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CROSSFIRE

Syria Breakthrough Possible; Interview With Sens. Rand Paul And Robert Menendez

Aired September 9, 2013 - 18:28   ET

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


ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, have the Russians found a solution to the crisis in Syria?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's possible if it's real.

Can we arrive at something that is enforceable and serious?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: The president faces a skeptical public. And sinking poll numbers. What should Congress do now?

On the left, Stephanie Cutter. On the right, Newt Gingrich. In the CROSSFIRE, Senator Rand Paul, who opposes a military strike on Syria. And Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, who supports a limited strike. Can the president convince Congress to attack Syria? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.

STEPHANIE CUTTER, CNN CO-HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Stephanie Cutter on the left.

NEWT GINGRICH, CNN CO-HOST: I'm Newt Gingrich on the right.

It appears the Russians are coming to President Obama's rescue. Astonishingly, moments ago on CNN, we saw him claim credit. Today, the Russians off to help round up and secure Syria's chemical weapons. The Syrians said yes. Here's what the president told Wolf Blitzer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: It is a potentially positive development. I have to say it's unlikely we would have arrived at that point where there were even public statements like that without a credible military threat to deal with the chemical weapons use inside of Syria.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: The president told ABC News that strikes would be, quote, "absolutely," end quote, on pause if Assad gives up the chemical weapons. Now, Stephanie, I've heard of leading from behind, but did you ever think you would see Putin bailing out President Obama?

CUTTER: Well, Newt, I don't know where you've been over the past two years, but we couldn't even get Putin to acknowledge Syria was a risk. He vetoed three security council resolutions just holding Syria accountable for chemical weapons. And Syria wouldn't even talk to us, wouldn't even negotiate with us over the last two years of this civil war.

So I don't think this is leading from behind. I think the only reason the Russians are coming forward with this is because the president put the use of force on the table.

GINGRICH: I think that probably the Russians look at the vote count in the House and thought, "Why wait until the Congress stops him? Let's go ahead and help him out now."

CUTTER: I think that Putin looked at what the president was credibly threatening to do, to hold Assad accountable for chemical weapons, which doesn't just threaten the people on the ground in Syria, but threatens our own troops on the battlefield, and Putin didn't want to have that fight, so this is a great development. We could potentially avert a military action.

GINGRICH: It will be interesting to watch. You think that maybe Kerry's unbelievably small strike comment this morning was the final breaking point?

CUTTER: Well, something worked. Here in the CROSSFIRE, two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: the committee's chairman, Democratic Robert Menendez, supports a strike. And Republican Senator Rand Paul opposes a military strike.

Senator Paul, the first question to you. Why do you think the Russians came forward today, after being so obstructive in the United Nations Security Council for so long?

SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY), SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: You know, I think anytime diplomacy is possible, it's preferable to war. And so I think it's a great development. You know, this is going forward. There have been discussions with the Russians for months. Really, I think onto a year now, there have been discussions with the Russians...

CUTTER: With no movements.

PAUL: Well, but apparently the Russians have been in favor of some kind of negotiated settlement. Had they been completely there? How did they get there? Is the threat of force bringing them there, I think is unknown, but I think it's a good development.

The president needs to take credit on this for it to move forward and to avoid an all-out war in Syria. I say the more the better. I think war or bombing Assad will lead to more instability, and I think we're more likely to see chemical weapons get into the hands of terrorists if we destabilize Assad.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D-NJ), CHAIRMAN, SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: I have to say that I'm cautiously looking at what the Russians are suggesting. We'll see.

You know, after two years in which the Russians have vetoed every effort at the United Nations, including simply recognizing that the use of chemicals weapons in general is a violation of international law, without even ascribing blame at that point in time, they voted against that. They voted against a simple press release, saying -- applauding the opportunity for the United Nations to send inspectors in.

So I'm somewhat cautiously, you know, looking at the set of circumstances. But look, the only reason -- if this is true, if the Russians are serious in their proposal, and more importantly, if the Syrians are actually going to give it up, and they can do that right away at the Security Council in the next day or two, go right in there, with a resolution that's very specific that says all of the sites, unfettered U.N. access, the access not only to those weapons, but to get access throughout the country to determine the sites and be able to secure them? The only reason we might get there is because of the threat of a credible military force.

GINGRICH: So given that threat, Senator Reid has apparently announced this evening that he's going to postpone the vote in the Senate. I mean, the whip count we have seen in the House is like 5 to 1 against. Do you think it would be wiser to slow things down and hold off on those kinds of votes until we see whether or not in fact we can get the United Nations and the Russians to do something that's real and not just public relations?

