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President Obama to Address Nation on Syria

Aired September 10, 2013 - 20:00   ET



Good evening, everyone.

There's breaking news tonight in what President Obama will say when he addresses the nation on Syria just about an hour from now. Four themes we're told, including a delay in the march to military action to explore Russia's proposal for ending the chemical weapons crisis. He'll no longer be issuing the full-throated war cry we just expected so9me 36 hours ago. Things have certainly changed.

Nor will lawmakers who met today with the president will talk solely about legislation authorizing the use of force against Syria. They are already considering alternatives. Nor will Secretary of State Kerry be scrambling just to line up a coalition of the willing to strike Syria. Instead he'll be traveling to Geneva to meet with his Russian counterpart.

Things, as we've said, have changed.

And Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad, he can no longer deny he even possesses chemical weapons. His minions already talking, perhaps disingenuously, perhaps not, about disclosing their locations, joining a treaty banning them and giving them up.

Things have changed. They changed so drastically and so quickly in just the last day and a half, it can be hard to keep up.

Tonight as we wait to hear from President Obama, we will try to get you up to speed. We'll walk you through the Russian proposal for putting Syria's chemical arsenal under global control. We'll look at the potential snags, namely whether to keep the threat of force on the table and whether the world can actually trust a dishonest regime and its up until now obstructionist ally.

We start at the United Nations with Nick Paton Walsh on today's frenzy deal-making.

And very quickly, Nick, what's the latest there?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: All eyes really on Thursday's meeting in Geneva between John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, after frankly a bewildering day of closed door diplomacy here. Starting out with the French in the morning who held a series of closed-door meetings to try and get their resolution agreed in some kind of form or text.

But there were a lot of things they bundled in there to try, I think, perhaps and put the Russians off in some way that they wanted to see an outright condemnation of the regime for the attacks on the 21st of August. They also wanted to see the serious consequences on the table if Syria didn't move fast enough to put its weapons under control. And of course, they also threw in there the fact the perpetrators of those attacks could perhaps have a safe place trial in the Hague.

So we saw the Russians move quickly against that, suggesting emergency consultations to the Security Council to address their own potential text of resolution and then out of nowhere they suddenly withdrew the demand for that meeting. No one is quite sure what their game plan is here, but of course, people wondering if it's possible for Washington and Moscow to bridge the enormous gulf in their approach toward this in Geneva on Thursday -- Anderson.

COOPER: So, Thursday, the key -- the key date to look for. The Russians, though, they're saying they would not support any resolution that includes the use of military force if Assad didn't follow through on promises about chemical weapons.

WALSH: Absolutely. That's what Vladimir Putin made clear today, arguing, logically, how could you expect a country to disarm if it's facing the threat of being attacked.

Now we have to work out what is Russia's game plan here? Are they perhaps not liking what they could have presented at the Security Council by the West and seeking to push Syria into unilateral disarmament or are they perhaps thinking they can persuade Kerry into some sort of watered down U.N. resolution during the talks on Geneva here. But really the gulf here enormous. And frankly Moscow, it seems, have the diplomatic ball in their hands in the past 24 hours.

COOPER: Nick Paton Walsh -- Nick, thanks very much.

Considering the last two years of bloodshed and lies coming from the Syrian, regime, maybe what's been so surprising over the last 36 hours is how few of the players have dismissed the initiative outright. Not the Syrians, not the White House, not lawmakers, including some of the staunchest hawks when it comes to Syria.

Listen to Senator John McCain speaking this morning with "NEW DAY's" Chris Cuomo.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: It must be examined and I think we could have a very good initial test, Chris, and that would be the immediate dispatch of monitors, international monitors, to these chemical weapon sites, which we know where most of them are, and secure them so that they can't be used by Bashar Assad, and then we work out the procedures for keeping them under international control and the removal. We could do that immediately. No, I am very skeptical, very, very skeptical, but the fact is that you can't pass up this opportunity if it is one, but you've got to right away determine whether it's real or not.


COOPER: That's the question, is it real or not? And there are a lot of other questions, of course, when it comes to disarming Syria.

