidelines, snipe. If it works, the sniping will be a little less. If it doesn't, a little more. But either way, the American people and their representatives are not fully invested in what are tough choices. And we, as a country and the world, are going to start to have to take tough choices.

I do get frustrated, although I'm under - you know, I understand how complex this is. And any time you're involving in military action then people will ask, well, this may do more harm than good. I understand those arguments. I wrestle with them every day. But I do have to ask people, well, if, in fact, you're outraged by the slaughter of innocent people, what are you doing about it? And if the answer is, well, we should engage diplomatically, well, we've engaged diplomatically. The answer is, well, we should shine the spotlight and shame these governments. Well, these governments oftentimes show no shame. Well, we should act internationally. Well, sometimes, because of the various alignments, it's hard to act through a Security Council resolution.

And so either we resign ourselves to saying there's nothing we can do about it and we'll just shake our heads and go about our business, or we make decisions even when they're difficult. And I think this is an example of where we need to take -- make decisions even though they're difficult to, I think, it's important for Congress to be involved in that decision.

FREDRIK REINFELDT, SWEDISH PRIME MINISTER: I think -- I think - I think - I think - I think I should answer the question.

I think you're right in saying that this very difficult decision to take. As always, it's a balancing act. And we've been discussing this during our talks. Just to remind you, you're now in Sweden. A small country with a deep belief in the United Nations. You're also in a country where I think yesterday or the day before we took the decision that all the people that are now coming from the war in Syria are allowed to stay permanently in Sweden. So, a lot of the people following this press conference here in Sweden are actually just now coming from Syria and, of course, wondering what is the view of their country. And they have a lot of their countrymen also in this country. So we have a lot of roots and links to Syria.

I think the main problem has been for two and a half years now that we have a war without a clear political solution. And that, at the end of the day, must be - we must get a cease-fire, we must get a peace process, we must get people to talk to each other. I totally understand the complex situation also on the opposition, because we have part of the opposition also here in Sweden, which is now conducted of different groups. They want to get Assad out of the picture, but what do they want instead? That is, of course, a question we need to attend to.

The weapons inspector that was present in Damascus is headed by a Swede. So, in this country, of course, we are asking for the time to be able to see, what were their findings, especially since President Obama has sent the decision also to Congress. We think that that gives us some more time and we are welcoming that.

Having said that, I also said that I understand the absolute problem of not having a reaction to use of chemical weapons and what kind of signal that sends to the world. In a time where we are developing our view on international law, not saying that you're allowed to do whatever you like to your own people as long as it's inside your own borders. Now, we have -- we have these -- we need to protect people. We need to look at the interests of each and every one. So this - this is the development we are seeing. That's the same discussion we are having in Sweden.

So I need - I understand, especially the U.S. president needs to react, otherwise he will get another kind of discussion. But this country will always say, let's put our hope into the United Nations, let us push on some more to get a better situation.

Of course, President Putin has responsibility in that. Of course, because everyone understands that Russian, also China, has been outside of decision-making that we would have needed a long time ago to put more clear pressure and more political solution. So that is -- that is what we have been discussing today. If you balance all these sentences that shows how difficult this is.

OBAMA: OK. Thank you (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. Thank you very much. That concludes this press conference. Thank you, all, for attending.

(END LIVE FEED)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: So there he is, the president of the United States and the prime minister of Sweden, both speaking dramatically, pointedly, with very different perspectives on what's going on in Syria right now. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

The president of the United States making the case for what he described as a limited, targeted attack on Syrian targets. And he didn't rule out that possibility, even if Congress were to reject resolutions authorizing the use of military force. The purpose would be, in his words, to degrade and deter the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus from its chemical weapons capability, its delivery and then to engage the international community in some sort of effort to find a long-term solution to the crisis in Syria.

Let's assess what we just heard from President Obama and the prime minister of Sweden, Fredrik Reinfeldt. Gloria Borger, John King, David Gergen, they are all standing by.

Gloria, first to you.

