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Obama's Dilemma On Congress, Syria; Pope Sends Syria Letter To Putin; Rumsfeld Skeptical Of Syria Plan; Cost Of War With Syria; From Dinner Partner To "Thug"

Aired September 5, 2013 - 14:30   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: We are just past the bottom of the hour. I'm Brooke Baldwin. A columnist says President Obama may be turning into the president he never wanted to be. The commander in chief is pushing for U.S. military action in the Middle East region and he waited to the very last minute to seek congressional approval.

Just last year the president campaigned hard on his work in ending the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And when Barack Obama was a U.S. senator, he was a strong supporter of congressional involvement in authorizing military action. With Syria, Congress was not the president's first move.

Joining me, former presidential speech writer for Jimmy Carter and Yahoo! News contributing columnist, Walter Shapiro joins me. It's nice to see you, sir. I know your resume is quite impressive. You've written a lot of things. Let me quote you from your most recent column here. You say this. You called Obama's history defying decision to seek congressional approval in Syria, history defying. Why?

WALTER SHAPIRO, FORMER SPEECHWRITER FOR PRESIDENT CARTER: Why, because ever since the Korean War more than 60 years ago the balance has shifted from the constitutional balance where the power to declare war and send in the military rests with Congress and has been taken by an imperial president. Just name three examples from the last 30 years. Ronald Reagan went into Grenada on the idea of endangered American medical students, although no one ever found any.

Bill Clinton defied a congressional vote and launched a bombing campaign in 1999 over Kosovo, and Barack Obama led from behind in Libya with no congressional vote whatsoever. So Obama going to the Congress for a difficult vote really addresses a congressional -- an imbalance that has been going on for 60 years.

BALDWIN: So what I'm hearing, that's not new. Also what's not new is the use of chemical weapons, sir, being a catalyst here in involvement because we were sitting and we were thinking of over the past three years as we've been covering the crisis in Syria, you know, the number is 100,000 plus Syrians killed. I'm just curious, specifically in this case, why do you think it's the use of chemical weapons, specifically on -- it was on August 21st, that was the trigger for possible intervention here? SHAPIRO: Well, without knowing exactly the thought processes of the White House --


SHAPIRO: -- there are norms of international law. Treatment of prisoners is one. No chemical weapons. No biological weapons and God forbid, no nuclear weapons. And without using the red line analogy, there is a trip wire in life and that there are some behaviors that even amid the violence of this world are just too egregious to stand.

BALDWIN: Mr. Shapiro, we have to talk Russia. We've seen the pictures. Presumably some niceties were exchanged, right, when you saw Obama and Putin shake hands. Who knows? We know the president was meeting with Russian guy activists. This is one of several friction points between Putin and Obama. My question is where did the relationship go so sour?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think it's been going so sour for the longest while. I remember ten years ago when John McCain -- ridiculing George W. Bush about Putin, said, I looked in his eyes and I saw KGB. Fundamentally, this is a Russian nationalist with no respect for democratic norms and, of course, there could be friction points. But friction points are different than the kind of animosity that existed for 44 years from the end of World War II to 1989. We can exaggerate the points of friction with Russia, but it is a long way from the cold war that I grew up with.

BALDWIN: Walter Shapiro, thank you. Make sure you watch CNN's primetime line up tonight. Here's why.


ANNOUNCER: CNN tonight at 7:00, Erin Burnett "OUTFRONT" with crossroads GPS. How is this organization able to spend millions on political campaigns and still keep its tax exempt status? The truth about the IRS. Then at 8:00 on Anderson Cooper, "360," President Obama meets with Vladimir Putin. Will tensions rise more as the U.S. moves closer to a strike against Syria?

And at 9:00 on "PIERS MORGAN LIVE," Syria, everything you want to ask. Chris Cuomo hosts a special town hall event. What should the U.S. do? These stories all ahead on CNN tonight, Erin Burnett "OUTFRONT" at 7:00, "ANDERSON COOPER 360" at 8:00 and "PIERS MORGAN LIVE" at 9:00 tonight on CNN.


BALDWIN: Coming up here, Pope Francis weighing in on the Syrian conflict in a letter to the Russian President Vladimir Putin. What he said, next.


BALDWIN: As we talk about the crisis in Syria, we have to bring up the pope. Pope Francis himself is ramping up his opposition to military intervention there. The pope sent a strongly worded letter to the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, who as you know is hosting the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg.

This is what the pope wrote, in part, quote, "It is regrettable that from the very beginning of the conflict in Syria one sided interests have prevailed." The pope urged G-20 leaders to abandon, quote, "The futile pursuit of a military solution." Pope Francis is calling for a global day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria this coming Saturday.