Joining us now is a legitimate expert, former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, now a CNN analyst, David Kay. He also serves on the State Department's International Security Advisory Board.

Appreciate you being with us, David. First of all, you hear Senator McCain there saying we know where the majority of the chemical weapons sites are. Is that true?

DAVID KAY, CNN ANALYST: I seriously doubt it, given that they've been moving the chemical weapons as the administration has said itself over the last few months. I think we may know where they -- where they were and we may know where maybe a majority are now, but look, it's going to be up to the Syrians to disclose where they are and the amounts that they have and the types of weapons in each location, if this agreement is to work.

COOPER: This may be a dumb question, but what does a chemical weapons site look like? I mean, are you talking about a -- is it a rocket with, you know, a warhead on it filled with chemical weapons? Is it a warehouse full of chemical weapons? What does it look like?

KAY: Well, relatively little of it is actually warheads sitting on rockets or next to artillery shells or ready for aircraft, although there are some like that. Most of it is stored in fortified bunkers. Sarin is -- relatively harmless, innocuous chemicals. It only becomes sarin when they are mixed together and only done right prior to use because it degrades relatively quickly.

VX is more stable, lasts longer, some of that may already be prepared but most is probably in a binary form. Mustard gas is there. It's the oldest of the chemical class chemical weapons but also in many ways the most difficult to handle and dispose of.

COOPER: Logistically is it possible to safely secure chemical weapons in the middle of a civil war? I mean, how many people would this take? How many inspectors would this take? Do they need protection? What kind of operation would this be?

KAY: To be quite honest with you, no one really knows. We've never tried to do that. Look, I led inspection teams into Iraq in 1991 in very intrusive inspections but it was after Iraq had lost the war but not lost the country. For a matter of weeks, Saddam cooperated with and then they stopped cooperating and we ran into rebuff after rebuff.

But we didn't have other people other than the regime shooting at us. This is a situation, very fluid, it's going to be very difficult to provide both the security as well as the technical issues of securing the weapons, monitoring them so that you're sure no one is cheating, no one is moving, and this is before you even get to the issue of how do you dismantle and destroy this huge stockpile of chemical weapons.

COOPER: So -- right. People say it's the world's biggest stockpile of chemical weapons Syria has right now. In terms of numbers of people involved just to, as you say, secure the sites. We're not even talking about destroying the chemical weapons. Are we talking a thousand people? Are we talking 10,000 people? How many inspectors?

KAY: Well, if the Syrians provide the security, the Syrian Army provides the security, the outer security that protects the inspectors, you could do it probably -- I guess I'd be comfortable with somewhere between 500 to 1,000.

Look, you don't put -- a single inspector at each chemical weapons site. This is teams. And you also need the protective gear. Chemical weapons sites are toxic environments to go in. You inevitably have weapons that leak so you've got to have that whole support structure that will keep you alive and safe while you monitor the weapons that you're supposedly guarding and keeping anyone from stealing.

COOPER: You'd also, I guess, have to buy-in from the -- all the different rebel factions in order to try to ensure some sort of protection for these inspectors. In terms of actually --

KAY: Well, Anderson, let me just say.

COOPER: Go ahead. Yes.

KAY: That's going to be probably the hardest task because we know that at least some of the rebel groups have, historically, over the last 10 years, been seeking chemical weapons for their own use.

COOPER: Sure. Right, you have these al Qaeda-affiliated groups that would no doubt love to have chemical weapons or any other kind weapons.

In terms of actually destroying these weapons -- I mean, well, actually before we get to the destruction of these weapons, just the securing of the sites. I -- in a little bit I just did an interview with a senator who's talking about giving some sort of ultimatum to Syria, saying, they have to provide access to these sites in a matter of days, two weeks, three weeks. Is that realistic at all?

KAY: Well, certainly it'd be a realistic test as to the Syrian's seriousness. The problem is they may well test our ability to follow through on it. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, in The Hague does not have that many inspectors to do it and they're doing other things.