Did you get the sense from the president, if the House of Representatives and the Senate were to reject this resolution, he would still be determined to go forward with a strike?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I did. I got the clear sense that he feels the moral obligation to go forward with a strike. What was - what was so interesting to me, Wolf, was that the president said, look, this is not my red line. This is the world's red line. This is not my credibility. This is the world's credibility. And this is not Iraq, OK, because this is not the question of weapons of mass destruction. We know he said that there -- this chain of custody of these chemical weapons goes directly to Assad. And he also made the case, I understand why people were questioning the -- my not going to Congress because had I been in Congress and been a senator, I would have demanded congressional authorization. And that he said this change of course had been brewing in his mind for quite some time. But he said, you know, I'm not in this alone. It's Congress' credibility and the world's credibility on the line, as well.

BLITZER: And, John, the president, a year ago, as all of us remember, he drew that red line, specifically saying that if the Assad regime were to use or to significantly transport chemical weapons, that would be a game changer for the United States. Here is what he said today. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Well, the president, John, making the case that he carefully thought through that red line before he made that declaration a year ago. It just wasn't off the cuff. It was based on his own experience, shall we say. The president insisting on that today.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He's trying to depersonalize it, Wolf, as he tries to get the votes in Congress, including from a lot of Republicans who are skeptical of this president personally, or skeptical of his national security team, who are skeptical they can have these limited strikes and cause some effect in Syria that would help and that would be a legitimate punishment, if you will. So he's trying to depersonalize it.

And he's right, he didn't pluck this out of nowhere. There are historical conventions, international conventions and there were those congressional votes. But he also did personalize it and embrace it. He said this, 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. So, yes, there are - is on the record conventions and United States Congress votes, but the president personalized it a little bit more the year ago when he embraced that statement. So today he's trying to back away from that given the politics of the moment.

I thought it was quite striking, though, Wolf, you could see, you know, even with a friend standing next to him who says, we will always be for the United Nations process, the president gets how lonely he is at the moment. The president of France is with him, but very few others in the world are willing to stand with him. And he said, quote, "that's part of the deal" of being the American president, the leader of the United States of America. Here, a president whose rose to national prominence with an anti-war, let's get the United States out of the Middle East, let's always make sure we rely on international coalition, now preparing - and I think Gloria's dead right - he sent a very clear signal, if he loses this vote in Congress, he is still prepared to act saying that's part of the deal.

BLITZER: And he also made the point, David Gergen, that not only his credibility, U.S. credibility, but internationally credibility was on the line at this decisive moment. I'll play this little clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My credibility is not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line. And America and Congress' credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important. 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 has 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: David Gergen, he's referring to the 1993 international convention banning the use of chemical weapons, which the Congress did, in fact, ratify back in 1997. Syria, by the way, one of a handful of countries that never endorsed, never signed on to that international convention.

At what point, David Gergen -- and you advised four presidents -- at what point should this president go into the Oval Office and address the American public on what's at stake, knowing that the Senate and the House will have floor debates as early as next week and that the resolutions will go up for up or down votes as early as next week? Does he wait until the middle of the debate? Does he do it Sunday night before the House reconvenes? What would you advise this president if you were still one of the senior advisors to a president?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, I think he needs to do it about 48 hours or so -- 72 hours before the vote. Because it's really important that he improve the quality of public opinion, the level of public opinion. There are many in Congress who are going to say, Mr. President, first you have to commit the people and then we can commit the Congress. And if you can bring them over, we'll go with you. But if you can't, we're not.

And at this point there are two polls out, but both of them suggest that it does not have the support now; that support for a strike of the kind he's talking about is in the low 40s and as a percentage of the population. And he needs to move those numbers. And I do think an oval office address or something, what Bill Clinton did which worked very effectively was to go before a joint session. Whether he wanted to do something that sort of grand, I'm not sure. But he does need to go to the country.

