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Crisis in Syria; John McCain Gets Earful from Constituents

Aired September 6, 2013 - 15:00   ET


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: I want to talk about the president really having his feet held to the fire over what he plans to do in the event that Congress votes down any sort of use of military force in Syria.

Let me play just this exchange. This is between President Barack Obama and our own senior White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar, in Russia.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: On the resolution to authorize the use of force, one of the big challenges right now isn't just Republicans, but it's from some of your loyal Democrats. It seems that the more they hear from classified briefings that the less likely they are to support you. If the full Congress doesn't pass this, will you go ahead with the strike?

And also, Senator Susan Collins, one of the few Republicans who breaks with her party to give you support at times, she says, what if we execute this strike and then Assad decides to use chemical weapons again, do we strike again? And many Democrats are asking that as well. How do you answer her question?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, first of all, in terms of the votes and the process in Congress, I knew this was going to be a heavy lift. I said that on Saturday when I said we're going to take it to Congress. You know, our polling operations are pretty good, you know, I tend to have a pretty good sense of what current popular opinion is. And for the American people who have been through over a decade of war now with enormous sacrifice of blood and treasure, any hint of further military entanglements in the Middle East are going to be viewed with suspicion, and that suspicion will probably be even stronger in my party than in the Republican Party.

You know, since a lot of the people who supported me remember that I opposed the war in Iraq. And what's also true, is that experience with the war in Iraq colors how people view this situation. Not just back home in America, but also here in Europe and around the world. You know, that's the prism through, which a lot of people are analyzing the situation. So, I understand the skepticism. I think it is very important, therefore, for us to work through systematically making the case to every senator and every member of Congress.

And that's what we're doing. I dispute a little bit, Brianna, the notion that people come out of classified briefings and they're less in favor of it. I think that when they go through the classified briefings, they feel pretty confident that, in fact, chemical weapons were used and that the Assad regime used them. Where you will see resistance is people being worried about a slippery slope and how effective a limited action might be.

And our response, based on my discussions with our military, is that we can have a response that is limited, that is proportional, that -- when I say limited, it's both in time and in scope, but that is meaningful and that degrades Assad's capacity to deliver chemical weapons. Not just this time but also in the future and serves as a strong deterrent. Now, is it possible that Assad doubles down in the face of our action and uses chemical weapons more widely?

I suppose anything's possible, but it wouldn't be wise. I think at that point mobilizing the international community would be easier, not harder. I think it would be pretty hard for the U.N. Security Council at that point to continue to resist the requirement for action. And we would gladly join with an international coalition to make sure that it stops. So, you know, one of the biggest concerns of the American people, you know, certain members of Congress may have different concerns.

There may be certain members of Congress who say we got to do even more or claim to have previously criticized me for not hitting Assad and now we're saying they're going to vote no. You'll have to ask them exactly how they square that circle. But for the American people at least, the concern really has to do with understanding that what we're describing here would be limited and proportionate and designed to address this problem of chemical weapons use and upholding a norm that helps keep all of us safe. And that is going to be the case that I try to make, not just to congress but to the American people, over the coming days. OK?

KEILAR: Just a follow-up. Do you have full congressional approval? What did you say in the House -- would you go ahead and strike?

OBAMA: You know, Brianna, I think it would be a mistake for me to jump the gun and speculate because right now I'm working to get as much support as possible out of Congress. But I will repeat something that I said in Sweden when I was asked a similar question. I did not put this before Congress, you know, just as a political ploy or as symbolism. I put it before Congress because I could not honestly claim that the threat posed by Assad's use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and women and children posed an imminent, direct threat to the United States.

In that situation obviously, I don't worry about Congress. We do what we have to do to keep the American people safe.


BALDWIN: Great question from Brianna.

Let's analyze this. Candy Crowley, CNN political chief -- forgive me -- chief political correspondent and anchor of CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION," and also CNN political analyst John Avlon. Let me just begin with this. Earlier this week, House Speaker John Boehner shocked a lot of people when he said, yes, he supports the president. But since then the tide seems to be turning.

