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THE SITUATION ROOM

Obama: I Knew This Would Be A "Heavy Lift"; Americans Give Congress an Earful on Syria; First-Hand Look Inside Syrian Refugee Camps; U.S. Births At Record Low; U.S. Ambassador Makes Case For Syria Strike

Aired September 6, 2013 - 17:00   ET

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


JESSICA YELLIN, HOST: And happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report, Crisis in Syria.

President Obama vows to take his case for military action directly to the American people after a bruising attempt overseas leaves looming doubts at home.

Plus, will the president go it alone and act without Congress' support?

Comments from Obama's deputy national security adviser throw the White House into clean up mode.

Did he overstep?

I'll ask him live just ahead. And our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta inside a makeshift camp on the Syrian border, where thousands of refugees are pouring in, desperate for help.

Wolf Blitzer is off today.

I'm Jessica Yellin.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama is scheduled to land back here in Washington just hours from now after what may have been his highest stakes trip abroad yet. The president is at the critical G-20 Summit in Russia and failed to get international agreement for limited military action against Syria. The biggest holdout, the crucial wild card, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Add to that the barrage of reporter questions he was hammered with at a lengthy news conference, where he was repeatedly hit with questions about Congress and whether members there will get on board his plan.

Here is CNN's senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

JIM ACOSTA, HOST: Jessica, President Obama left the G-20 Summit in Russia without the diplomatic support he wanted for a military strike against Syria. But his problems don't end there, as there is plenty of skepticism waiting for him back in Washington.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): It was a short overseas trip that took its toll, as President Obama appeared exhausted and admittedly gave lengthy answers, side-stepping the question of the hour, asked first asked first by CNN's Brianna Keilar.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: If the full Congress doesn't pass this, will you go ahead with a strike?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: First of all, in terms of the votes and the process in Congress, I knew this was going to be a heavy lift.

ACOSTA: The president declined to answer the question, not just once...

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.

ACOSTA: -- but three times.

OBAMA: Right. And you're not getting a direct response. Brianna asked the question very well, you know.

ACOSTA: A more direct response had come earlier, from one of Mr. Obama's own advisers in an interview on NPR.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "MORNING EDITION," COURTESY NPR)

TONY BLINKEN, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The president, of course, has the authority to act, but it's neither his desire nor his intention to do -- to use that authority absent Congress backing him.

ACOSTA: The president's avoided that one, too, and repeated his case that the U.S. has the evidence to justify a limited strike on Bashar Al-Assad's forces for last month's chemical weapons attack.

OBAMA: My goal is to maintain the international norm on banning chemical weapons. I want that enforcement to be real. I want it to be serious.

ACOSTA: Also sounding serious...

PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translator): It was a very friendly conversation. We'll stick to our guns.

ACOSTA: Russian President Vladimir Putin held his own news conference, where he bragged about the G-20 countries that have adopted his view in opposing action against Syria and he warned Russia is ready to respond either way.

PUTIN: (through translator) will we help Syria? Yes, we will. And we keep doing it right now. We are supplying arms.

ACOSTA: The rhetorical fireworks were a fitting end to what one reporter called Putin-Palooza. With a G-20 Summit that would make the czars proud, the Russian president was clearly strutting his stuff.

President Obama did work in one last dig just before leaving St. Petersburg when he met with a group that represents prominent gay rights activists, an informal protest of Russia's treatment of its homosexual community.

OBAMA: I got my start as a community organizer.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

ACOSTA: The president said he will have more to say about the crisis in Syria in a speech on Tuesday. And even Democrats say he needs to make a more forceful argument for action. As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told one newspaper, "A stronger case has to be made to the American people" -- Jessica.

YELLIN: Thanks, Jim.

And when President Obama delivers that national address from the White House Tuesday, he'll be speaking to Americans across the country, giving members of Congress an earful about possible military action. Tough words that are no doubt weighing heavily on lawmakers' minds.

CNN chief Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is on Capitol Hill -- hi, Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jessica.

Well, you know, people out there who hold Congress in pretty low regard should be happy about the fact that their lawmakers, their representatives, their senators, have come back to Congress early and attended briefings, in many cases, three or four times to try to get the information about Syria and learn the facts before making a decision.