MENENDEZ: Well, I'm going to defer to the majority leader in the Senate context to determine what's the best way to move forward, working in concert with the administration. If the administration believes that this is a serious effort by the Russians that will, in fact, be embraced by the Syrians, and we can move forward. We can see that in very short order. Then that is obviously a welcomed effort.

But I truly believe that the only reason we are at this point is because the president said he had made a decision that in fact this was necessary, because the Senate Foreign Relations Committee moved forward in a bipartisan fashion, in a targeted fashion to allow this to happen. I think the Russians said, you know, this is a real potential consequence to our own interests.

CUTTER: I agree with you. Senator Paul, what do you think about the delay in vote?

PAUL: Well, I think that it's a great way out for the president, because I think he would have been handed a rebuke. I think it's a very good chance that the House would vote against going into Syria. And then the real question is would he even abide by our verdict, would he abide by the congressional verdict, would he obey the Constitution and say, "I've been told I don't have authority; therefore, I can't do it?" That's been an open question, because he hasn't really admitted that he would abide by it.

Whether it's a good idea or bad idea, in a way, I think it allows diplomacy a little more time to see if it can work this out. It won't get to what the president said he was going to do, which was punish; he was going to Assad.

CUTTER: Well, getting rid of the chemical weapons, I think, was the ultimate goal.

PAUL: Yes. But he was going to punish -- he was going to punish Assad, by not attacking Assad, by leaving him in power...

CUTTER: Right. And send a message to Iran and North Korea that there are consequences. And the consequence here is you're going to give your chemical weapons over.

PAUL: Right. You know, I think it's a good idea to have the chemical weapons turned over to an international authority. So I'm not going to complain about a good thing. So I think it's something that maybe, even though it's supposed to be CROSSFIRE, maybe we can all agree that it would be a good idea not to bomb Syria.

I think bombing in Syria leads to more instability in the Middle East, and that's why I've been opposed to it. I think it makes it more likely that Israel will be attacked; more likely that Turkey will be attacked; more likely that more refugees will go into Jordan. All the bad things we talked about are all more likely if you bomb Syria than if you don't bomb Syria.

MENENDEZ: I think the resolution pretty much says that. This in essence would be a win. What do we say in our resolution? We say that this is to deter and degrade Assad's ability to be able to continue to deliver chemical weapons against innocent civilians. In the last instance where he killed over 400 children.

For me, I look at these pictures and it shakes my conscience. And I'm reminded. I know the speaker is a great admirer of history. I'm reminded of what history has taught us when we do not act in circumstances such as this.

And so I think that, in essence, that's what the resolution called for. If they give it up in this way, we will have accomplished to a large degree, in a better sense, because you can't deliver chemicals weapons that you don't have access to.

CUTTER: Exactly.

(CROSSTALK)

MENENDEZ: ... positive thing. Now you can continue to go ahead against Assad in war crimes, which I certainly think that we should through the United Nations, pursue Assad in terms of a war crimes criminal, which I believe he is for what he's done to his citizens.

PAUL: Here's the problem -- here's the problem for the American people. I don't think anybody doubts that Assad is probably a war criminal. He's done these horrific things to civilians.

But on the other side we've sees priests beheaded by the Islamic rebels on the other side. We've also seen an Islamic rebel eating the heart of a soldier. So it's not like there's no atrocity going on on the other side, and al Qaeda is on the other side. I can't conceive how we would go in and be allies with al Qaeda.

CUTTER: Well, let's...

MENENDEZ: I don't -- I don't suggest that we're going to be allies with al Qaeda. There are vetted elements of the Syrian opposition that we believe that are largely...

PAUL: They're our allies...

CUTTER: No, they're not allies.

MENENDEZ: ... which largely share our values. And at the end of the day, if you just sit back and say, "You know what? There's no consequences to the use of chemical weapons. Go kill another 1,400, go kill another 14,000," at what point does the consequences of those actions not only send a message in Syria, but globally?

We want the ayatollah in Iran to heed our message: Do not cross that line towards chemical -- towards, excuse me, towards nuclear weapons. We want the dictator of North Korea to understand, do not cross a line, as well. This is, I think, even beyond Assad. And if we can get the United Nations quickly to go ahead and intervene and actually obtain all of these chemical weapons, secure them and destroy them, then I think we would have made a very good statement.

GINGRICH: But there's a real distinction between whatever happens in terms of the chemical weapons and the Syrian civil war. And all the evidence we're getting is that the country by enormous numbers, something like 85 percent, is deeply opposed to the United States picking sides in the Syrian civil war, partly because, as Senator Paul said, there's this deep feeling that there's the bad guys and the bad guys.