Candy, let throw this at you. Whether you want to call it stalled momentum, slowed, stopped, how does the American president get it back when he talks to Americans on Tuesday?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He may have hit on something I think in that response. And it was, I need to convince people this is short-term. He might also need to convince them it is low-risk, because I have to tell you, I have spent the last 10 days or so as sort of a casual TV news watcher while I was out doing some family things. No one I talked to thought this was a good idea...


CROWLEY: ... across the board. I think there is an underestimation of how strong the negativity is about this, not in Congress, you know, but elsewhere, where it's sometimes hard to really, really poll this.

But I hear nothing but a negative about this idea. And what have you got, but you have a Congress that's been in recess? What are they hearing? The same kind of things I heard. I think it makes it difficult. He has to show them, it's not Iraq, it's not Afghanistan, and make that his selling point, because certainly by saying, well, you know, I can't really convince people it's an imminent threat to us or our allies is not a great selling point.

BALDWIN: So, we wait. Tuesday is a big day.

John Avlon, NPR, big interview this morning, "Morning Edition," Tony Blinken, Obama's deputy national security adviser, said this.


TONY BLINKEN, U.S. DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: After the events of August 21, we reached out to Congress. And we had conversations with members of Congress across the country. And the one thing we heard from nearly all of them was that they wanted their voices heard and their votes counted.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just a couple seconds here. Will he strike?


BLINKEN: The president, of course, has the authority to act. But it's neither his desire nor his intention to use that authority absent Congress backing him.


BALDWIN: Has the authority to act.

John, what does this tell us? What's going on behind the scenes? JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: What it tells us is the White House is ready to act if they need to, but they can't say publicly that they will act without a congressional vote because that will take the momentum that's already moving against them in Congress and compound it even further.

This is a delicate line the president needs to walk. That's why that Tuesday speech is so important. This is about the power of the bully pulpit, the responsibility of the president to go to a war-weary nation and a deeply divided Congress and to make the case that this is about principle, and that's a vote above party.

BALDWIN: When we were listening to the president speaking from Russia, he said -- and I believe he said he feels pretty confident once these members of Congress go in these classified briefings that they will know that it was Assad who committed these atrocities.

Yet let me just -- let me play that sound. And then let me compare it to what one congresswoman out of California had to say.

Roll it.


OBAMA: I dispute a little bit, Brianna, the notion that people come out of classified briefings and they're less in favor of it.

REP. JANICE HAHN (D), CALIFORNIA: I have seen all the evidence. I have read the classified documents. And I don't believe there's anything at this point that will convince me to vote in favor of military force at this time.


BALDWIN: To both of you, Candy first, which is it?

CROWLEY: Well, it could be both. I don't know what her feeling was going into it. But Congresswoman Hahn is a Democrat from California.

She may be -- she didn't say I'm not convinced he doesn't have chemical weapons. She said I just didn't see anything that would convince me to go ahead and strike into Syria at this point. So I think there's kind of two different things. I think there are a lot of people who think, I think he did use chemical weapons. I think the evidence is clear on the TV set, much less what they're hearing in these intelligence briefings. But I just don't think a strike is the way to go.

BALDWIN: John, what do you think? These members of Congress persuadable?

AVLON: Yes, that's right. But I think this is yet another symptom of this profound Iraq hangover that is affecting the nation and the world and the Congress.

BALDWIN: Iraqitis. AVLON: Yes. It's Iraqitis, because last time the case was made about WMD under a different presidency, it ended up being a disaster.

And so there is a credibility gap the president will need to address. There's some folks who aren't going to buy in. Some Republicans are obsessed with opposition to Obama. Some Democrats are obsessed with opposition to U.S. militarism. Those two impulses exist at the base of both parties. The president will have to form a bipartisan coalition, especially in the Senate, where it looks likely, the House a much tougher sell.

But he's got to make that case clearly and publicly and appeal to something beyond these sort of divisions that really divide both parties at the base.

BALDWIN: John Avlon and Candy Crowley, thank you both very much.

Quick programming note. You just heard his voice. Tony Blinken will be live on "THE SITUATION ROOM" today 5:00 p.m. Eastern. And of course watch Candy on Sunday, "STATE OF THE UNION." She's going to talk with the chief -- with the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough. That's Sunday morning 9:00 Eastern right here on CNN. Thank you, thank you.

