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Striking Syria?

Aired September 4, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Plus, the risk of helping Syrian rebels aligned with al Qaeda. We're zeroing in on the struggle to identify the so-called good guys.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Right now, President Obama may have a shot of momentum in his fight to convince Congress that striking Syria is the moral thing to do. A Senate committee gave hem the first yet-vote that he needs, but at the same time he national security team got an earful from members of the House of Representatives, where the administration's opponents are often more feisty, less likely to bend.

Chief national security correspond Jim Sciutto has more.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Today, the Syrian debate moved to the less friendly territory of the GOP-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee, some members saying the administration wants to do too much, others too little.

REP. TED DEUTCH (D), FLORIDA: Why does America always need to be the world's policemen?

REP. TED POE (R), TEXAS: Our enemies really don't know what our foreign policy is. Our friends don't know what it is, and I'm not so sure Americans know what our foreign policy is in the Middle East.

SCIUTTO: Secretary Kerry was forced even to confront the ghosts of the administration's last troubled Middle Eastern intervention in Libya

REP. JEFF DUNCAN (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The same administration that was seemingly so quick to involve the U.S. in Syria now was reluctant to use the same resources at its disposal to attempt to rescue the four brave Americans that fought for their lives in Benghazi.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We're talking about people being killed by gas, and you want to go talk about Benghazi.

DUNCAN: Absolutely I want to talk about Benghazi. Four Americans lost their lives. I have sympathy for the people in Syria, and I do think there should be a worldwide response, but we should act cautiously.

SCIUTTO: The administration's case remained the same, framing the confrontation with Syria not as a personal test for the president, but for Congress, the country and the world.

KERRY: This is not about getting into Syria's civil war. This is about enforcing the principle that people shouldn't be allowed to gas their citizens with impunity. And if we don't vote to do this, Assad will interpret from you that he is free to go and do this any day he wants to.

SCIUTTO: Still, President Obama took it a step further, disassociating himself from his red line comment last year that served as the initial spark for action.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.

SCIUTTO: Now he's arguing that it's Congress and the international community, not him alone, who are obligated to punish Syria.

OBAMA: I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line. 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.


SCIUTTO: Both President Obama and Secretary Kerry attempted to use the 2003 Syria Accountability Act -- I have the text right here -- to force Congress' hand based on this line in the legislation: "Syria's acquisition of weapons of mass destruction threaten the security of the Middle East and the national security interests of the United States."

What it does not authorize is military action. It goes no further than economic and diplomatic sanctions. That is the battle that's still very much under way now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Our new correspondent Jim Sciutto reporting for us, thank you very much.

Let's dig a little bit deeper right now with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, our chief national correspondent, John King, and our chief domestic affairs correspondent, Jessica Yellin. Got a lot of chiefs over here.

Guys, thanks very much.

Let me play a clip. This is the president talking about if he had been in the Congress or the Senate, how he might have reacted to this current debate. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: 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.


BLITZER: Jessica, you were our chief White House correspondent for a long time. How telling is that comment?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF DOMESTIC AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: He wants some company. He doesn't want to be the only one taking action. He doesn't have NATO with him. He doesn't have the U.N. He doesn't have frankly any allies outside of France standing with him if he were to take some sort of action here.

So he is saying I want to do this in regular order, which is what the Constitution spells out he should do, but he also wants to do this in step with others. What the vote today said is that if Congress does approve this, it looks very likely the most liberal members won't approve it, the most conservative members won't approve it. It's going to have to be the middle moderate chunk of the House of Representatives, and the Senate that he's going to have to win over to get their backing.

BLITZER: We will see if he can put that coalition together.

Gloria, you have a column on about this whole drama that is unfolding. Among other things, you write, "There is an almost Shakespearean drama beneath the surface, one of political careers made and broken, past positions held, and almost abandoned."

Explain what's going on.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: That's a little bit about what the president was talking about today, because what he said was, look, you know, people remember that I actually called for congressional authorization for the use of force, so they might consider me, well, a hypocrite, although he didn't come out and say that, if I didn't do that now.