I want to bring in our senior Vatican analyst, John Allen, joining me live from Denver. John Allen, great to see you. You know all things papacies. We just wanted to bring you on because, listen, this isn't surprising that the pope stands on military intervention as a pacifist. But this idea of Pope Francis sitting down and writing a letter to Vladimir Putin, is this something that's been done before?

JOHN ALLEN, CNN SENIOR VATICAN ANALYST: Hi, Brooke. Technically, the pope and the Catholic Church are not committed to pacifism. What they're against is unilateral uses of force that they think is going to make things worse. That apparently is their calculation with Syria. No, this is not unprecedented.

Ten years ago as the U.S. was getting ready to go to war in Iraq under President George Bush, Pope John Paul II and the Vatican's diplomatic apparatus launched a kind of full court press against it. That's what we're seeing again today. Not only do we have this very sharply worded letter from Francis to President Putin of Russia, but as you say he's called for a day of prayer and fasting for peace on Saturday. He personally is going to lead a service in St. Peter's Square.

This morning, the Vatican called in all the diplomats accredited to it. They have diplomatic relations with about 180 countries including all the major western powers to lay out their case against the use of force in Syria. I think their concerns are pretty clear. At the humanitarian level, they think this is going to widen the conflict and stoke Muslim radicalism.

At the more pastoral level, they're also concerned this is going to make life significantly worse for Christians. That is precisely what happened in Iraq over the last decade. They're worried it's going to happen again in Syria. So Christians represent about 10 percent of the population there. It's one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East. They're worried they would be the first victims of the fall of Assad. So I think that's what's behind the press that we're seeing today.

BALDWIN: That's exactly what I also wanted to ask you about. Just in my reading, something like 6 percent to 10 percent these Syrian Christians make up, in terms of the populous. I know that many of them have been aligned with the Assad regime. When we talk about fallout from a military strike, what may that look like for these Syrian Christians?

ALLEN: Well, look, I think the first thing you've got to understand, you're right. The sort of takeaway in the west is that the Christian leadership of Syria is pro-Assad. You have to understand from their point of view is choice is not between a dictatorship and a vibrant democracy. From their point of view the choice is between a dictatorship and Islamic theocracy in which they're not going to have any place.

In that choice I don't think it's much surprise they tend to prefer the devil they know to the one they don't. I think the Vatican and Catholic leaders around the world are very sensitive to that. All you have to do is look at what's happened in post-war Iraq. At the time of the first Gulf War in 1991 there were an estimated 1.5 million Christians in Iraq.

Today the high end estimate for the number left is about 400,000. Some people think it's closer to 200,000. Most of them got into exile, but a large number of them have been killed. The church in Iraq has basically been devastated. What we're hearing from Christians in Syria today is they don't want to repeat the pattern that was set in Iraq.

BALDWIN: John Allen, thank you very much, a senior Vatican analyst joining us with his perspective.

Coming up next, you are about to hear from Donald Rumsfeld on why he's not a fan of President Obama's strategy against Syria. In fact, wait until you hear what the defense secretary during the Iraq war, speaking of Iraq, what he says about intelligence and facts. Stay right there.


BALDWIN: Former Pentagon Chief Donald Rumsfeld knows a thing or two about launching an assault on a Middle Eastern country because the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq both began on his watch. So as a former insider, he says he's not impressed with how President Obama is handling the crisis in Syria. In fact, Rumsfeld spoke this morning with CNN's Chris Cuomo on "NEW DAY" about the wisdom of arming Syrian rebels and the confusion over the president's strategy.


CHRIS CUOMO, ANCHOR, CNN'S "NEW DAY": A year or so ago, if chemical weapons were used, that's a red line for me, will make me change my calculus. Yesterday, we hear the world drew a red line, not me. What is your take on that?

DONALD RUMSFELD, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, it's a stunning comment. It conjures up the thought of the uncertain trumpet or the trumpet that provides an uncertain sound. Who will prepare themselves? It's exactly the reason that there is not a large coalition wanting to support the president. It's the reason that the Congress is confused.

Because he has spent so much time saying what he would not do and what it would not amount to, that I think people are confused. And the essence of leadership is clarity and providing a vision, and he has not done that. And I think as a result, it's perfectly understandable that people in the Congress are getting arranged to oppose what he's proposing because they find that it's uncertain and lacks clarity.

CUOMO: Do you think it is the better course right now to use military action in these circumstances, or would you advise the administration to think about going heavier on arming the rebels, letting them fight for themselves, heavier on humanitarian aid, and wait? Wait in this situation?

RUMSFELD: Well, it seemed to me that the time to have helped the rebels would have been a year or two before, before 100,000 people were killed and the effect of it might have been greater. Where we are today, my personal view is that what he has proposed is not something that will have a sufficient effect that it's worth doing and I would -- I would personally not be in favor of -- of supporting what he's proposing.