Many experts say a strike against Syria really is all about a bigger message to Iran and its ambitions to get a nuclear weapon. But a report indicates if the U.S. hits Syria, Iran has ordered a terror attack in the region. We will tell you where and we will tell you how the U.S. heard about this.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is what I think of Congress. They are a bunch of marshmallows. That's what they are. That's what they have become. Why are you not listening to the people and staying out of Syria?


BALDWIN: Frustrated constituents talking to their senator, John McCain, in a town hall moments ago. It also got heated for yet another senator, another Republican at his town hall. We will play it for you, coming up.


BALDWIN: Got another huge development on Syria today coming from Syria's neighbor. Some nonessential U.S. diplomatic personnel and their family members ordered to leave the U.S. embassies in both Lebanon and in Turkey.

The official reason? Unspecified potential threats. But the biggest concern here, Iran's supreme leader with a warning, saying the U.S. will -- quote -- "definitely suffer" if President Obama orders a military strike against Syria.

Joining me now, Matthew Kroenig, assistant professor of government at Georgetown University.

Good to see you back here, Matt.


BALDWIN: Let me just get straight to the reporting. This is from "The Wall Street Journal" reporting that if the U.S. strikes, there may be retaliation from Iran, specifically that Iran has apparently ordered Iraqi militants to attack the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. You're the expert in this neck of the woods. Is that a likely scenario?

KROENIG: Well, the United States definitely needs to take any threat like this very seriously.

So it makes sense to protect the nonessential personnel in the region. On the other hand, the Iranians often make threats like this that they don't follow through on. The reason is quite simple. At the end of the day, Iran doesn't want to pick a fight with the United States, with the greatest superpower on Earth. And so they often bluff like this to try to deter the United States. We have to take it seriously, but I think in the end it's likely that they're bluffing.

BALDWIN: Huh. How much of this really is about the U.S.? Or we heard the president say it's really the world's red line when it comes to chemical weapons usage in Syria vs., perhaps, the bigger threat, Israel's red line?

I can still see Benjamin Netanyahu with his diagram, right, when it comes to nuclear weapons in Iran. Which red line is it?

KROENIG: You're absolutely right that however we deal with the Syrian challenge is going to have implications for our policy in Iran.

But we need to strike a delicate balance here. On one hand, at this point, given all the buildup, if the United States doesn't act in Syria, I think that will have consequences for the president's credibility, for the nation's credibility. It'll be much harder for Iranian leaders and Israeli leaders to believe us when we make similar threats in Iran.

On the other hand, we might still need to use military force to solve the Iranian nuclear issue. So I think we need to be very hesitant about getting involved in an open-ended military conflict in Syria that would prevent us from acting in Iran if necessary.

BALDWIN: I read this interesting analogy in "The New York Times" this morning. So, let me quote this. They were talking about Israel backing a limited strike in Syria.

This is a former Israeli consul general saying this -- quote -- "This is a playoff situation in which you need both teams to lose, but at least you don't want one to win. We will settle for a tie." He goes: "Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death. That's the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there's no real threat from Syria."

Is that what you're hearing?

KROENIG: Well, it's a grim way of putting it, I guess. But if there's a decisive victory in Syria in either direction, it could be very bad for U.S. interest and for Israeli interests. If Assad wins, that would be bad for U.S. interests. President Obama said very clearly a year or so ago that Assad must go.

On the other hand, if Assad falls, there's no telling what kind of government would fill the vacuum. We know that there are radical groups that are affiliated with al Qaeda. It could become a safe haven for al Qaeda to launch attacks against the United States or its allies. So if you do have this stalemate, it does mean that neither side is prevailing and our interests aren't threatened in that way.

BALDWIN: Matt Kroenig, Georgetown University, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

KROENIG: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Senator John McCain gets an earful from his constituents about Syria, passionate opinions, tears, bags of marshmallows.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... sides in Syria. And you could do it. You can do it by negotiate -- by diplomacy and negotiation, not bombs, Senator McCain.


BALDWIN: Well, today, another Republican got an earful. You will hear that exchange next.


BALDWIN: Senator John McCain, one of the earliest and loudest advocates of a U.S. military strike in Syria, got an earful from the people who put him in office back in Arizona. Some people even brought props to make their points.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But do you really realize what you're getting our -- what you're getting our country into with this war in Syria? If you attack the Syrians, who do you think they're going to take it out on? Israel. Why are you not supporting Israel on this one?