MENENDEZ: That's exactly -- that's exactly why working with Senator Corker, the ranking Republican on the committee, and getting a universe that went from John McCain, who's very hawkish on these issues, to Dick Durbin, who's very dovish on them, generally speaking, on those issues, to find the balance, and what did we say? No American troops on the ground. We don't want to be engaged in that civil war...

PAUL: Unless the chemical weapons break free.

MENENDEZ: And, in fact, to be able to have a time limit in this regard of 60 days, which many would argue the president has under the War Powers Act anyhow, to be able to proceed.

So it seems to me that what we've done here is not get involved. No one wants to get involved in Syria's civil war, but we may very well have stopped a slaughter and sent an international message on the consequences...

CUTTER: I agree. Senator Paul, I want to go back to...

PAUL: The big exception -- the big exception to ground troops, that Secretary Kerry admitted was, if the chemical weapons were to come free and needed to be secured, we would need 75,000 troops to secure the weapons. That would be troops, boots on the ground. And the question is, is it more likely for that to happen if we destabilize Assad or less likely? I think more likely if the Obama...

(CROSSTALK)

CUTTER: I would like to talk about...

MENENDEZ: At the committee hearing, I must say, at the committee hearing when he was pressed on this issue, starting with me and then Bob Corker, he said, "Look, let's close that door. No American troops on the ground."

And I think the world understands that if chemical weapons caches are open and subjected to the possibility of terrorists getting them, that they would hopefully be an international effort to secure those chemical weapons so they come go against us, our troops, our interests, and...

CUTTER: I think that we would.

PAUL: The question is, is it more likely or less likely? If we destabilize Assad, is it more likely the chemical weapons will become free roaming and terrorists might get them or less likely? I think it's more likely, if we destabilize Assad, that the chemical weapons may fall into the hands of al Qaeda.

CUTTER: Well, OK. Let's hold on a minute. In his interview with Wolf, President Obama also made a strong case for one thing. That is keeping our troops safe. You'll hear him make his case next, and I'll ask Senator Paul if he agrees.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CUTTER: Welcome back. In the CROSSFIRE tonight, breaking news. President Obama told CNN's Wolf Blitzer the U.S. is seriously considering Russia's offer to remove chemical weapons from Syria. The president also made a strong case for enforcing the chemical weapons treaty.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is important for Assad to understand that, you know, the chemical weapons ban, which has been in place, is one that the entire civilized world just about respects and observing. It's something that protects our troops, even when we're in the toughest war theaters, from being threatened by these chemical weapons. It's something that protects women and children and civilians.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CUTTER: Joining us again, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez and committee member Rand Paul.

Senator Paul, again to you, do you think that the United States should be a party to the chemical weapons ban treaty?

PAUL: Yes. And I think one of the problems we've had, and Senator Menendez talked about this. We've had all these votes in the Security Council. To me I consider them to be show votes. We know in advance Russia's going to vote no; China's going to vote no.

CUTTER: So how would you enforce it?

PAUL: Well, what I would say is, instead -- we do this in Congress sometimes, too. Republicans and Democrats, we do a show vote on our side. We lose. And they do a show vote on their side, and they lose, and nothing ever happens.

CUTTER: Too familiar with that.

PAUL: Instead of trying to figure out the areas where we agree and vote on those things, we have two show votes, and then we're done with the issue and nothing gets accomplished.

The Security Council is somewhat the same. So what I would say to the Security Council is, and in general, we need more dialogue with Russians, more dialogue with China. I think, for example, the answer to North Korea is with China and through our diplomatic relations with China. We are...

CUTTER: So how do you specifically enforce the chemical weapons treaty? If the Security Council won't act, because Russia is blocking us, how do you enforce the...

PAUL: Well, we have to convince Russia that it's in their...

CUTTER: We only act when Russia acts?

PAUL: No, no, in order to have diplomacy, people have to feel it's like a transaction. If I give you money for bread, you think you've got something more than what I've got, and I think I've got something more than what I gave. Every transaction, both parties to a transaction feel like you had a victory. That's why we trade.

It's the same way with diplomacy. Russia has to feel like they had a victory, and we have to feel like we had a victory. And that's when diplomacy really works. I don't think we've tried hard enough. We've had the show votes. Russia opposes those. China opposes those. What we need to have is the diplomacy where we say to Russia and China, "We're big trading partners. We want to do thing that will enrich your people, enrich our people."