Let me just say, Wolf, I thought he made one of his most effective arguments today and that he's trying to shame the international community into action. He is taking the moral high ground and he did it more effectively today than I've seen him do it. I think it's very good territory for him to be on.

I actually thought he was on the defensive about the red line. The fact is, when he made that statement, he was committing us to more than what the Congress had to redo in the past. When he made the statement about the red line, the message he was sending. You go over this line and I'm going to hit you. We're going to use military force.

That's not what Congress agreed to. Congress agreed to that there are norms and if you cross those norms, then we'll figure it out. But Congress never committed itself nor did the U.N. to take some -- taking military action. And I think that's -- I think for him to say I didn't draw any red line, I think you know frankly a little disingenuous but otherwise I thought he was on -- he was on very strong ground today.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: Well I think --

BLITZER: Yes I think he's using it more as a rhetorical flourish if you will to say you know what the international community over the years drew this red line. I was just sort of expressing it.

Everyone stand by for a moment. We have a lot more to discuss, including this question and it's a good one that David brings up. Would it be more effective for the President to address the nation from the Oval Office or to convene a joint meeting of the Senate and the House of Representatives and speak out about the issues there?

We're going to have much more of our special coverage coming up right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama and the Swedish Prime Minister are wrapping up a press conference just a little while ago. Most of it devoted to the crisis in Syria and the President making a strong pitch for a very limited targeted potential U.S. military strike even if potentially even if he doesn't get formal authorization from the Congress. We'll know in the next few days whether or not the Senate and the House of Representatives gives that formal authorization to the President.

He's flying off to the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. He'll be there tomorrow. He'll have an opportunity to meet at least informally with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. The President was asked about U.S./Russia relations at the news conference today. Here is a little clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have not written off the idea that the United States and Russia are going to continue to have common interests even as we have some very profound differences on some other issues. And where our interests overlap we should pursue common action. Where we've got differences we should be candid about them, try to manage those differences but not sugar coat them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Phil Black is joining us now from Russia. Phil, you know the President, I think by all accounts, he was supposed to be where you are right now in Moscow today instead of Sweden. The whole Swedish trip was added sort of as add on because he didn't want to have a face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin and give the sort of credibility to the Russians as a result of the Edward Snowden affair granting that asylum in Russia for Edward Snowden the former NSA contractor who leaked all those classified documents.

But he will meet at least informally with Putin in -- in St. Petersburg, Russia around what they called the margins of this G-20 summit.

Putin gave an interview today to the Associated Press. Give our viewers here in the United States and around the world some of the highlights of what the Russian leader is saying.

PHIL BLACK, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well on the surface of it, Wolf, this was an interview obviously to lay some of the groundwork for the G-20 summit and the fact that Vladimir Putin will be welcoming many of the world's leaders to the Russia city at St. Petersburg.

He spoke a lot about Syria, obviously at first inspection, he made a few comments that perhaps represent an evolution or a departure from his regular line. He said that Russia, in theory, hadn't completely backed away from the idea of backing international military intervention in Syria.

We've never heard President Putin say anything like this -- the idea that he could in theory support military action decide that in order to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons.

But it came with a couple of pretty strict conditions. There had to be overwhelming evidence and it had to be a process through the United Nations. Here is a little of what Putin said during that interview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): If we have objective, precise data of who is responsible for these crimes then we will react. Right now we are just guessing. It is too early to say yes we will do this and that. This would be absolutely incorrect. People in politics don't act like that.

But I assure you that we are taking a position in principle. I want to say that the principle of this position is that the use of chemical weapons for mass destruction of people is a crime.

But there is another question. If it is concluded that the fighters used weapons of mass destruction, what will the U.S. do with the fighters? What would these sponsors do with the fighters? Are they going to stop delivering weapons? Are they going to launch military action against them?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLACK: So there it's not entirely a thorough departure there for Vladimir Putin from the comments that he's made before. And if anything, he went on to say that he really doesn't believe the sort of evidence that he is asking for is required or even exists because he think it's is absurd to even consider the possibility that the Syrian regime is responsible for using chemical weapons in this situation.