I think that's something that clearly weighed on his mind. That's one of those past positions. One of the agonies of this, the irony for Obama, of course, is that he's the anti-war president, calling for the use of force. One of the agonies I point out is John McCain, who does not like President Obama, ran against him, is against his policy in Syria, believe it's not robust enough, thinks we should do more, but in the end will end of supporting him probably, because he thinks it would be catastrophic for the country for the Congress to go one way and the president another.

BLITZER: Let me play a little clip, because this was reflective of some of the tensions in that House Foreign Affairs Committee. This is an exchange Representative Jeff Duncan of scar had with Secretary of State John Kerry.


DUNCAN: Mr. Kerry, you have never been one that has advocated for anything other than caution when involving U.S. forces in past conflicts. The same is true for the president and the vice president. Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating that you would abandon past caution in favor for pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?

KERRY: When I was in the United States Senate, I supported military action in any number of occasions, including Grenada, Panama. I can run a list of them.

And I am not going to sit here and be told by you that I don't have a sense of what the judgment is with respect to this. We're talking about people being killed by gas, and you want to go talk about Benghazi and Fast and Furious.

DUNCAN: Absolutely I want to talk about Benghazi. Four Americans lost their lives. I have sympathy for the people in Syria, and I do think there should be a worldwide response, but we should act cautiously.


KERRY: We are acting cautiously.


BLITZER: That was just a flavor. It really went on. There were some other testy exchanges as well. How much of a problem does the president have in getting this authorization to the House?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That exchange shows you two things. Number one, the president does have a problem, because a lot of conservatives who you would think otherwise -- if George W. Bush were president and was asking for this authorization, it's probably a safe bet Congressman Duncan would be with him.

But you have conservatives who don't have to worry about reelection back home, who are in safe districts, who don't like this president, who oppose this president, and who think the safe vote here is no, number one. The other issue here is, look, there are legitimate questions Republicans have about Benghazi, about the IRS, about other things, but we can have those fights on another day.

This is a defining national security question for the country. It would be nice if Washington could deal with this issue on its own. And I don't think anybody in any party does themselves or their party any good when they veer off into these other things when the question is Syria.

BORGER: And it was personally insulting to John Kerry. I think he took it that way, and I think it was meant that way.

BLITZER: You could see he was irritated. Here's another testy exchange. Remember Representative Joe Wilson, also of South Carolina, he is the one who shouted out to the president when he was addressing a joint session of Congress on health care, "You lie," and all of us remember that. Listen to this exchange.


REP. JOE WILSON (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: With the president's red line, why was there no call for military response in April? Was it delayed to divert attention today from the Benghazi, IRS, NSA scandals, the failure of Obamacare enforcement, the tragedy of the White House-drafted sequestration, or the upcoming debt limit vote?

Again, why was there no call for military response four months ago when the president's red line was crossed?

KERRY: Well, the reason is very simple. The president made a decision to change his policy, but he didn't believe that the evidence was so overwhelming. It was significant, it was clear it had happened.


BLITZER: Jessica, it underscores once again the problem that even if it passes the Senate, and I suspect it will, even if there's a filibuster, I think they will get more than 60 votes in the Senate, but in the House it could be -- getting 218 votes out of 435 members, that could be tough.

YELLIN: It's going to be challenging.

It sounds when he says that to most ears, I think it will sound like that's extreme politics that he's playing right there, maybe even crass politics in this instance, but it's also a reminder that all of these votes are taken in the context of what's going on in the domestic scene.

You will recall when the Iraq vote happened for George W. Bush, he got a lot because it was in the wake of 9/11. When Bill Clinton had to face some of the wars that he was trying to wage, and some of the battles he was trying to wage, he had more a struggle because was dealing with Monica Lewinsky.