COOPER: OK. And then in terms of destroying the actual chemical weapons, I mean, that's years, isn't it? KAY: If you do it in a safe and responsible way, it's going to take a considerable amount of time. It took years in the case of Iraq. It can be done, but look, dissuade yourself from the idea that you're going to move these chemical weapons to some place outside of Syria. That's probably the least safe thing to do and where would you move them? We can't even move chemical weapons in the United States from one state to the other because of political and environmental objection.

No one is going to want to take a freighter out of Lebanon, load it with chemical weapons, and sail it off somewhere.

COOPER: Yes. A lot of things to consider. A lot of moving parts.

David Kay, I appreciate your expertise. It's really good to kind of get it all clarified. Thank you very much. We'll see you again also later at 10:00 on the "AC 360" later.

I want to get some reaction. I want to bring in former White House Homeland Security adviser Fran Townsend. Fran currently sits on the DHS and CIA External Advisory Boards. Also Mike Doran, former senior director at the White House National Security Council, and currently senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Fran, what do you make of what you just heard from David Kay? I mean, it is very sobering when you actually -- the logistics of this thing?

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: That's right. And that, Anderson, presumes a plan, right? I mean, you're talking about the difficulty in actually executing some agreement that you could get these parties to. It's clear the reason Secretary Kerry is even going to Geneva to meet with the Russian foreign ministers, there is not a plan on the table. Certainly there's nothing I bet they can agree on.

And what kind of an agreement would there be if there wasn't some punitive, potentially military action that would come if they didn't follow through on it?

COOPER: Mike, I understand that you believe the proposal is really nothing more than a charade that simply rewards bad behavior, correct?

MICHAEL DORAN, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Yes. Absolutely. The Syrians are not about to give these up, not for a second. You know, David Kay just explained to us how difficult it is to do, even if the Syrian government was actually a willing participant. They're just going to -- they're going to string this thing along.

I would remind you what former Secretary of State Colin Powell recently said about Assad. He said he's a pathological liar. I don't -- this regime is really in a different class from almost every other regime in the world, with the exception of the North Koreans. They cannot speak honestly. They will not speak honestly. And we would be naive to think that they are.

COOPER: Right. I mean, we should -- on this program we've covered this revolution in Syria very carefully and this war now. There have been a number of promises made by this regime about cease- fires, an agreement with Kofi Annan, and other things that they -- agreements they made with their own people that they have time and again disregarded, violated, completely lied about.

But, Mike, isn't there a benefit to -- or is there a benefit to pursuing this, to at least you get the Russians agreeing to something in the Security Council, and the Russians on record as agreeing to something that if the regime doesn't follow through on, then there's a course of action which would be clear?

DORAN: Well, we have to pursue it because we threw it out there. But I would pursue it like Senator McCain suggested, insisting upfront that they get -- that the Russians get very tough very early. And I -- I presume that the Russians will start watering this thing down right away, but we're making a mistake if we take it seriously, even if they -- even if they agree to it.

The Russians are playing a different game than us. The game for the Russians is not chemical weapons. They don't really care about chemical weapons. They want Assad to win the civil war and what they're getting from this is huge. They're getting basically a unilateral American disarmament.

Even if the Americans don't renounced force, we have now become the partners of Assad in removing the chemical weapons. We have defined the Syrian problem as chemical weapons, not as the Assad regime. That's a huge win for Russia and they're going to keep pursuing that because that's what they really care about.

COOPER: Well, let me -- Fran, let me push back on that idea. I mean, you -- supporters of the Obama administration would say well, look, President Obama is getting -- could be getting exactly what he wanted all along. He really didn't want to wade on -- into the Syrian civil war, though clearly no fan of Assad, he has always drawn the line as the use of chemical weapons and standing up internationally to maintaining that ban on chemical weapons. And this, if it was followed through on, would give him that.

TOWNSEND: Well, the -- yes, Anderson. But let's be clear. So a military intervention in and of itself is not a strategy. I've said that from the beginning. And so a military action, whether you take it or nearly threaten it is part -- should be, needs to be part of a larger strategy that includes a diplomatic effort. And so yes, that's true.

If in fact, the threat of military force actually gets them to the negotiating table and you can accomplish something, that's a win for the president. But I think we have to remember, look, the last time the Russians offered to broker a similar deal, it was what Iran and their enriched uranium and that was also a charade.