The bad news for the president is many of these lawmakers who have come out of these briefings have told us that they are still undecided, or, in some cases, even leaning no. And they're hearing very much opposition back home.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sorry, it's not just (INAUDIBLE).

BASH (voice-over): Town halls to Twitter, lawmakers the country and cross party lines are getting bombarded with pleas to oppose military action in Syria -- a major factor in momentum now seeming to move against the president. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we shoot a, quote, "shot over the bow" and aren't willing to finish the battle, we're worse off than we started.

BASH: Democrat Emanuel Cleaver is hearing this from constituents in Kansas City.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I say we bail out of everybody and say you guys are on your own.

BASH: Cleaver, a loyal Obama supporter, is leaning no.

REP. EMANUEL CLEAVER (D), MISSOURI: This debate will matter. And so because it will matter, what you have to say matters.

BASH: Ironically, voters at a town hall in the red state of Alabama were less vocal in opposing the president. And GOP Senator Jeff Sessions was more circumspect.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Syria?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where are we at and what are we going to do?

SESSIONS: 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.

BASH: On Twitter, Arkansas Republican Rick Crawford announced he's a firm "no," saying, "In the past week, over 99 percent of calls to my office were opposed to action. You spoke, I listened."

REP. RICK CRAWFORD, (R), ARKANSAS: My constituents are adamantly opposed to any action in Syria. BASH: But some lawmakers, like North Carolina Republican, Richard Hudson, say that opposition does not mean they'll vote "no." He attended the latest classified briefing in order to ask more questions.

REP. RICHARD HUDSON (R), NORTH CAROLINA: 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. I mean, they elected me to make my best judgments and I'm not going to do -- you know, I'm going to do what I think is right and whatever my case may be, I'm going to go back to my constituents and explain it to them.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BASH: Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein already decided to defy her constituents and vote "yes" to authorize military strikes in Syria. SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: There's no question what's coming in is overwhelmingly negative. There's no question about that. But you see, then they don't know what I know.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BASH: And late today, the president won support from New York Democratic senator, Chuck Schumer, who, at least publicly, has been undecided until now. He's a member of the Democratic leadership.

And also, Jessica, Al Franken, who rarely talks to reporters in the hallways, did come out and say that he had attended about 12 hours of classified briefings. And because of that, he is a "yes." That might be why the Senate Majority leader, Harry Reid, is saying that little by little, he does feel that they're going to get there. That, of course, is the Senate. The House is a whole different story.

YELLIN: Dana, do you get the sense from the people you're speaking with that there's anything the president can say in his speech Tuesday night that could make a difference and change people's votes?

BASH: Yes. I was just talking to a Democratic congressman who is genuinely undecided and is really, frankly, torn up about it and said that the president has to do this. He has to address the American public.

He said that out of maybe 2,000 conversations or calls that he's gotten, about two or three have been supportive. And so if the president really wants this, he's got to make his case.

On the flip side, I talked to some other members who are sort of inclined to support this, to support military action, because they think it's morally, and maybe even militarily and strategically, the right thing to do. But they think that the president waiting until Tuesday, perhaps a day before the Senate takes a vote and sort of, you know, too close to the vote, it is maybe too little too late, because so many of their constituents are already so adamantly against doing this.

YELLIN: And it could be make or break.

All right, Dana, we're all going to be watching it so closely.

Thanks for that report.

BASH: Thank you.

YELLIN: Dana Bash on Capitol Hill.

And next in our special report, they are the victims of gunshot wounds, explosions and worse. Our Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes you to the Syrian border, where thousands of desperate refugees are pouring in.

Plus, the White House in damage control after President Obama says one thing about going it alone in Syria and his deputy national security adviser says something else.

What happened?

Tony Blinken live here in THE SITUATION ROOM to explain.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

YELLIN: The number of men, women and children who have fled the bloodshed in Syria now tops a staggering two million people. That's according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. UNHCR says the country is hemorrhaging refugees, who are crossing the border with little more than the clothes on their backs.