Right now, President Obama is struggling because there is so much mistrust of government. And all those things he brought up are about mistrust of government, so there's a lot of skepticism of all the evidence he presents. It's one of the reasons he has a hard time getting this vote.

BORGER: I think the skepticism though is less about the evidence than it is about the mission right now, because there's controversy, you know, some say it's too little too late. Some are worried about unintended consequences. Some say what's our national interest.

This particular congressman was making a domestic political argument, but I think most of the members on the Hill are actually trying to grapple with the issue of is this the right thing to do?

YELLIN: But some of them don't also trust the commander in chief. He also is the same man that doesn't seek authorization of Congress when he went to Libya, he doesn't seek authorization when he went and took out bin Laden.


KING: There's a slice of the Republican Party that would oppose the president if he asked for a resolution saying isn't the sunrise great?

And so you see some of that in the debate. That's the polarized politics. But for the most part, I do think the country is actually having a pretty good conversation and a pretty good debate about, A., whether to do this, and, B., whether the president has a viable plan to do this.

BLITZER: It's sort of telling that Ed Markey, the man who has got John Kerry's seat, the Democrat from Massachusetts, he didn't vote yes, he didn't vote no, he voted present, saying he needs more time to study the pros and cons.

All right, guys, thanks very much.

Up next in our special report, the battle within the Syrian opposition, rival factions with very different goals. Can the U.S. tell who's on the side of the terrorists?

And they're veterans of big political battles over war and peace. Bill Richardson and Newt Gingrich, they are getting -- to face off. They totally disagree on what to do in Syria.


BLITZER: Some members of Congress they are deeply worried if the United States were to attack the Syrian regime it could wind up helping al Qaeda, because some rebel forces are in fact allied with the terrorist group.

Can the U.S. tell the so-called good guys from the bad guys?

Let's take a closer look at the rebel factions, their different goals.

Tom Foreman is over at the magic wall with CNN military analyst the retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona.

What are you guys seeing?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that question is really framed by a series of other questions which are equally important because they help define what is happening there.

For example, what is the right number of insurgent fighters there? We have heard over the past couple days from the administration there could be tens of thousands or 80,000 or 90,000 or 100,000. Why are these numbers so squishy?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's hard to count them because you got such disparate groups here.

You have got people that are coming in from the outside that pretty are full time. And if you can count them, those numbers are hard. But then when you get into the local, the Syrians, the Free Syrian Army, some of the local groups, these are part-time guys. They're welders, they're butchers, they have houses to run, they have jobs to go to, so it's very difficult. Some days they're revolutionaries, and that's the term they prefer, revolutionaries, not rebels. And other days they're family people.

FOREMAN: We often see this presented as a simple battle between the government there, the Assad government and these revolutionary forces out there, but in truth, we now know that this is really many, many, many different groups out there. Correct?

FRANCONA: Correct and with all different agendas, because they are mostly regional, they're working in Aleppo, they're working in Deir el-Zour, they're working down south. They have a different goal and a different outlook for the country.

FOREMAN: When we talk something like the Free Syrian Army, this is almost more of a concept than a real thing?

FRANCONA: Right, because these are all volunteers. Although they think there's a structure there, and they have a national council, they have a commander, they have brigades and battalions, these are all volunteers. They show up when they can or when they want to.

FOREMAN: It's not nearly as coordinated as we might expect another army to be.

FRANCONA: No, not at all.

FOREMAN: Let's talk about another here. What about the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria.

FRANCONA: Yes, this is relatively news. These guys are dangerous. These are imports. These are the ones that came mostly from Iraq. These are hardened Islamic fighters with lots of experience and they are really dangerous.

FOREMAN: That brings us really to one of the key points in all of this, which is what are the goals of these groups? And this is important, because different groups have different goals. Some of them want to overthrow Assad, keep the Syrian government, just have a different group in charge, but others very different goals.

FRANCONA: Well, the group we just talked about, they want to do away with the entire government, they want to set up an Islamic state, probably from the Mediterranean all the way over to the Iranian border.