He says it is illogical because the fight is very much going the Syrian Army's way. And the Syrian government knows that should chemical weapons be used it would very likely trigger some form of international intervention -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So his strong suggestion -- although I don't think he had any hard evidence to back it up -- correct me if I'm wrong, Phil -- is that the rebel fighters, he calls them fighters. Bashar al Assad's regime calls them terrorists, but the opposition fighters, they're the ones who used the chemical weapons against their own supporters as a sort of a pretext for the international community to go after Bashar al Assad's regime. That's the insinuation of the Russian president, right?

BLACK: More than that. It's very much the theory the Russian government has been promoting here Wolf pretty much ever since the incident took place really. Very shortly after the incident was recorded, the Russian government started to point the finger pretty directly at the possibility that this was some sort of elaborate plan by those Syrian opposition fighters to use chemical weapons against the Syrian people to try and manipulate international feeling and trigger some form of international reaction.

The Russian government believes that's what the Syrian opposition wants because they can't win the fight on their own. And ultimately Russia says those fighters want to keep fighting until they secure an absolute military victory. And that's not something they can do without the assistance of outside forces -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The President of the United States and the Secretary of State, they say they have intercepted communications along the chain of command from Bashar al Assad down to his commanders confirming that it was in fact the regime military that used those chemical weapons, not the opposition rebels, the fighters if you will. I wonder if the President of the United States would share those intercepted conversations with the Russian leader if that would make any difference or not. I know they've shared some of that classified information with members of Congress.

Phil Black is in Moscow for us. Phil thanks very much.

Let's go up to Capitol Hill where the debate continues in the Senate and the House of representatives. Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is standing by. I want to just clarify one thing, Dana, I know you have been doing some research on this, will it require 51 votes in the U.S. Senate to pass this resolution or will the opposition in the Senate be able to filibuster requiring 60 votes to break that kind of filibuster? Is the key number 51 or is it 60?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the senate democratic leadership is bracing to need 60. They believe that if anybody wanted to filibuster the motion to proceed -- I'm trying to not get too technical here -- but a procedural vote to begin debate on this, they could. So they're bracing to need 60 votes. That's where they stand right now.

The question, of course, whether they have it and what is it that they're going to voting on. As we speak, all of those Senators who were in that public hearing, the three-and-a-half hour public hearing yesterday with Secretaries Kerry, Hagel and Marty Dempsey, they're now in classified session. They're meeting in a room where you can have a secure conversation. You probably heard a lot of questions and answers going around in public yesterday. And the answer was I would rather talk to you about that in closed session.

That's happening now. That is going to be a critical, critical meeting to see if some of these Senators who were still on the fence will actually come their way. The other open question again is what are they going to vote on?

We reported last night about a new bipartisan bill to authorize force which narrowed the language that the White House. The time frame is 60 days with an extension for 30 more for the President to have the authorization of force and explicitly says no boots on the ground. We're hearing that perhaps that is not enough of a sweet spot for those who want to narrow this, and the other side those who want to make sure that they don't tie the President's hands.

They're probably going to be -- I imagine they're grappling with this as we speak because after this committee Wolf goes -- finishes their classified briefing they're going to go into a meeting and they're going to start to discuss the authorization bill. And the hope was to actually, essentially to vote on it today. We'll see if that is even possible if there is some debate and deliberation about whether this really is again the sweet spot for getting enough votes to authorize force for the president.

BLITZER: It's going to be a hectic and very busy day up on Capitol Hill. Dana, stand by. We're going to be coming back to you -- Dana making the point that at least -- the leadership, the democratic leadership in the Senate thinks that there could be a filibuster. They would need 60 out of the 100 members to break that filibuster; the key vote in the House of Representatives 218 of the 245 members of the House.

We're covering the President of the United States. He just wrapped up a little while ago a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden with the Prime Minister of Sweden. The President making a strong case for a limited, targeted U.S. military strike against various targets in Syria.