CNN chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, got a firsthand look at the suffering at camps in Lebanon.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're in the Bekaa Valley, literally just walking distance from the border between Lebanon and Syria. And we've been to some of the refugee camps, trying to figure out how people are being cared for and what they're seeing here specifically.

We're in sort of this -- this secretive clinic, this makeshift clinic. It was actually a mosque. I want to show you something here. Victims of gunshot wounds or explosions. And they are getting their care now here in this makeshift clinic.

The entire staff, including the doctors, the nurses, all part of that coalition from the Free Syrian Army, as well, operating in this particular area, again, just minutes away from the border.

Now, the concern is, for so many people here, especially the medical staff, what to do if the numbers grow, if they have dozens, hundreds or even thousands of more people. They don't have enough resources. They don't have enough room and not enough supplies to be able to take care of everyone.

So they're trying to come up with emergency plans.

But again, behind me, this is what it looks like. These are some of the consequences that we see what's happening here. So many people having suffered these gunshot wounds and now trying to get the best care that they can -- back to you.

YELLIN: Thank you, Sanjay.

And to find out more about what you can do to help the Syrian refugees, you can visit CNN.com/impact.

Coming up, did a White House official tip the president's hand on Syria?

I'll ask him. Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken joins us live. And was this man short of cash?

Well, he was, and it may have saved his life. We have the story behind this viral video. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report, Crisis in Syria.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

YELLIN: Let's take a look at some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM. The U.S. unemployment rate ticked down a notch in August falling to 7.3 percent. But, that's mostly because more than 300,000 people dropped out of the labor force. Only 63 percent of Americans have a job or are looking for one. That's still the lowest rate since 1978.

Also declining, the U.S. birth rate. It was down last year for the fifth year in a row with just under four million babies born. Experts say the great recession is partly to blame. The job shortage made many young people postpone plans to start a family. They also say the decline is slowing and may soon level off.

A season opener for the record books. Denver quarterback, Peyton Manning, threw seven touchdown passes last night, tying the single game record set in 1969. For Broncos fans, it was sweet revenge against the Super Bowl champion, Baltimore Ravens. They knocked Denver out of the playoffs back in January. Final score, Denver 49, Baltimore, 27.

Take a look at this amazing video, an SUV crashing into a gas station convenient store missing this man by just inches. Australia's 9 News got the surveillance video from Sydney. And get this, the man was buying a magazine, but he didn't have enough cash so he used a credit card when the accident happened. So, if that transaction had ended any sooner, the guy would have been walking right out the door. Save by his credit card.

Coming up next, if Congress says no, will President Obama strike Syria anyway? One of his aides seemed to give the answer today. Now, he's here in the SITUATION ROOM to explain.

And a Republican senator says Syria's president would be acting differently if George W. Bush were still president. "Crossfire" co- hosts Van Jones and Newt Gingrich are here to debate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice-over): President Obama won't say it, but it appears a presidential adviser did. Will the commander in chief strike Syria if Congress says no? Deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, is here to explain exactly what he meant.

Plus, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Syria. One senator makes an unflattering comparison. It's the subject of a crossfire debate.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Jessica Yellin. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: President Obama's ambassador to the United Nations is stating the case for a strike against Syria. Listen to what Samantha Powers said just a short time ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: In arguing for limited military action in the wake of this mass casualty chemical weapons atrocity, we are not arguing that Syrian lives are worth protecting only when they are threatened with poison gas. Rather, we are reaffirming that the world has already made claim in laying down its collective judgment on chemical weapons.

There is something different about chemical warfare that raises the stakes for the United States and raises the stakes for the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: Just one in a series of senior administration officials making the case for Congress to authorize a strike against Syria, and that fight over what to do in Syria is now in the hands of Congress.

Joining me now to discuss it all, two of the co-hosts of the new "Crossfire," former Obama advisor, Van Jones, and former House speaker and presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich. Hello, gentlemen.

NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST, CNN'S CROSSFIRE: : Good to be with you.