FOREMAN: There are others that want to break up Syria into two or three or four new countries?

FRANCONA: This is a bad scenario, and this is the Balkanization of Syria. This is where you break up into maybe a Kurdish area that will go part of the Iraq Kurdish area. You have Assyrians. You have got the Alawis up in the Latakia area and the Sunnis.

We could see four little countries.

FOREMAN: This is what makes it so complicated, Wolf. The simple truth is if you want to fire missiles in there and not topple Assad, but maybe help out some of these groups, how do you know which group you're going to help and how much?

BLITZER: That is why it is so complicated. Guys, thanks very much.

Coming up in our special report, is a vote against striking Syria a vote for Bashar al-Assad? Newt Gingrich and Bill Richardson, they are both standing by for a serious debate.

I will ask the president's deputy national security adviser what will happen if, if Congress were to refuse to give the green light to attack?


BLITZER: Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria."

Two political powerhouses, they are about to debate military action in Syria. Stand by for Newt Gingrich vs. Bill Richardson.

Plus, the president's backup plan if Congress refuses to approve an attack. I will press his deputy national security adviser about that and more.

And a flashback to John Kerry's once cozy dinner with Syria's president, the foe he now calls a thug and a murderer.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama is fine-tuning his pitch for military action against Syria, getting a bit more forceful along the way. During his remarks today in Sweden, he challenged the international community to rally behind him, saying its credibility is now on the line.


OBAMA: The question is, after we have gone through all of this, are we going to try to find a reason not to act? And if that's the case, then I think the world community should admit it, because you can always find a reason not to act. This is a complicated, difficult situation.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Let's bring in two guests now with very strong opinions, impressive resumes in the process, the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He's one of co-hosts of CNN's new "CROSSFIRE," debuts next Monday, by the way, and also joining us, the former New Mexico Governor, the Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson.

Gentlemen, thanks very much for coming in.

Should Congress authorize the president right now to go ahead and launch military strikes against Syria?


I think if you watched just yesterday alone, Secretary of State Kerry says in his opening no boots on the ground. Then he says, gee, maybe there are circumstances for boots on the ground. Then when Senator Corker challenges him, he comes back and says, no, I really meant no boots on the ground. I guess I was thinking out loud.

This is a thinking out loud nonplan. And I think that it's very dubious that it's going to achieve anything.

BLITZER: You think that Congress should support such action?

BILL RICHARDSON (D), FORMER NEW MEXICO GOVERNOR: Yes, because American credibility is on the line, and so is the president's.

It's a limited military strike at command-and-control targets against a violation of international norms, the poison gas of thousands. And I believe if we don't act, we're going to lose a lot of support in the region. Israel will be harmed, Hezbollah will get stronger, Iran will get stronger, countries like Jordan will be more vulnerable.

I think it's important to act. It's limited. It's not boots on the ground. The international community, the president tried to go to the U.N. The Russians blocked the Security Council resolution. My view is that members of Congress should vote for this.

They should keep their powder dry, listen to all the arguments, but I think the president also deserves credit for going to the Congress.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Newt.

GINGRICH: First of all, the very concept of a limited strike -- and I heard Secretary Hagel, if I understood him, today say it would only cost tens of a millions, which at about a million dollars per Tomahawk missile, means you're talking 20, 30, 40 missiles.

What do you do the day after? You hit Assad, who is a very tough dictator. His father took over the country in 1970. They have been running this place now for 43 years. You hit him. The Iranians will back him up, and he will get more support from Iran. He's still sitting there. In what way has he -- now, you could say, as Senator McCain wants to, let's go in and let's defeat the regime.

But the president has made very clear that is not his goal.

BLITZER: The American public doesn't want to get deeply involved.

RICHARDSON: No. No, the public -- only maybe 25 percent of the American people want another involvement.

The president has to respect that, but I think what this strike will do is shift the military momentum, which right now admittedly is on Assad's side. They're getting a lot of weapons from the Russians. I believe the strategy also is that these strikes will help arm the rebels more effectively, command-and-control centers, go after their artillery, their launch pads for weapons.

