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Round Two Syria Debate Underway; Senate Panel May Vote On Syria Resolution Today; Interview with Sen. Cardin

Aired September 4, 2013 - 13:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The secretary of state, John Kerry, the secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, yesterday they made their case before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Right now they are testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Making the same arguments, the United States must respond militarily to Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people. The arguments we heard yesterday, they're going into a little bit more elaboration today.

Dana Bash is standing by.

Dana, even as they're arguing on the House side, there seems to be a setback of sorts for the president's call for a resolution of approval on the Senate side from John McCain. What's going on?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There seems to be but it sounds like they are in the process of working it out. In fact, there was a closed-door classified meeting that lasted over three hours today, Wolf, with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, not just getting information that they were seeking in a classified way but trying to work out exactly what the language will be going forward on this authorization bill.

What John McCain said coming out of this briefing is that he has a very specific addition he wants and that is that he wants to put in that part of the U.S. goal is to reverse Hassa's (ph), excuse me, Bashar al-Assad's advances on the battlefield. That's something he wants to put in there. He says it's something that the president assured him is his policy inside the White House when they met earlier this week and he says it's critical for him to have that in there. The top Republican on the committee came out and was very positive about the fact that they were going to get consensus.

So, what we're going to see coming up in the next hour or so is that committee to reconvene probably first in closed session without cameras there. Then afterwards with -- open for the cameras. And we're going to see them begin to debate and ultimately vote on some of these issues. You're going to see kind of regular order here. The sausage being made. John McCain will offer that language in an amendment and other senators will offer amendments as well to try to tweak the language that we reported on last night which already was changed to put a time limit on and make clear there are no boots on the ground. So, we're going to see that process move today. There might even be a final vote just within this committee by the end of the day -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The clearly sensitive issues involved. Dana Bash watching what's going on up on Capitol Hill. Gloria Borger is also watching, our Chief Political Analyst.

Gloria, I would be stunned if the Senate -- obviously, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will pass this resolution. I'm sure the Senate will as well even if there's a filibuster, even if they need 60 votes out of the 100 members as opposed to a simple majority of 51. But the House of Representatives where these three gentlemen are testifying right now. It's much more problematic there. Tell our viewers why.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It's more difficult. It's less predictable. I mean, even though you've had the House speaker, John Boehner come out and his number two, Eric Cantor, come out in support of the president, they don't really carry a lot of weight on this particular issue. People are going to vote their constituencies, they're going to vote their districts. It's clear that Boehner would like to help the president in any way that he possibly can but there's not that much he can do. And when you look back to the vote on the Iraq War, the easy vote on the Iraq War at that time was, yes, supporting the use of fort. In this particular vote, the easy vote is, no, going against the use of force if you're a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. The country is war weary six out of 10 Americans don't want to see the use of force at all in Syria. And so, what the president has to do in the House, and he doesn't have a lot of time, is start changing public opinion because they will react if the public shifts.

BLITZER: All right. Gloria, stand by as well.


BLITZER: Senator Ben Cardin and Democrat of Maryland is joining us right now, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Cardin, thanks very much for coming in. We're going to get back to the hearing momentarily but I'm wondering have you decided how you're going to vote on this resolution?

SEN. BENJAMIN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND, FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Wolf, I am supportive of the United States taking action. This is quite different than Iraq. I didn't support the Iraq resolution. Here, we have a clear connection between the use of chemical weapons and the justification for the use of force. The Iraq circumstances, it was tied to 911 and that was never established. Here, we're talking about a very limited action, no troops on the ground. And Iraq, it was -- it was troops on the ground. Here, we're talking about a limited time period, 60 days is in the resolution we're looking at. In Iraq, it went on for years.

So, we have a very different vote here. And the issue here is if the United States and the international community did not act, it makes it much more likely that we're going to see chemical weapons used and other weapons of mass destruction. The international community needs to speak out against the use of chemical weapons. BLITZER: You know, public opinion, at least so far, not with you, the most recent ABC News "Washington Post" poll which I'm sure you saw asked, should the U.S. launch military strikes against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad? Only 36 percent support that decision, 59 percent oppose it. You've got a lot of work to do to explain to your constituents in the State of Maryland why you're making the right decision.