YELLIN: Good to be here. Thanks for being with us. I want to ask you about something Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican senator, said yesterday, I believe, about the president's plans for military strikes in Syria. He had a unique take on the situation. When speaking to Tea Party activists outside of Montgomery, he said this. Let's listen and discuss.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, (R) ALABAMA: I do believe in President Bush had told Bashar Assad, you don't use those chemical weapons or you're going to be sorry. We're coming after you, and this will be our consequence. You will not want to bear. I don't believe he would have used it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: So, do you agree if George W. Bush had drawn a red line, Bashar al-Assad would not have crossed it.

(LAUGHTER) VAN JONES, CO-HOST, CNN'S CROSSFIRE: I have no idea what a madman, an insane mass murder who's willing to gas children would do. And the idea that a U.S. senator would, in some ways, put the blame for the murder of these children on the (ph) U.S. president is just shocking beyond belief, first of all.

Second of all, I haven't seen Mr. Sessions in any great ads with George W. Bush. I don't see him walking around loving George W. Bush. George W. Bush made a huge mess over there. We're still trying to clean it up. Last thing is ask Osama Bin Laden whether or not this president is a tough guy when it comes on taking our business.

I thought it was shocking to see a U.S. senator to take that kind of cheap seats of coach with a Tea Party while we're in the middle of a very big crisis on the world stage (ph).

GINGRICH: I guess, I fundamentally disagree on two counts. The first is Assad. Assad is actually a very rational player. He and his father have run the country since 1970, 43 years. the Israelis have a very direct relationship with him. When he does something they don't tolerate, they hit him. They bombed him four times this year.

He gets it. He doesn't counterattack. He understands there are boundaries within which he survives. He's a very shrewd survivor. By contrast, the president, when he was, I believe, in Vienna, when the North Koreans fired off a missile said there will be consequences. There were none. Four or five years, he's promised consequences if the Iranians won't be reasonable, there's still no consequences.

So, I mean, I don't take anything away from him for the killing of Bin Laden. I think that was, in fact, a big decision and a courageous decision, but you can see that he has not had a policy of consistently being -

JONES: Let's talk about Iraq. What we're now seeing is people beginning to make the case -- it's been a tough week in Syria. Syria is, as Samantha Power would call, a case from hell or whatever. He's had a bad week. But you can't take away all the other successes he has had on the world stage with regard to Iran.

He has built a global coalition that is unprecedented. The United States, Russia and China on the same side isolating Iran. Look at Libya. He built a global coalition, got the U.N. dealt with Libya. He's getting us out of two wars. I don't like his drone policy in Pakistan.

But overall, you have towering achievements that George W. Bush could never come close to. He's had a bad week in Syria, and now, he's the worst president ever. I don't agree.

GINGRICH: I think it takes a lot of affection from the president to call Libya a towering achievement. It is a disaster.

JONES: We don't own it. And it's a disaster because the world is letting it to be disaster. But we behave appropriately with regard to Libya. We got the United Nations to come in together and we don't own that the way we own Iraq and Afghanistan --

GINGRICH: But it's a disaster. Benghazi is a disaster. The weapons went down in --

JONES: You blame the president for the disaster in Libya? You blame the president for Gadhafi?

GINGRICH: I just wouldn't give him towering achievement. So, I think you got to look at this. The level of confusion we've seen this week I think is almost unparalleled. You should go back to Jimmy Carter to get the level of confusion. The president today says people elected me to make peace, not war. Well, that's a pretty strange message to send to U.S. Congress when you're trying to get them to vote for war.

YELLIN: Do you miss a decider (ph)?

JONES: We haven't decide -- listen, this president made a decision that action needs to be taken, and he respects our democracy enough to talk to the American people about any create (ph) this process. The same people who are saying before he shouldn't go without talking to Congress and now beating up on him for talking the Congress.

This president, unfortunately, is in a political environment where gets beat up no matter what he does. I don't degree with his desire to do the military strikes in Syria, but I also disagree with these partisan attacks on him. Let's put principle above politics. I guarantee you that Sessions would support George W. Bush doing much dumber things than it being proposed, by anybody with regard to Syria if it were a Republican president.

GINGRICH: Let me just say when you use the term decider," he decided he would attack and then Friday night he did say that he'd go to congress and then he decided he was going to Sweden, then he decided that he was going to be tough, then he decided -- they signed on to a statement in St. Petersburg today that says the key to Syria is a peaceful resolution.