I mean, I tend to -- I tend to agree with Mike. I'm deeply skeptical. I think that the history of the Assad regime is one of deceit. The Russians are acting in their own self-interest. And so if this is going to fall apart the administration has got to be very disciplined about testing it quickly and dismissing it quickly if it's -- if it's a fake.

COOPER: You're saying testing it quickly, get some sort of assurances, get some people in there on the ground.

TOWNSEND: That's right.

COOPER: To actually test whether or not we're not going to be able to find all the chemical weapons as David said, very quickly, at least get some people in there and test out the regime.

TOWNSEND: That's right. You've got to know quickly whether or not this is a fake. Because if it's a fake, then the president needs to proceed with this plan.

COOPER: And, Mike, clearly, then, it's essential for the United States if you agree with President Obama to maintain the threat of the use of force, which is something Russia is saying absolutely you cannot do.

DORAN: Well, here's the problem is that the threat of force has really been taken off the table. President Obama was winding up to deliver a kind of half-hearted threat of force and then Congress snatched it from his hands. And this is the thing that bothers me the most about this is that, there is -- if President Obama tests this, as we're suggesting he should, and he finds out that in fact, the Russians are not sincere, what's plan B? What's he going to turn to?

He doesn't really have a credible threat of force anymore? And for that reason he's going to see this as a political -- as his political out and he's got a political incentive domestically to make this look like it's more than it is.

TOWNSEND: Anderson, the one thing I would say, though, is the president going through the steps of testing this may actually allow him and Secretary Kerry to build a broader international coalition.

COOPER: Right.

TOWNSEND: And there is some value in that. And so in fairness to the administration I think that's got to be -- it's got to be seen as part of the effort.

COOPER: It's good to be fair. We'll see what the president says tonight.

Fran, thank you. Mike Doran, as well.

Let us know what you think, you can follow me on Twitter @Andersoncooper.

Next, more inside details on who President Obama will say at the top of the hour and Congress will do. We're going to check in with our co correspondents and hear from a key lawmaker right after this.


COOPER: We have about 40 minutes away from President Obama's address the nation on Syria. The breaking news we're learning that he's going to signal a willingness to explore Russia's diplomatic way out of the crisis. His speechwriter down there scrambling all day, we're told.

And former head speechwriter John (INAUDIBLE) talking to Wolf Blitzer. He's swung by the White House late this afternoon. He said his old colleagues were still tinkering with the language but were just about done.

John (INAUDIBLE) is going to join us shortly.

First the latest from both ends, though, of Pennsylvania Avenue. Senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta joins us from the North Lawn of the White House. Chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is at the capital.

Jim, let's begin with you. We've noted some of broad themes we're hearing the president is going to outline tonight. Key questions seems to be a timeline for this diplomatic effort. Do we know the president will actually set a timeline?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, I talked to a top White House official tonight who they said no, they really don't expect the president to issue a hard and fast timeline but they also said President Bashar al-Assad of Syria does not have forever to carry out the -- Syria's promise of getting rid of its chemical weapons stockpiles.

They are going to be saying that the president is going to through four themes tonight, Anderson. One, why Syria and its use of chemical weapons according to the White House is in the national interest of the U.S. Why Bashar al-Assad should be held accountable for the use of those weapons.

Also, Anderson, the president is expected to talk about the military response. We've heard some of this before but he's going to re-emphasize how a military response, if it comes to that, will be limited in scope. It will not be another Iraq, it will not be another Syria or Libya, the president is expected to say tonight.

And also, and finally, Anderson, the developments of the last 24 hours, this diplomatic opportunity that came out of the Russian proposal for Bashar al-Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons that are in his country now, the president is going to be walking through that in his speech tonight.

But Anderson, getting back to that timeline, this White House official did say that while there is a delay, the president is calling a -- calling for a delay before any kind of action is taken, military action is taken that this is not an indefinite delay. That was the message that he took up to Capitol Hill earlier today. It's the message he's going to be delivering tonight that Bashar al-Assad has time, just not much time -- Anderson.

COOPER: Jim, thanks.