And, politically, I just think that the Arab League, for instance, Arab countries, if we don't strike at this time after this horrific, horrific action of war crimes, our credibility will really be low.

BLITZER: Go ahead.

GINGRICH: Look, I think the idea that every time the president unilaterally without consulting Congress announces a new red line, the country has to do what the president wants or we lose credibility, that's not what the American system is.

We should be having a debate. For example, is Iran a greater threat or Syria? If Iran is a greater threat, why is it we focused on Libya, Egypt and now we're focusing on Syria? We never get quite around to focusing on the only country that's trying to get nuclear weapons that is an immediate direct threat to us. So I think this is out of context.

RICHARDSON: Let me just say something positive about Speaker Gingrich.

When I was in the Congress with him, on presidential leadership issues, he went up and supported NAFTA. He supported Mexico. He was a statesman. And I think this is a similar situation. We're talking about presidential credibility. We're not talking about military involvement. We're talking about responding to a disaster.

BLITZER: How do you guarantee, though, that the United States won't get dragged into a prolonged quagmire in Syria?

RICHARDSON: Well, look, I support our military.

They are position strikers. I won't say they never miss, but they come very close to being -- achieving their goals. And I think they will do that. In the same vein, I think our efforts right now to get international support -- because we can't get it at the U.N., so the president, to get legal justification, has decided to go to Congress.

And I think that's very legitimate. It's the right thing to do, and I think he's going to win.

GINGRICH: OK. I think it is right for the president to go to Congress, because we need this national debate. But let me go back again. I have enormous faith in the American military's technical capabilities. The question is: What's the mission? And if you watch -- and if you actually take all of the hearings for these two days, and you sit down and you go through them, you find out that it's very muddled.

BLITZER: I'll tell you what the mission -- The mission is, according to the resolution that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed, is a limited and tailored mission designed to deter Syria and to degrade Syria's capacity to use such weapons in the future.

GINGRICH: Now, the McCain interpretation of that is to actually set the balance of power against the Assad regime to help the rebels win.

The Leahy interpretation of that is very, very limited strike, which would not change the balance of power. And so what you have is you have a lot of senators -- it's like we're talking about that we're not going to go to war. Just for a second -- I think this total abuse of language is crazy. When you fire missiles, you're going to war. Maybe you're not engaging your infantry, but you're sure going to war.

BLITZER: This is an act of war to launch Tomahawk missiles against another country.

RICHARDSON: No question. Let's look at the reality. Sending these Tomahawk missiles is not going to help Assad. It's going to undermine him. His own military is going to say, "Oh, my, here comes the United States, and more is coming from other countries." So I think it's going to shift the military momentum.

So to say that, whatever the cause of the strike is going to be, it's not going to produce results, it is going to produce results. But I'm not saying it's going to solve them, but it's going to undermine his support regionally. I think Iran is going to hesitate. Hezbollah is going to hesitate. Israel is going to, I think, be stronger, and we're in a way protecting Israel by making this effort.

BLITZER: You're a strong supporter of Israel.

GINGRICH: Yes, but look, I think you have to look at the total situation. The people who are most active in the rebellion are, in fact, radical Islamists. I think the Christian community, which is 10 percent of the country, is under enormous threat if they take over, and I think this has -- this has gotten really way out of control. Two years ago you could make an argument it was a secular opposition. I think it's very hard today to see a good outcome in Syria.

RICHARDSON: I would have supported some time ago, and I said so, these kind of military strikes, but I think the president has been deliberate. I think he's taking it to Congress. He's explaining it to the American people. I think Secretary Kerry is very passionate and eloquent. It's going to be a tough...


BLITZER: Very, very quickly, should they do an Oval Office address to the nation or should they ask for a joint session of Congress?

GINGRICH: I think -- I think he'd be more effective doing an Oval Office address, with his personal style. I think he ought to talk directly to the American people.