CUTTER: So when Russia refuses to engage with us in diplomacy, our hands are tied?

PAUL: I think we haven't done a good enough job.

CUTTER: The only reason that Russia came forward this time...

PAULA: I think we haven't done a good enough job.

MENENDEZ: I think.

CUTTER: The thought that Russia won't come forward. Russia is coming forward now, because actually the president started to enforce this treaty.

PAUL: Maybe, but they've been coming forward for a year. We've been talking -- we've been talking with Russia over the last year...

CUTTER: We got to the point where Assad killed 1,400 of his own people.

PAUL: The administration -- the administration -- the administration has admitted that the Russians have already agreed to certain steps with regard to a transition in Russia. They've been saying that all along. They say we're halfway there.

(CROSSTALK)

CUTTER: But in working with people like (UNINTELLIGIBLE), it's a whole different situation.

MENENDEZ: The Russians for two years, for two years -- and I don't think they're show votes, with all due respect to my colleague. I don't think there were show votes. You know, saying that you cannot use chemical weapons isn't a show vote. Saying that, in fact, seeking to get U.N. inspectors is not a show vote.

The reality is, is that Russians for two years have stopped everything. And yes, they supposedly agreed to Geneva 2, which is an effort in which Assad would step aside and there'd be a negotiated settlement in Syria, but they haven't moved towards Geneva 2. Because for so long as they believe that Assad can stay in power, they see their interests with Assad, even though he's a brutal killer of his people using chemical weapons.

And so the only reason that the Russians are now engaged is for two reasons. Number one, they saw the possibility of these strikes as degrading Assad in a way that not only could he not deliver his chemical weapons, but might undermine his ability to stay in power.

They changed and said, "Whoa, that's not in our interests. We've got to change our dynamic. We want to be in the future Syria, and we have an interest." This is the Russians speaking.

And secondly, because they're getting beat up, including in the Arab world, for taking the side of someone who uses chemical weapons...

CUTTER: Right.

GINGRICH: Let me challenge one of your points. You know, the secretary of state today talked about having an unbelievably small strike, and in fact, got John McCain, who ended up tweeting that it was unbelievably unhelpful to have an unbelievably small strike.

I mean, the fact is the Russians didn't think that we were going to degrade Assad that dramatically. And I think one of the challenges, Senator, that you've had with your colleagues, and I know you worked very hard with Bob Corker to have a bipartisan effort here, but if you look at this one poll, the country was asked, do we have a national interest in Syria? By 69 to 29, they say no.

Now, you'd made the case on the floor today that there's a national security interest that's genuine, but the president had the following to say when he was asked, is Assad actually capable of threatening us directly?

And just look at what the president said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: The notion that Mr. Assad could significantly threaten the United States is just not the case.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: So isn't part of the problem with the country...

MENENDEZ: The inference, Newt, is how you describe threat. Now I think the president is talking about what's his armament capability to strike back at us. In that respect, I'm not worried.

I am worried, I am worried about what Assad will continue to do to destabilize the region. I visited the region earlier this year. I had the king of Jordan, who said at this rate, I don't know how long the kingdom can sustain the overflow of the part of the two million refugees fleeing out of Syria. Four million displaced inside of the country, 100,000 dead.

I don't -- I can see the challenges to our ally in Turkey. I can see the consequences beyond that.

GINGRICH: The question -- yes, but...

MENENDEZ: The effect of the national security threat which is, in fact, that you have a situation in Iran where the ayatollah is looking at what the United States is saying -- and I know you think this is one of the national security issues -- and say do not march towards nuclear weapons. That's what we've been saying and the world has been saying.

Well, if in fact he believes, hey, Assad used chemical weapons with impunity, no consequences, the world did nothing, I can march towards nuclear weapons. I think this is also a national security interest.

GINGRICH: So -- so you think the president was wrong today to say today to Wolf Blitzer that Assad can't threaten us? Because I think this is where the country... MENENDEZ: I think it depends what you determine as threat.

CUTTER: Right.

MENENDEZ: If it's in the military context, you know, country to country, I don't think that that is the president's concern. All of our concern is what the security threat is greater, both for the region as well as for our allies.

GINGRICH: The point I would make...

CUTTER: And Assad was bullying this country in an interview this morning. He went on CBS to try to bully the American people and threatening strikes. So I think the president's right to say...

GINGRICH: But here's the point.

PAUL: Even if we talk about indirect threats to American interest or national security, threat to Israel, I ask the question, more or less likely that Israel gets attacked if we bomb Assad. I think more likely.