Now, if you take the statement that the White House -- if you take that statement -- much like his I was elected to make peace, not war. Where is the consistent rational signal being sent that would convince a congressman to vote for this?

JONES: I am glad we have a president who understands that these are complicated issues and he talks in complicated terms. He can pull out one sentence or another sentence and say these sentences don't match. But if you listen to the whole of his presentation today, the whole of his presentation, he was, I think, where most of the American people are.

This is a tough issue. He's trying to respect Congress. He's laying out a case. But, you know, this is a president who I think is respected around the world because he's not a warmonger. And I think that in some ways -- listen, I am opposed to this president, doing the war on Syria. We actually agree on that. But I don't think that a tough problem being handled with some, you know, stress and strain here, means that he's a failed president or that George W. Bush could do a better job.

George W. Bush could not do a better job than Barack Obama on foreign policy in the Middle East. That I promise you.

GINGRICH: Well, I think the fact is you have to be communicator- in-chief before you're commander-in-chief. When George H.W. Bush went into Iraq the first time the country was overwhelmingly for it. When President George W. Bush when in to go to Iraq and Afghanistan the country was overwhelmingly for it, because they built the case, they explained what they were doing.

Now I think the president, who I think at times reverts to being a University of Chicago professor.

JONES: Fair enough.

GINGRICH: You suddenly get this wandering around conversation. A little bit like John Kerry who I thought was chilling in the Senate hearing when he said, "I was thinking out loud." You don't want the secretary of state to think out loud about war.

JONES: We do agree on the -- you have to make the case. In some ways the president is struggling because he's trying to start a car in fourth gear. For two years, we haven't had a national discussion about Syria. Now we've got to go all the way to war. So that's -- that's a challenge. That's a challenge. However --

(LAUGHTER)

YELLIN: Why is that?

GINGRICH: I like that. That's good. I give you credit for that one, Van.

JONES: But I'm saying --

YELLIN: Who didn't start the conversation? OK, we're going to come back to this discussion. We are going to come back after a break. But I, Van Jones and Newt Gingrich, and we'll be back after the break.

Coming up next, if Congress says no, will President Obama strike Syria anyway? One top White House official seemed to reveal the answer today. Now he's here in the SITUATION ROOM to explain.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

YELLIN: It's the interview making waves here in Washington and among reporters traveling with President Obama overseas. Deputy National Security adviser Anthony Blinken on NPR this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANTHONY BLINKEN, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: After the events of August 21st, 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 voice heard and their -- their votes counted.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just a couple of seconds here.

BLINKEN: And --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will he -- will the president strike?

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

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: That comment not exactly in line with what President Obama is saying on the issue and sparking a bit of cleanup in the White House.

Tony Blinken joins us now to explain.

Hi, Tony.

Thanks for joining us.

BLINKEN: Hi, Jessica.

YELLIN: The president, at a news conference in Russia today, was asked to address your comment about what happens if Congress says no.

Here's that exchange. And we'll ask you to talk about it on the back end.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your deputy national security adviser said that it is not your intention to attack if Congress doesn't approve it.

Is he right?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think that's exactly what he said, but I think I've answered -- I've answered the question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: Tony, it sure sounds like you're willing to give a more straightforward answer than the president.

Why is that?

BLINKEN: The president gave a very straightforward answer and the president said, earlier in that press conference, that there's no point in jumping the gun. We desire and it is our intent to get the support of Congress and we're working very hard to do that.

That's exactly what he set out to do. And as the president said earlier, this is not a political ploy. We seek its support. It's our intent and desire to get it because we believe we're stronger and more effective when we can act together.

And so that's what I said this morning. You know, I've answered this question a handful of times in the last couple of days. I certainly wasn't looking to make news this morning and give a different answer.

The president said it, I think, very clearly and very authoritatively.

YELLIN: I understand. But to also be clear about what you said this morning, you did say that, "It is neither the president's desire or intention to use his authority without Congress' backing."

Do you stand by what you said this morning?