BLITZER: What do you think?

RICHARDSON: He should go directly to the Oval Office.

BLITZER: OK. We'll see what happens in the next few days. I suspect there will be an Oval Office address, once he gets back from the G-20 summit.

Coming up on our special report, what will President Obama do if -- if -- Congress refuses to authorize the use of force against Syria? I'll ask his deputy national security adviser if he will attack anyway.

But first here's a "CROSSFIRE" flashback.


GINGRICH: One of the amazing characteristics of "CROSSFIRE" are those moments when somebody is genuinely wise, cuts through everything, and tells you something that lasts for a lifetime.

You're about to see Jeane Kirkpatrick, one of the great intellectual leaders in American foreign policy, in 1988, describe the Middle East. Listen carefully and ask yourself couldn't she have used exactly the same words today?

PAT BUCHANAN, FORMER CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": Given the fact that the Palestinians and Israelis have no common history, no common rental, no common culture, and the Palestinians believe that the Israelis or the Jews came in from Europe and settled right down on their own land. How do you think these two peoples can ever live in tranquility?

JEANE KIRKPATRICK, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: Maybe they can't, any more than the Sunnis and the Shiites in Lebanon live in tranquility or the tribe -- various tribal groups in Syria live in tranquility. You know, or in Iraq.

I mean, this is not an area where people live in tranquility. Every country in the region is still with war (ph), with warring factions who from time to time, really go to war against each other.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: The Senate today takes the first step towards authorizing a U.S. military strike against Syria, but what if the House of Representatives ultimately votes no? Will the president still go ahead with that strike. I'll ask the president's deputy national security adviser when we come back.


BLITZER: Obama administration officials keep saying they're confident that Congress will vote for limited U.S. military action in Syria, but what if that does not happen? I spoke with the president's deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken.


BLITZER: If the House of Representatives votes against a resolution authorizing the use of force, will the president still strike?

TONY BLINKEN, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Wolf, let me say a couple of things. First, when this first happened on August 21. We began to reach out immediately to members of Congress. They were spread all across the country, because it was recess. We heard lots of different things about what they thought we should do or shouldn't do. But one thing that was really unanimous was they wanted to be heard. They wanted their voices heard. They wanted their votes counted. And that motivated the president to make the announcement he made, which is to say, "We believe we need to use force. We're prepared to do it, but we want Congress's authorization."

So they want to be heard. They want their votes counted. That's what needs to happen.

He believes it's very important that we get Congress's support, because when we work together and act together, we're stronger and more effective. And I believe we're going to get it. We just saw today the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thanks to the terrific work of its chairman, Senator Menendez and its ranking member, Senator Corker, pass a resolution to authorize the use of military force in Syria.

So we believe we're on track, we have momentum, and we will get there.

BLITZER: What happens if you don't, though, with the House of Representatives, which is a Republican majority, and there are a lot of liberal Democrats who are anti-war as they call themselves. They won't vote for it. What happens if you don't get that vote in the House?

BLINKEN: So again, Wolf, I believe we're going to get it. And I don't want to get into hypotheticals going forward. We're confident that we will get the support of the Congress.

BLITZER: But can you just tell us you will respect the will of the House of Representatives? BLINKEN: What I can tell you is the president very much wants the support of Congress for the authorization to use force. It is certainly not his desire or intent to proceed without it, but we can't categorically rule anything out, because the president always retains that authority. And it's hard to know what might happen between now and then. But our strong belief is that we will get that support and we'll be able to act pursuant to it.

BLITZER: The most recent public opinion poll, "the Washington Post"/ABC News poll, shows a majority -- significant majority of the American public opposes any military action in Syria: 59 percent oppose, 36 percent support. The president still has a lot of work to do.

When he gets back from the G-20 summit, will he deliver an Oval Office address to the nation? Will he ask for a joint meeting of the House and the Senate? What is he going to do?