CARDIN: This is a very difficult decision ever to use force. When the Iraq vote took place, I was on the opposite side of public opinion. That may be the case this go round. What is in the best interest of America? Where do we have to draw the line from the point of view of making it clear that countries cannot use weapons -- chemical weapons? And we thought we drew that line a hundred years ago when we -- almost a hundred years ago when we had a treaty against the use of chemical weapons. It is important that there be an international response.

BLITZER: Well, what happens if Bashar al-Assad reacts in some sort of really destructive way to the U.S. launching tomahawk cruise missiles against his air bases, other facilities, storage facilities, areas where he could use chemical weapons down the road and decides irrational or destructively to release those chemical weapons to Hezbollah, let's say, his ally from next door Lebanon? What happens then? Does the U.S. simply allow that to take place?

CARDIN: Well, we don't know what Assad's going to do. But we do know that if there's no response, he will continue to use chemical weapons. This is not the first time he's used it. He used it in much greater scale killing over a thousand people just two weeks ago. If we don't respond, we know for sure that we are much more likely to see chemical weapons not just against the people of Syria, but it could well be used against their neighbors, Turkey, Jordan, Israel. And it's against the U.S. interest, against the international interest to allow chemical weapons to be used unchallenged.

BLITZER: OK. I raised the question because a lot of people out there, they heard similar arguments going into the Iraq War. The U.S. then got dragged into a 10-year conflict, thousands of American troops lost trillion plus dollars lost in Iraq. And people are wondering, was it worth it when all is said and done? And they're afraid of these unintended consequences. You go into military action with very narrow specific goals. But once the fighting starts, you don't know if the U.S. is going to get dragged into a much broader war. And you're obviously concerned about that as well.

CARDIN: Absolutely. Absolutely. And they are very, very valid concerns. This is a very difficult decision to authorize the use of force. It is quite different than Iraq. As I said, I voted against the Iraq resolution. It was open ended. It was troops on the ground. And the justification was that Iraq was somehow involved in the attack on our country on September the 11th. And they were not.

So, the -- we had faulty information. I just got out of a closed briefing on the facts surrounding the use of the chemical weapons. It's beyond dispute that Assad released chemical weapons on his own people. Believing this is just a weapon he can use killing children. We can't sit by. The international community cannot sit by and say that we're going to allow a weapon to be used that can cause mass destruction such as chemical weapons.

BLITZER: Ben Cardin, the Democrat from Maryland and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. You're going to be voting. We assume that vote will take place in the next hour or two. You have no doubt it will pass the Foreign Relations Committee, right?

CARDIN: I believe it will pass. We still have amendments to take up. And, Wolf, I might say, I support the bipartisan resolution, the balance resolution. We have to see how the amendment process works. I am hopeful we will get the votes in committee.

BLITZER: Ben Cardin, thanks very much for joining us. We'll stay in touch with you.

The president had a news conference earlier today in Stockholm, Sweden in which he said he didn't draw a red line, the international community drew a red line against the use of chemical weapons in Syria. We'll play for you what the president said. We'll have live coverage of the hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Lots more of our special coverage here in the CNN NEWSROOM right after this.


BLITZER: The secretaries of state and defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, they're testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It's getting exciting, a little bit interesting. Let's listen in.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE (live): -- offering to bear cost and assess, the answer is profoundly, yes, they have. That offer is on the table.

With respect to boots on the ground, profoundly, no, there will be no boots on the ground. The president has said that again and again. And there's nothing in this authorization that should contemplate it, and we reiterate no boots on the ground.

In terms of what do you do if it doesn't work? I think I'll let General Dempsey speak to the question of targeting is -- which he can't go into in detail. But we have absolute confidence that what our military undertakes to do, if it is ordered to do so, will degrade the capacity of Assad to use these weapons and serve as a very strong deterrence. And if it doesn't, then there are subsequent possibilities as to how you could re-enforce that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. And the details on the offer and proposal on the table, what are the figures that we are talking about?

KERRY: Well, we don't know what action we're engaged in right now but they have been quite significant, I mean, very significant. In fact, some of them have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing the way we've done it previously in other places, they'll carry that cost. That's how dedicated they are to this. Obviously, that's not in the cards and nobody's talking about it. But they're talking in serious ways about getting this job done.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And in terms of other countries being in the -- in the fight with us with these limited strikes, what other -- what -- time is over? Thank you.