BLINKEN: So, what I -- what I stand by is that it's our intent and our desire to get their backing. And I probably phrased it inartfully. But the point is, there's no point speculating about what comes next. And as the president said earlier, there's no point jumping the gun. Congress now has to decide. We've been spending a lot of time working with members of Congress to bring them all the information we have.

And what we're seeing is interesting, Jessica. We have, I think, virtually no doubt about two propositions -- that chemical weapons were used in Syria and that they were used by the Assad regime against its own people.

So the only question now is what, if anything, are we going to do about it?

The president has a clear proposal before Congress to take action, to make sure that, to the best of our ability, that Assad does not use it again and that his ability to do so is degraded.

And so the decision now that Congress has to make for itself is, are we going to take action?

The president has been very clear about what he proposes to do. And it is our strong desire and intent to get their support. And we believe we'll get it.

YELLIN: So this issue goes to the heart of the confusion about why the president even went to Congress to begin with.

If he won't agree right now that Congress' vote is binding, why is he even making members take a difficult vote at all?

BLINKEN: So, Jessica, a couple of things. You know, right after this event, the incident on August 21st, the chemical weapons attack, we spent a lot of time reaching out to members of Congress across the country. And they were spread across the country because it was their -- their recess. And we had lots of conversations. And we asked what they thought we should do during these consultations.

And we heard different -- different viewpoints. But one thing was nearly unanimous, and that is that members of Congress said they wanted to be heard, they wanted their voices heard, they wanted their votes counted.

And the president took that to heart. And he believes profoundly that we're stronger and more effective if we can act together on a matt -- a matter of national security, particularly when it comes to the use of military force. That's why we went to Congress.

And the American people, I think, want to hear where Congress is on this. They know where the president is. They want to hear where Congress is, too.

YELLIN: But if you can't get their agreement, you will reject what they say?

BLINKEN: Again, Jessica, there's no point in jumping the gun, as the president said earlier today. Right now, we're working hard to get their support. We believe we're making good progress.

Look what's happened over the last couple of days. We had, a couple of days ago, the leader in the House, Mr. Cantor, as well as the speaker, Mr. Boehner, and then Nancy Pelosi, on the Democratic side, come out in support of this authorization.

Then we had a bipartisan group in the Senate, through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, give the president that authorization. It now has to go to the full Senate.

So we're building momentum. We're building support. That's what we're focused on.

YELLIN: So on the politics, aren't you really just giving wavering members a free "no" vote?

You're setting up a scenario where they can oppose the strike and then hope the president acts anyway so they take no blame if things go south?

BLINKEN: Look, everyone has to stand up and be counted, one way or another. And people will look to see how they vote. And that's a -- that's the way it should be.

And members of Congress, given all the information that we have, have to make their best judgment about what is in the national interests of the United States.

We know what we believe to be in the national interests, which is we need to stand up and do what we can to enforce this principle that's been around for nearly 100 years, that you can't use chemical weapons. That's what's important. It goes to the heart of our national security.

You know, since World War I, Jessica, when poison gas was used to terrible effect, since then, not a single American soldier has been exposed to poison gas, in part, because we established this principle. That's not something we want to undermine now.

And we know that countries around the world that either have these weapons or aspire to get them are watching and lis -- and waiting to see what we do.

And if we don't act to enforce the norm, they will conclude that they can use these weapons a impunity. And every member of Congress has to consider that.

YELLIN: OK, let's move on to another topic.

CNN is reporting that if there's a strike, the Pentagon could deploy long-range bombers.

Is the scope of the US' military effort in Syria expanding?

BLINKEN: Jessica, I obviously can't get into operational details. But let me say this. The president has been very clear that we're talking about something that in scope and duration is limited, targeted, focused, narrow and we believe will be very effective in deterring Assad from using these weapons again and making it more difficult for him to do so.

And that's all I can say on that at this moment.

YELLIN: "The Wall Street Journal" is reporting that if the U.S. does attack Syria, extremists aligned with Iran plan to attack Iraq -- the U.S. Embassy in Iraq.

Is there anything you can tell us about that?

Can you confirm that report?

BLINKEN: You know, Jessica, any time you take military action, there are risks. And we spend a lot of time trying to make sure what all the risks are, what the unintended consequences are. And we take steps to make sure that we guard against them and mitigate them.