We should be backing Israel, not turning away from them. And, second of all, this is what I think of Congress. They are a bunch of marshmallows. That's what they are.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Well, sir, I will be glad to get you information about the exact position of Israel on this issue. You may be surprised. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: And from Arizona, let me show you some pictures in Alabama, where McCain's fellow Republican Senator Jeff Sessions had a much friendlier reception at a Q&A last hour with some Alabama Tea Party members.

Perhaps the big difference here, Senator Sessions is undecided about whether to back a U.S. strike in Syria. And it's still not clear how he's leaning after all this talk with his constituents today.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm reading a book by Colin Powell. It's his autobiography. One of the things he says is war should be the politics of last resort. We should have a purpose that our people understand and support and should go in to win. With that in mind, you opened the door, Syria. Where are we at? What are you going to do?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: The president drew a red line.


SESSIONS: You only have one president. And he's asked us to support him, which I'm glad he asked the Congress. And he asked us to support him in that.

And rejecting that request is a very serious matter for the United States of America. To turn down the president's request is not a matter to be lightly done. And I also said, number three, I don't think the United States foreign policy will be destroyed if we say no.


BALDWIN: So it's not clear how he's leaning. And a lot of people, it's not clear. Take a look at all the gray on your screen. All the gray, these are the votes. That means undecided. Since this morning, six more House members are now saying no to a strike, bringing the total to 115. Look at the Senate with me.

A Democratic senator has joined the no side, the total there, 19.

To our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

And you got word, Dana, not just one, two briefings that will be happening next week from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. What's the goal with those?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Those are going to be very big, very important briefings, because expect really most members of Congress to come back and go to those.

But even as we speak, those briefings have been going on. They have been happening all week long. People have been coming in and out of town because, of course, Congress isn't officially in session right now.

But I spoke with one Republican lawmaker who I think was very interesting, because he sums up a lot of those people in that gray area, those undecided lawmakers. And he talked about what he's hearing back home and what he may or may not do.


REP. RICHARD HUDSON (R), NORTH CAROLINA: My constituents are adamantly opposed to any action in Syria, I think principally because we haven't heard from the president. The president hasn't made the case to the American people.

I think it shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the process by him to wait until the night before the Senate vote to address the American people. I think for many members, that's going to be too late.

BASH: And if he did come out and made a case that was compelling to your constituents, would it help you in voting to give him the authorization he wants?

HUDSON: I'm going to make my decision based on my best judgment of what's in the best interests of the United States.

BASH: Even if it means going against your constituents?

HUDSON: Yes. They elected me to make my best judgments. And I'm not going to -- you know, I'm going to do what I think is right. And if -- and whatever my case may be, I'm going to go back to my constituents and explain it to them.


BASH: Now, again, that lawmaker is, as we speak, inside one of the many, many classified briefings that have been going on all week long, Brooke.

But even though we do on our count have a lot in the gray or undecided area, sometimes, you can sort of feel and taste things here on Capitol Hill. Things are palpable. At this moment in time, the momentum for sure feels like it's going away from the president, not towards the president, a very different feel from, say, two or three days ago when we saw in a bipartisan way congressional leaders come out and say that they support the president.

They're just hearing from their constituents. They're not in -- in many cases, as Brianna put to the president himself, they're not getting the answers that they're looking for, not necessarily on chemical weapons, but on what exactly the military objectives are and what the broader U.S. policy will be towards Syria and dealing with it in the long term. They're simply not getting -- many of them say they're not getting the answers that are satisfactory to them.

BALDWIN: Looks like they're listening to the constituents. They have been on vacation. And they're trying to listen to classified hearings. Which is it? We will see. Got a lot of votes to count next week. Dana Bash, thank you so much in Washington.

Coming up next, I want to talk about comparisons that are being made between what's happening in Syria and what happened in the '90s in Kosovo. My next guest was the special envoy to Kosovo during America's successful military intervention there. And he says there is no comparison. The former ambassador will join me.

Plus, hours after the NFL season kicked off, one of its former stars, here he was, appearing in court in Massachusetts, makes a plea on those murder charges. See what happened in this courtroom coming up.