KERRY: Time is up and we better go to Mr. Meeks of New York in order to get through the full panel.

Oh, Mr. Sherman is next? Mr. Sherman of California then.

REP. BRAD SHERMAN (D), CALIFORNIA: The president drew a red line. Presidents often draw red lines in order to deter action. Usually they deter that action to our benefit and at no cost. When America -- when the president drew that red line, I'm not aware of anyone in this room who criticized it or disassociated themselves from that red line. Now, Assad has crossed that red line. It is America's red line.

If we do not act, Assad will use chemical weapons many times in the future. They may will successful for him and dictators with decade -- for decades to come will learn from Assad's lesson that chemical weapons on civilians used on a mass scale can be effective and that the 1925 protocol against their use is a dead letter.

In picking targets, gentlemen, you're going to be torn between the germane and the effective. Germane would be directly related to chemical weapons. But the fact is we want Assad to control, store and keep control of his chemical weapons. And so, you'll be seeking out targets somehow related to the creation, storage, control or delivery of chemical weapons.

And I think that instead you should focus on punishing and deterring Assad by hitting valuable assets that will demonstrate to him that it was a military mistake to hit Guta (ph) with chemical weapons. Even air or navel assets unrelated to the delivery of chemical weapons will make that lesson clear to him.

We have all learned a searing lesson from over 4,000 casualties in Iraq, but we should be aware that there are 150 occasions, and Mr. Chairman, without objection, I'd like to put into the record a CRS listing and analysis of 150 occasions in the last 40 years when America has deployed its forces into dangerous or hostile situations. And in most of those we had limited purpose, limited deployment and the cost was so limited that we've forgotten the incident involved. And I hope very much that what you're planning is something much more along those lines than Iraq.

The resolution that was sent to us - was sent to us on October - on August 31 is obviously flawed. I sent Secretary Kerry amendments the next day, on September 1st. Our colleagues, Mr. Van Hollen (ph) and Mr. Connolly (ph), have proposed a substitute, as has Senator Menendez. I'd like to explore with you what elements a good resolution would have. Know that this resolution adds to the authority you already have under the War Powers Resolution of 1973. Is it acceptable for this resolution to confirm what you've already said, and that is that the resolution itself does not add in any way to the powers of the president to put boots on the ground in Syria. Is that an acceptable position? Secretary Kerry?


SHERMAN: Would a time limit of 60 days, indicating that you might have other authorities to act beyond those 60 days, you might come back to Congress, but what we're authorizing now is limited to 60 days, would that be acceptable?

KERRY: We would prefer that you have some kind of trigger in there with respect to his -- if he were to come back and use chemical weapons again that there would be a capacity to respond to that. If you just have a fixed time --

SHERMAN: Well, you could always come back to Congress or you could have a provision every time he uses chemical weapons you get another 60 days.

KERRY: That would be acceptable.

SHERMAN: The second, the first or --

KERRY: The second.

SHERMAN: And, finally, would you accept a provision that said that you may want to pursue regime change from other -- with other authorities that you have, including arming the rebels under other authority that you have, but that this resolution is limited to actions designed to punish and deter the use of chemical weapons and not to change the outcome of the civil war?

KERRY: The preference of the president is to have this, a narrow authorization, so that nobody gets confused here and people aren't asked to vote for two different things. One thing the president wants is the capacity to enforce the international norm with respect to chemical weapons and to make our word with respect to that meaningful to the region.

SHERMAN: Well, I know your staff will be working with Congress to draft a resolution and the more carefully tailored it is, the more narrow it is, the more likely you are to actually succeed in the House. I hope very much, Mr. Chairman, that we're marking up a resolution in this committee and considering (ph) in regular order.

And, finally, for the record, if you could explain what --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well - yes, that -- afterwards we can introduce the questions for the record. But we need to go now to Mr. Smith, chairman of the Africa subcommittee.

REP. CHRIS SMITH (R), NEW JERSEY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you.

A "New York Times" editorial yesterday, Mr. Secretary or Secretaries, said that it was, quote, "alarming" that President Obama did not, quote, "long ago put into place with our allies and partners a plan for international action." Their word "alarming" that we have failed over the course of the last several years to do what ought to have been done. That's "The New York Times" editorial. Hardly a conservative newspaper.