CUTTER: Yes.

PAUL: If you look at -- let me finish. If you look at the refugee question in Jordan, it is destabilizing to Jordan. More or less likely that there will be more refugees or less refugees if we bomb Assad? I think more likely there's more. And one more, Turkey. More likely that our NATO ally gets attacked or not attacked? I think it's more likely.

(CROSSTALK)

MENENDEZ: I think it's more likely that -- that the ayatollah in Iran says, "You know what? All this bluster about me not getting nuclear weapons," that's an existential threat to the state of Israel. And for us -- forget about Israel for the moment -- for us in that region, to let Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others say, "Well, if Iran has nuclear weapons, we have to have nuclear weapons, too," in the tinderbox of the world.

PAUL: I would agree with you, only to a certain extent. But that's why this is an argument for why the president shouldn't willy-nilly be drawing red lines. And I hope he's learned his lesson.

The more red lines you draw and we let people go beyond them, the less your credibility is. The president has lost face. He's lost credibility. But the United States has a great and ferocious ability to defend ourselves. We saw it after 9/11. And I don't think anybody questions what will happen if we are ever attacked or our interests are attacked.

So I don't think there is all of a sudden American credibility going out the window. The president's credibility's on the line, but American credibility is...

MENENDEZ: That red line was an international red line. It's not just that we said we...

CUTTER: And you said you were for the chemical weapons ban treaty.

MENENDEZ: The Syria Accountability Act the Senate and Congress passed talked about this as a consequence, if Syria pursued and actually used chemical weapons.

And in addition to that, I think that, when we talk about Iran, that is a national security concern of the United States, not only because of our ally Israel, but because of the consequences in that entire region of a nuclear-armed Iran.

And so I don't think it's about the president losing face. It's about whether or not the United States has the credibility in the world to ultimately back up what it says it intends to do and hopefully never have to pull the trigger as a result of having that serious discipline.

GINGRICH: Let me ask you -- let me ask you one brief question. If, in fact, you go ahead with votes in the House, and if in fact the president loses decisively, is he then constrained from acting? Having come to the Congress, is he bound by the Congress?

MENENDEZ: I think the president -- that's a decision the commander in chief has to make. There's only -- we don't have four -- 535 commanders in chief in this country, numbers of members of the House and the Senate. There's only one that the nation elected. In the last election, they elected Barack Obama, because they believed he could move the country's economy, that he could promote the national security of the United States. He'll have to determine that question.

PAUL: Let me answer your question also. Because the Constitution's very explicit. The initiation of war is a congressional authority. It doesn't have it without authority. We had the specific vote, and Senator Menendez voted to table by motion. Every Democrat save one says that the president can willy-nilly go to war whenever he wants to without congressional authority, and that's wrong.

GINGRICH: Well, let me thank both of you. I want to thank Senator Rand Paul and Chairman Menendez. Great for you to come and help us launch CEASEFIRE -- CROSSFIRE. We're going to cease-fire.

We actually have something we agree on about what the president needs to do.

CUTTER: Believe it or not.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CUTTER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, we've been debating whether the U.S. should attack Syria. Now let's call a cease-fire.

We both agree that today's developments with Russia is a great development. We also both agree that the president has a big mountain to climb in terms of getting Congress to approve his resolution. Look at these polls showing overwhelming public support just before the U.S. took military action in Afghanistan and both Iraq wars. Right now, President Obama doesn't even have a majority.

GINGRICH: I think we can both agree, though, this is one of the most tumultuous periods of change I can remember. The last 48 hours, so many different things were happening. It's going to be interesting to see what his speech is like tomorrow night, because it's in a very different setting than any of us expected this morning. And happens 24 hour before he speaks.

CUTTER: I think we also both agree that those poll numbers are not reflective of where the American public really is. This is a war- weary nation. They were duped into war 10 years ago with weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist. And now they're being forced to make a decision on whether the mass destruction can do anything. These poll numbers are not accurate.

GINGRICH: I love your confidence in the intelligence agencies we need to trust. But in any event...

CUTTER: Fortunately, we're double checking, and we have it on tape.

GINGRICH: But I'm going to say, here's another thing we do agree on. Your opinion matters. You can weigh in on our "Fireback" question via Facebook or Twitter. If you were in Congress, would you vote to authorize to strike in Syria? Right now only 19 percent say of you yes; 81 percent say no.

CUTTER: The debate continues online at CNN.com/Crossfire, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

From the left I'm Stephanie Cutter.

GINGRICH: On the right, I'm Newt Gingrich.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.