BLINKEN: So Wolf, first of all, I think the reaction that you're alluding to is totally understandable. Because when people hear generically about the possibility of military action in Syria, the frame they read that through, the prism that they see it through is the last decade, a decade of war in Iraq, in Afghanistan, 150,000 troops in one, 100,000 troops in another.

It's very important that people understand what this is and what this isn't. What this is, is a targeted, limited action to deal with Syria's chemical weapons, to deter them from using them again, and to degrade their ability to do so; no boots on the ground. That's what this isn't. It's no boots on the ground. It's not Iraq; it's not Afghanistan. It is not even Libya.

So it's understandable that people, their immediate reaction is concern that this would somehow lead to war. It will not. It's a target-focused military action. I believe that, as people understand that, they'll understand the imperative of enforcing this norm against the uses of chemical weapons and responding.

And I can't tell you exactly what the president will do. I can tell you that he will be speaking to this both with members of Congress and with the American public in the days ahead.

BLITZER: Tony Blinken, the deputy national security adviser to the president, thanks for joining us.

BLINKEN: Thanks, Wolf.


BLITZER: Secretary of State John Kerry, by the way, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee today he has no doubt the president will, in fact, deliver an Oval Office address to the nation on the crisis in Syria in the coming days.

Coming up on our special report, Kerry says Bashar al-Assad is, quote, "a thug and murderer," but it wasn't all that long ago we heard some different lines about the Syrian leader from John Kerry. What's going on? Stay with us.


BLITZER: Believe it or not, Syria's president was once seen as a potential partner of the United States. Now his country is a potential target. Our special report, "Crisis in Syria," continues in a moment.


BLITZER: He could certainly be facing U.S. missiles, but not that long ago, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, was seen as a potential partner, with some of the same people now demanding retaliation for his regime's alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people.

CNN's Brian Todd has been looking into this relationship between Bashar al-Assad and some top U.S. officials, including the current secretary of state.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And this has all taken a very dramatic turn. In fact, all four of the top players in the Obama administration now pushing for a strike on Syria at one time wanted to negotiate with Bashar al Assad.

Now, as Wolf mentioned, the change in John Kerry's tone is extraordinary.


TODD (voice-over): This is how Syria's president is described by John Kerry these days.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: You're a thug and a murder, like Bashar al-Assad...

TODD: Kerry's also equated Assad with Saddam Hussein and Hitler, a far cry from 2009, and this image. An intimate dinner between Kerry, Assad and their wives in Damascus.

Kerry, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was a key point man for President Obama's efforts to engage in Syria, meeting with Assad several times. Just days before the Syrian uprising began in 2011, Kerry publicly praised him.

KERRY: President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had.

TODD: Kerry is now among the four main players in the Obama administration making the case to strike Syria, but as senators, all four of them -- John Kerry, Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel and Barack Obama himself -- all wanted America to negotiate with the Syrian leader.

In 2007, Biden chastised Condoleezza Rice after the Bush White House had pushed away from Assad. JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I do not agree with your statement, Madam Secretary, negotiations with Iran and Syria would be extortion.

TODD: But the Obama team cannot be singled out. Colin Powell met with Bashar al-Assad in 2003, when the Bush administration reached out. Assad's met with powerful Republican Congressman Darryl Issa and other members of Congress. He's charmed other world leaders, even the queen.

Why were they all willing to engage with him?

VALI NASR, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Well, because he -- Assad conveyed the image that he's a person you can do business with. That his wife is debonair and Western-looking and has an English passport. And he, you know, touted his education in England, that he had studied medicine, that he was different from the other generation.

TODD: Vali Nasr, a top State Department official in the early Obama years, says U.S. officials also thought they could get intelligence on al Qaeda from Assad, possible help in Arab-Israeli peace talks.

Steven Seche, a former American diplomat in Syria, says there was another motivation, as well.

STEVEN SECHE, FORMER AMERICAN DIPLOMAT: I think it was largely an intention to try to get him away from Iran, from the influence of Ahmadinejad, the supreme leader, and make him, perhaps, someone who could be an active player in international affairs in a positive sense.