BALDWIN: Donald Rumsfeld speaking with Chris Cuomo this morning.

Coming up, just one Tomahawk missile costs the U.S. more than $1 million, just one. So if there are strikes for several days, how much could this entire operation cost?

Plus, John Kerry and Bashar Al-Assad once shared dinner with their wives. Now the secretary of state is calling the Syrian leader a murderous thug. Next, a look at how their relationship has so changed.


BALDWIN: This is something else we all need to keep in mind when it comes to possible U.S. intervention in Syria. Congress has a huge budget battle looming this fall. Maribel Aber is live at the New York Stock Exchange. Let's talk dollars and cents here, Maribel. Can the U.S. afford to undertake this kind of operation?

MARIBEL ABER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, you know what, the cost right now, that's a big unknown. The reason is because it involves questions we don't know the answers to, right? Like how long will the strike last? How big will it be? With that being said, there are some things you can definitely count on. A strike involves ships. It involves missiles, bombs, bombers and military personnel needs to be trained on all of that.

Of course, get paid for their work. That can add up. You mentioned a little bit earlier, one Tomahawk missile costs $1.5 million. Speaking at yesterday's hearings, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he's looked at the cost estimates.


CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We have given some ranges of this. It would be in the tens of millions of dollars, that kind of range.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ABER: It sounds big, but the defense budget tops $500 billion annually, Brooke. Tens of millions is really a small portion. Also Secretary Hagel says a military strike would probably be funded by the existing Defense Department budget. They wouldn't have to ask Congress for more money -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Maribel, thank you.

He could soon be facing U.S. missiles, but not that long ago Syrian President Bashar Al Assad was seen as a potential partner. Brian Todd takes a look.


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

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Where a thug and a murderer 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 with 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's 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 OF AMERICA: I do not agree with your statement, Madam Secretary, that 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 Darrell Issa, 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 ADVANCE INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Because Assad conveyed the image he's a person you can do business with. That his wife is debonair and western looking and has an English passport and he 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 with Arab/Israeli peace talks. Steven Seche, a former American diplomat in Syria, says there was another motivation as well.

STEPHEN SECHE, FORMER U.S. DIPLOMAT IN SYRIA: 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 it worked. I asked Stephen Seche and Vali Nasr if American leaders had been naive in thinking they could get Bashar Al- Assad to help the U.S. They said no. Assad and his father had both lent help in stabilizing the Middle East in the past, they said. America had to engage Bashar Al-Assad, they believe, to try to keep him in check. Make sure he wouldn't undermine those efforts. Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.

BALDWIN: Brian, thank you.

Coming up, more on breaking news that Britain is now reporting traces of sarin found at the site of the chemical attack in Damascus, does that change things? Fareed Zakaria joins me in addition to someone who was just on the ground in Syria. These two disagree about something pretty key here. That's next.


BALDWIN: In this week's "Human Factor," Dr. Sanjay Gupta introduces us to this amazing young man who survived living in 22 different homes.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I hated seeing you walk out of the door.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The 20-year-old Thomas McRae knows what it's like to have people walk out of his life.

THOMAS MCRAE, SURVIVED GUNSHOT WOUND: My dad took me away from my mom at birth.

GUPTA: But his father was ill, had difficulty caring for him.

MCRAE: I was in 11 homes before I came into the foster care system.

GUPTA: He was 10 when his life changed dramatically.

MCRAE: I was shot.

GUPTA: By a 14-year-old who was living in the home where he had been taken in at the time.

MCRAE: I had to learn how to walk again.

GUPTA: Fortunately the paralysis was temporary, but McRae was still suffering from a different kind of pain.

MCRAE: There was anger. It was rage. It was aggression.

GUPTA: And then the nightmares began.

MCRAE: When I closed my eyes, I remember seeing myself being shot.

GUPTA: After the shooting, the sixth grader was moved into foster care and was promptly diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, ADHD.

MCRAE: I was finally able to get the proper treatment that I needed.

GUPTA: He went on to live in 11 different foster homes. As a senior in high school, McRae asked his best friend's mother, whom he'd known since sixth grade, if she would adopt him, and she did.

MCRAE: It was the greatest day.

GUPTA: McRae just completed an internship with Maryland Senator Ben Carden where he talked to legislators about ageing out of the foster system. He's back at school now studying psychology at Cheney University. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, reporting.


BALDWIN: It's a moment you cannot turn away from, the tense handshake between President Obama and Vladimir Putin, and all of this comes as Putin accuses the Obama administration of lying. I'm Brooke Baldwin. The news is now.