And I can assure you that in this instance, we are taking every possible precaution to mitigate any risks that may flow from this action.

At the end of the day, we do not believe that Syria or Iran or anyone else wants to pick a fight with the United States.

YELLIN: And, finally, the president is giving a big speech on Tuesday night.

First of all, is it going to be in the Oval Office?

And how make or break do you think that will be?

BLINKEN: We've got to leave some surprises for you, so I can't tell you where it's going to...

YELLIN: You can try.

BLINKEN: -- where it's going to take place. But the president has been consistently talking about the need to enforce this norm against the use of chemical weapons used by Assad against his own people and against his own children. He's talked to the American people about it before. He'll talk to them again. And I think we can all look forward to the case he makes.

YELLIN: All right, Tony, thanks for coming on.

We appreciate it.

BLINKEN: Thanks, Jessica.

YELLIN: Hope you have a good rest of the day.

BLINKEN: Thank you.

YELLIN: And coming up -- Tony Blinken, national security adviser -- deputy national security adviser, at the White House.

Coming up, reaction to what we just heard from "CROSSFIRE" co- hosts Van Jones and Newt Gingrich, plus how president sell Congress and the country on military force?

You're watching a SITUATION ROOM special report "Crisis in Syria."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Given Security Council paralysis on this issue, if we are serious about -- serious about upholding a ban on chemical weapons use, then an international response is required and that will not come through Security Council action.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: Two of the co-hosts of our new "CROSSFIRE" are back. Former Obama adviser Van Jones and former House speaker and presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich.

So, gentlemen, you heard what the president just said. Do you agree if the president were to get the United Nations Security Council to buy in and support his effort, would that be a plus?

JONES: Obviously it would be a plus. And even though it's unlikely that that could happen given Russia and China's position because of Russia, I think we're making a mistake not to try. People got real mad at George W. Bush when he went to the United Nations, Colin Powell did that huge presentation and then the U.N. turned him down and he went to war.

Well, Obama is skipping that step all together. I don't know how Democrats who criticize George W. Bush for going to the U.N. and ignoring the U.N. can now give Obama a pass not to even go.

I think if we had the evidence, we should put it before the world just like Colin Powell did. A press conference from John Kerry and a speech from Samantha Power is not enough.

GINGRICH: Look, I think they're two different questions. The United Nations is a public relations place to get together and chat. Very useful. But I think this is a sobering reminder that in fact there is no world -- the president is running around saying the red line is the world community's red line.

Well, if the most populous nation in the world, China, doesn't think it's a red line, if the largest country in the world geographically, Russia, doesn't think it's a deadline, if you can't get a majority on the Security Council, it a little bit presumptuous to say that the president defines the world community as those who agree with him.

JONES: But this is -- since World War I, there's been an international norm. This has been outlawed for years and years. I think that the challenge that we have right now is, if you've got to meet three tests here. If the U.N. gives you that mandate, then under international law, it's a legal war. You don't get that mandate, it's an illegal war, but it can still be a legitimate war if you get a big, global coalition like Clinton did with Kosovo.

We don't have legality from the U.N., we don't have legitimacy from a big global coalition, so it puts the president in a very difficult spot trying to sell this to the American people.

My concern is, you know, don't we have other tools? What if there were a dome over Syria, where the missiles just couldn't get in there? Would we just quit and go home? Or will we get very creative? We'd come up with cyber attacks, arms embargoes, peace offensive. There's other stuff to be done. We, somehow, this president has put himself in a position where his very mild comment about a red line now means he has to go to war immediately.

He never said he's going to go to war immediately. I think he's rhetorically put himself into a box. I think there are other options here.

GINGRICH: I think you're right in the sense that he has stepped a step, got himself into this mess, but notice what people don't want to admit here in the city, the Russians like Assad. I mean, you talk about an arms embargo, the Russians are major suppliers. The Iranians don't care about anybody's embargo. They're actually sending troops to al-Assad. So I think this is a much bigger problem. YELLIN: OK. We've got to wrap it. But I have to say, this is an excellent tease, because I can't wait to watch your new show. We are counting down to the debut of CNN's new "CROSSFIRE," which starts Monday at 6:30 Eastern right here on CNN.