TODD: None of that worked. I asked Steven Seche and Vali Nasr if American leaders have been naive in thinking they could get Bashar al-Assad to help the U.S., and they all said no. Assad and his father have lent help in stabilizing the Middle East in the past, they said, and America had to engage him, try to keep him in check and make sure he didn't undermine those acts -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You're getting some other information from State Department officials on John Kerry as a senator, his visits to Damascus back in 2009.

TODD: That's right. Al Burdock (ph), a State Department spokesman, told us, especially on those visit in 2009, Kerry, he said, was testing whether Bashar al-Assad was going to change. He said Kerry was clear two years later, when the civil war broke out and Assad used brute force, that he had to go.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much for that report.

When we come back, President Obama may be getting some flak for putting his foot down when it comes to Syria, but now he's also getting it for putting his feet up. Jeanne Moos is next.


BLITZER: President Obama has already put his foot down making the case for military action against Syria. But now he's getting some flak for putting his feet up. Here is CNN's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's bad enough for any president to put his foot in his mouth, but this president keeps putting his foot on his desk.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know my mother would yell at me for putting my shoes on top of the table.

MOOS: President Obama's being yelled at by some conservatives for his posture while calling the speaker of the House about Syria: "Does seeing President Obama's foot on the Oval Office desk make your blood boil?"

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's offensive.

MOOS: "Looks like an uncouth jerk."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If this were my husband in my home, I would say, "Please get your foot off the desk."

He's under a lot of stress now. I can pass on that.

MOOS: Lou Dobbs wasn't giving him a pass, tweeting, "The White House released the photo, mistakenly thinking it's a cool image."

(on camera): He's getting a lot of flak for putting his foot on the desk.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. It is just cool.

MOOS: It's just what?


MOOS (voice-over): The Web site White House Dosimer (ph) showed a montage of photos of President Obama putting his feet on furniture.

(on camera): And it's not just that his foot is on a desk. It's "the" desk.

(voice-over): The Resolute Desk, a gift from the queen of England in 1880. It's the desk under which JFK Jr. played.

One conservative commenter tweeted, "Ronald Reagan never entered the Oval Office without a jacket. Obama poses for crotch shots with foot on desk."

Obama defenders fired back with this photo of President Reagan in the Oval Office without his jacket. And pictures of presidents Ford and Bush with their feet up on the same desk.

The president's even getting his wrist slapped for the way he's holding his hand: "the offensive way he shaped his fingers like a gun."

Most folks we talked to were resolutely unfazed by the president's fingers and his foot.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A desk is a desk.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It doesn't bother me, because I put my foot on the desk when I have to tie my shoe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If that was your great-grandpa's desk would you be putting your foot up?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. It's more like an IKEA desk.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, that's what I mean. You see, that desk is at his feet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His shoes are probably clean.

MOOS: A lot less "hole-y" than they used to be. Obama the first time he ran for president, Obama in the Oval Office, no more ovals on the soles of his shoes when he stretches those long legs.

Jeanne Moos...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sometimes, you need to find a new position.

MOOS: ... CNN, New York.


BLITZER: And by the way, if you didn't know, they call the Oval Office desk, as Jeanne pointed out, the Resolute Desk because Queen Victoria had it made out of the timber from a British ship called The HMS Resolute.

As the president tried to rally support for his strike against Syria, he reminded the world today of an historic failure to respond to atrocities. At the Great Synagogue of Stockholm in Sweden, the president honored the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust. The visit came just hours before the start of the Jewish new year, and the president offered a traditional holiday greeting.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So to all of our Jewish friends here in Sweden and the United States and around the world and especially in Israel, I want to wish you and your families a sweet and happy new year. Shana tova. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let me echo the president. Happy new year to all of our Jewish viewers here in the United States and around the world.

Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. You can follow THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter, as well. Tweet me, @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.