Dana, what do we know about his meeting -- about the president's trip up to Capitol Hill today. I mean, what are you hearing from senators?

BASH: What a difference it really was versus what it was supposed to be. The president or the White House asked if he could come up today to talk to Democratic senators or Republican senators in order to convince them to vote for military action against Syria, and what happened was, things changed so much over the past 24 hours.

What he did was come up and say, you know what, I need some time, guys. I need some time to let this diplomatic process play out.

And what -- reading between the lines, according to so many senators I spoke to in both of these meetings, what he was saying was, I need some time because he knows based on what we have been reporting and what they are hearing, these resolutions were not going to pass either the Democratic Senate or Republican-led House. So they don't want to do anything that will undermine what they say is really critical for this diplomatic process, which is the actual threat of military force. So that's one of the main reasons they -- they don't want to take any votes right now.

And one other piece of color I heard at least on the Republican meeting today, and that is, he made clear to them that he knows that overwhelming opposition is out there in the public and that even he can't turn the tide in a big way. He said with regard to his speaking skills, he said I'm good but I'm not that good -- Anderson.

COOPER: Interesting. Well, we'll see how he is tonight. More on the legislative side of things.

A short time ago, I spoke with one of the key players, Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania.


COOPER: So, Senator, this alternative resolution that you're working on, as I understand it, it would require passage of the U.N. Security Council Resolution condemning Assad's use of chemical weapons, and set some kind of a deadline for the U.N. to get control of the stockpile, a military strike would then be authorized if that deadline isn't met.

What more can you tell us about it?

SEN. BOB CASEY JR. (D), PENNSYLVANIA: What we're trying to do is to do every everything possible to make sure first and foremost that the regime in Syria and the Russians know that we're going to continue to pressure them to come to a resolution of this, but I think there is enough consensus to develop a strategy where we might be able to get an even better result, meaning all chemical weapons out of Syria without fail. So that means the Syrians and really the ball in the court of the Syrian regime and the Russian federation.

COOPER: In terms of this resolution, though, Putin -- Vladimir Putin said earlier today that this can only work if the U.S. and other countries will renounce any plan to use force against Syria. For you, is that threat of force continuing essential?

CASEY: I think it's critical to continue to put pressure, and that's the only reason we're having these discussions.


COOPER: Do you think we're only here because of that threat of force?

CASEY: Right, exactly. But I do think that we -- I don't want to -- I don't like what Mr. Putin said today and it would -- if he thinks that insisting on that will move us to move in that direction, I think he's mistaken. But, look, some of these are rhetorical back- and-forth that sometimes happens at this stage.

So I don't put too much weight on that yet but I think we've got to continue to let them know that this was a crime against humanity, and it needs a response.

COOPER: How realistic do you think it is for this regime, for the Assad regime, to get rid of their stockpiles? They have -- I mean, according to a lot of reports, the world's largest stockpile of chemical weapons. You know, David Kay, a weapons inspector, said it would take more than a thousand inspectors on the ground there, who knows how many people, to try to protect those inspectors, probably the agreement of rebels, as well as the Assad regime, and it would still take a very long time to actually destroy these stockpiles.

So how realistic is this?

CASEY: It is -- I think it's a difficult challenge but my sense of this and this -- we're still looking at this from -- we have to examine some intelligence as well but my sense of this is that there is a cumulative nature to the intel that our government has, the intel that's been developed in the region by several different countries. So I think it's is a pretty good sense of where these are. The Russians themselves, of course, can help us.

Now the regime in Syria claims, they assert that they will -- they will be very forthright in making sure that they -- they take inspectors and representatives of the U.N. and the international community to the sites. There has to be unfettered access. It has to be a complete and total removal --

COOPER: You're talking about a relatively short timetable. Do you have a number in mind? I mean, do you have a sense of how long the regime should be given to, at the very least, account for, you know, or open up, bringing inspectors to their sites? You know, destroying them is a whole other issue, I suppose.

CASEY: If it were up to me, if I had to make my own call on this, I would say it would be days for sure and not weeks. Some have suggested a window of maybe two weeks. But we'll have to work with the administration and those who can give us a better sense of how long this might take. But it has to be a reasonable length of time, but not such a length that you get into a delay and therefore the pressure and the urgency to deal with this crime is diminished or degraded.