I have three specific questions. And I would ask that you, to the best of your ability, answer all three. Yesterday, Secretary Kerry, you testified that the Obama administration wanted to make him, that is Assad I presume, regret the decision to use chemical weapons as he has done on August 21st and, as we all know, on previous occasions as well. First question, do we have clear proof that Assad himself ordered it?

Second question, in an interview with Chris Wallace on Sunday, you said that, quote, "actually, Chris, at the very instant the planes were in the air on Kosovo, there was a vote in the House of Representatives and the vote did not carry." That is true. The House of Representatives voted against force against Slobodan Milosevic. Your word very instant, however, is certainly an elastic term. The vote was a full month later. Clinton and NATO's bombing of Serbia began on March 24th and the House voted against it on April 28th.

During that time, there were significant assurances that the entire operation would be of short duration, very limited, and I know many people had thought, including in Brussels at NATO headquarters, that it would last just a few days. It lasted 78 days. Four hundred and eighty-eight to 527 civilian deaths from the bombing occurred in Serbia. And, significantly, Milosevic's retaliation was the invasion of Kosovo and that invasion killed about 10,000 people and put most Kosovo Arbanians (ph) to flight (ph). And I, like perhaps you and others, visited them as refugees. How do you define limited and short duration and what might Assad do in retaliation and what contingency plans do we have when he attacks in other areas that we may not have anticipated?

And finally, I plan on introducing a resolution, when we reconvene, to authorize the president to establish a specialized court, the Syrian War Crimes Tribunal, to help hold accountable all those on either side, including Assad, who have slaughtered and raped in Syria. I wonder how you might think about that as well, whether or not the administration would support such a court. We have learned lessons from the special court in Sierra Leone, we have learned lessons from the Rwandan court and certainly learned lessons from the court in Yugoslavia. It has to be immediate and I think it could be a rallying point. You yourself said, Mr. Secretary, we should send -- you would send them to jail. Well, let's send them to jail. But killing people and not targeting Assad himself may be accountability, but I think there are other alternatives.

I yield.

KERRY: Well, congressman, I actually didn't have time yesterday, because of our testimony, to read "The New York Times" editorial. So I'd like to read it. But I'm -- there is a plan in place. The London 11, so-called, have been working over some period of time, working internationally. Last year, Secretary Clinton joined in, in convening, with the Russians and others, a meeting in Geneva that resulted in the Geneva Communique, which set up a process for transition in Syria. And that is what we are currently pursuing now, together with our allies and friends in this endeavor. And that includes France, Great Britain, Italy, Germany, the Emirates, Saudis and others. So there is an international effort. It may not be - it's not working as well as we would like. It hasn't had its impact yet, fully. But in addition to that, we have seen the president take steps in response to the initial attacks of chemical weapons to increase lethal aid to the opposition that is now known. So as a matter --

SMITH: Real quick, I'm almost out of time, with all due respect.


SMITH: But limited, short duration, a special tribunal on war crimes for Syria.

KERRY: I understand there have been conversations already with Syrians and other countries about a special court. Perhaps we can have more luck with that. I would certainly welcome an effort to hold people accountable for those kinds of abuses. But as you know we, you know, the international courts have not fared well with both parties in the Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Meeks of New York.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we're going to take a quick break. We're going to continue our special coverage of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. They're hearing from the secretaries of state and defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. Sometimes you see some hands going up behind the secretaries. Some pink hands. That's Code Pink. They're protesting what the Obama administration has in mind, namely military strikes against targets in Syria. Our special coverage will continue right after this.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our continuing coverage. The House Foreign Affairs Committee, they're hearing from the secretaries of state and defense, the chairman and Joint Chiefs of Staff. The subject, potential U.S. air strike on targets in Syria. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. And, once again, we want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

All this is taking place just after the president was -- has been meeting with foreign leaders, specifically on this date in Sweden. Obama administration officials in Congress, they're trying to come up with some sort of resolution as to what to do as far as authorizing the administration to go ahead with the use of force. The president was speaking out about that issue at a news conference earlier today in Stockholm, Sweden just a few hours ago and he spoke about that so- called red line warning he gave Syria a year ago.

(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. 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. How credible is Congress when it passes a treaty saying we have to forbid the use of chemical weapons? I do think that we have to act because, if we don't, we're 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.