Thank you, gentlemen.

GINGRICH: Jessica.

YELLIN: Selling the case for military action to the American people is never easy, but some cases are more challenging than others, and that may have something to do with what's going on at home.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice-over): August 1998, when President Clinton fired on presumed terror targets in Sudan and Afghanistan.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Our target was terror. Our mission was clear.

YELLIN: He was in the heat of another battle at home. Three days earlier, he'd testified --

CLINTON: I engaged in conduct that was wrong.

YELLIN: Right. Remember her?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, don't touch her.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey -- get off her.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Once again, your full name.

MONICA LEWINSKY, FORMER WHITE HOUSE EMPLOYEE: Yes. Monica Samille Lewinsky.

YELLIN: The cynical media linked his military action to the sex scandal.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Video stores are scrambling to meet the skyrocketing demand for the 1997 film "Wag the Dog."

YELLIN: The film is about a president who fakes a war to divert attention from a sex scandal. But polls show the American public supported his decision. Unlike Obama, he launched the missiles in secret. Then explained later.

January 1991. President George H.W. Bush, the first Gulf War.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated. We're seeing bright flashes going off all over the sky.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Pentagon officials say it should -- it should have come as no surprise that this attack started tonight.

YELLIN: The nation was for it. Saddam Hussein had rolled into Kuwait. U.S. allies backs the mission, but there was also this.

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: The increase in oil prices resulting directly from Saddam's invasion is hurting our country, too.

YELLIN: The U.S. was being crushed by a recession at home.

BUSH: Oil prices would be up about $10 a gallon for gas, certainly $5.

YELLIN: And all politics is local.

Cut to 2003.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq.

YELLIN: This shock and awe was sold as a way to prevent another 9/11.

BUSH: We cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

YELLIN: When the intelligence proved flawed it left the country with a hangover.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're war-weary, they're tired, they have a distrust of their leaders.

YELLIN: The nation was open to an antiwar president.

OBAMA: I was elected to end wars, not start them.

YELLIN: The president now trying to sell new warfare to that same war-weary public.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: And coming up, we are getting new information about U.S. military options for a strike on Syria. Details when our special report "Crisis in Syria" continues at the top of the hour.

And straight ahead, New York Police say they've arrested the speed demon behind a viral video.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

YELLIN: New York City Police have put the brakes on an alleged speed demon whose dash cam video became an Internet sensation.

Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He called himself AfroDuck, but instead of swimming around Manhattan's perimeter AfroDuck raced around it. Speeding and weaving on roads not designed for that, then posting this dashcam video to YouTube of the complete loop driven late at night.

(On camera): Twenty-four minutes and seven seconds. Are you impressed?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

MOOS (voice-over): This cabbie was. Our CNN courier wasn't.

ANGEL ROSADO, CNN NY COURIER: I mean, middle of the night, I'm not impressed. Do that in the regular day, I'll be impressed.

MOOS: This is called outlaw racing. Along the 26 1/2-mile route around Manhattan, the driver ran one red light, stopped at six. He added the music of Afrojack and posted his record 24-minute drive. His average speed worked out to around 66 miles per hour.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, he's lucky the cops didn't stop him.

MOOS: But AfroDuck's luck ran out. Days after the video went viral, 30-year-old Christopher Tang was arrested and charged with speeding, reckless driving, unsafe lane changes, following too closely and reckless endangerment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll comment later.

MOOS: AfroDuck's wings have been clipped. Police confiscated his 2006 BMW Z-4. What tools did they have to catch him after the fact?

COMM. RAY KELLY, NEW YORK POLICE: We now have a license plate. We use that position in the city that will assist in this type of investigation.

MOOS: The car blog Jalopnik spoke with AfroDuck when he was still anonymous, asking, "What was your hairiest moment during the lap?" to which he answered, "None, I was always in control."

One angry poster commented, "People are likely to be killed and kill others trying to beat this record."

Imagine having this guy bearing down on you. Give us a brake.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Thanks, Jeanne.

I'm Jessica Yellin. THE SITUATION ROOM continues right now with my colleague, Joe Johns.