COOPER: So you're saying you would want the -- Syrian regime within the space of two weeks or days, you said, to what? Provide access to the sites -- all their sites, to U.N. personnel?

CASEY: Absolutely. Now the -- a precondition to even take that step would have to be a U.N. Security Council Resolution. But I do think that there is a growing consensus that this might be a way to deal with the problem forthrightly but deal with the problem in a way that you remove the threat completely and you do it without having to use a military means to achieve that end. It could be a better result, frankly, than he might be able to achieve with the military operation.

COOPER: There are -- no doubt there are a lot of people who believe that the United States, that you, that the administration is basically being snowed by Russia or by Syria, to that you say what?

CASEY: Well, when I first heard it, I was -- I was frankly dismissive of it, but in the last 24 hours, based upon reporting that's been done, based upon some briefings, of talking to the president today in our -- in our caucus, I have a better sense now about the parameters of this and the potential.

I still have a lot of skepticism. Someone asked me today, you know, do you believe that Ronald Reagan line, trust but verify. I'm not even at the trust yet, but I'm positive we have to verify.

COOPER: Senator Bob Casey, appreciate your time. Thank you.

CASEY: Thank you.


COOPER: Well, many Americans, lawmakers, and voters alike were calling President Obama's message on Syria muddled and that was before the Russian proposal came into play.

Up next, has this perceived lack of clarity harmed the president's case for taking action? We'll be right back.


COOPER: In about half an hour, President Obama is expected to address the nation on the Syrian crisis. He has his work cut out for him certainly. Fewer than one in five people in a recent CNN/ORC poll said they completely understand his Syria policy. Lawmakers in the Senate and the House are hammering the White House on that point calling its message on Syrian muddled or even worse.


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: There is a degree of incoherence that I haven't seen the likes of which before.

REPRESENTATIVE LORETTA SANCHEZ (D), CALIFORNIA: What is the imminent danger to the United States? What is the national security issue? Please outline for that for me.

SENATOR JOHNNY ISAKSON (R), GEORGIA: I think that uncertainty on what may happen on day two, three and four is the big problem for the administration.

REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: It has to show there is a plan and strategy.

SENATOR BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I'm dismayed at this administration's lack of clarity on Syria.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS (R), MICHIGAN: I understand why people are skeptical. I'm skeptical at this point.

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR (R), MAJORITY LEADER: Important for us to hear what the president has to say. He's got to make the case to the American people.


COOPER: One question tonight has President Obama's ability to make a strong case on Syria been hurt by this perceived lack of clarity? Joining me now is chief national correspondent John King, CNN political analyst Gloria Borger, David Gergen and Jake Tapper, host of CNN's "THE LEAD" and a chief Washington correspond.

John, before we get to the White House's messaging on this whole thing. I want to start with you because I know you're breaking some news tonight about the meeting with the Russians tomorrow.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There are two important meetings, Anderson. Tonight in his speech, the president will not layout a specific timeline or specific benchmark just yet to see if this is diplomatic proposal is legitimate and serious. That's because the administration wants first to test the Russians and the Syrians and here's how they will do that.

Tomorrow at the United Nations, the P5, the permanent five members will meet and then on Thursday, Secretary Kerry sits down with his counterpart, the Russian foreign minister. I'm told moments ago by a senior administration official, this is what they will demand in both of those meetings specifically talking to the Russians.

We need a verifiable process under international control with timelines and modalities worked out with the Russians and through the United Nations and furthermore, Barbara Starr is now reporting that when Secretary Kerry sits down with Foreign Minister Lavrov, he will have with him a Defense Department team with chemical weapons and mass destruction weapons experts.

Because they are going to begin to test the seriousness by saying, is your friend, Bashar Al-Assad prepared to give us an inventory, tell us where they are and begin to allow people access to them. So the administration hopes, Anderson, after those two meetings tomorrow at the United Nations then the more important Kerry-Lavrov face-to-face to have a sense of whether this is a serious proposal and from there, everything else unfolds.

COOPER: David Gergen, it's interesting. I just talked to David Kay, a former weapons inspector in Iraq and when you actually look at the nuts and bolts of this, I mean, the sheer number of weapons inspectors that would be needed, the whole issue of their security to look at these sites, I mean, it could be a very long timetable.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It's certainly not a week and certainly not two weeks, Anderson. In Iraq after Saddam Hussein agreed to let the U.N. inspectors came in, it took years to figure out what was there. They still weren't sure. The same thing the Syrians may do. They lied. They obstructed and they threatened.

COOPER: Jake, we've seen the Syrian regime do that time and time again. They did it with a deal and promises about reforms in their countries about a constitutional process and allowing demonstrations, all of it turned out to be lies. There is no guarantee this time around, either.

JAKE TAPPER, HOST, CNN'S "THE LEAD": I was just thinking that because we were talking about the incoherence of the president's message and the White House's message, and you think about the contradictions that we're getting from the Syrians and from the Russians about whether or not the Syrians even have chemicals weapons. Well, they denied that until recently.

The Russians, this week, said that they had evidence that it was the rebels who used chemical weapons and yet, of course, now they are trying to broker this peace based on the assumption, of course, that Assad's regime was indeed behind it. We have some incoherent messages perhaps coming from the administration, but we have actors here, unreliable and untrustworthy actors in Bashar Al- Assad and frankly, in the Russians, as well.

COOPER: Gloria, how much do you think that the American public's concern about this, unease with this entire thing, how much is related to what -- you know, what certainly a lot of Republicans are calling a muddied response from the Obama administration?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think a lot. I think when the president zigzags and says there is a red line and then decides to go to Congress and sounds like he is leading up to the use of force but he's not leading up to the use of force. The American public watches all of this and they begin to sort of question the substance of what the president is talking about. And they also begin to think wait a minute, maybe you haven't thought this through. I think at the base of it, that's President Obama's problem. When you look at his numbers on how he handles foreign policy, since January, Anderson, he's declined 14 points. COOPER: David Gergen, you've worked in White House for Republicans and Democratic presidents. You heard John McCain saying he's never seen such kind of a muddied response. Is that accurate? Have you seen -- do you think the response is muddied?

GERGEN: Maybe, I went through Watergate, Anderson. That was muddy. Certainly so, but in 40 years or so, not very often, this is quite rare.

COOPER: Why? What do you think -- to you what are the key points that make it so muddied? Because the situation in the ground in Syria is certainly muddied you could argue.

GERGEN: It's extraordinarily muddled. The Middle East is a very, very complex place. We're not playing checkers. We're playing three-dimensional chess in this and frankly, I'm not sure the president has the team that he had in the first term. They are still coming together as a team. It's been hard for them, and clearly, the president himself is extraordinarily ambivalent about what he wants here.

He's drawn to the peace option, to the multilateral option and he got a noble prize to stay out of war. I think that has a lot to do. Presidents need to be sort of very firm in their gut what they are about to do especially when they are going to pull the trigger.

COOPER: Jake, this is the president who has said, you know, his job was to end wars, not necessarily to begin them.

TAPPER: That's right. One of the things that we've seen, as President Obama's term has proceeded is he's really developed a belief that there are real limits in what use of force can accomplish from talking -- from covering the White House as senior White House correspondent and knowing President Obama and his team since 2006.

The Barack Obama who OK'ed the surge of troops in Afghanistan up to 100,000 from just over, I think, about 25,000 when he took office that Barack Obama is different from the one we have in 2013. The 2013 Barack Obama I do not think would have OK'ed that surge in Afghanistan. He's much more ambivalent about what U.S. force can do and what it can actually accomplish.

I do think you see somebody who has gone through this process of sending men and women into harm's way, and wondering what it has accomplished, and I think that is what is informing his reluctance to involve himself in what everyone agrees is a very murky, complicated situation that it's not clear if U.S. force will not result in a worse situation. Nobody can guarantee that. I think that's one of the reasons we see the mixed messages from the White House.

BORGER: What we're going to see tonight, Anderson, is a president taking two roads at once. Also, he's going to say we need to pursue this diplomatic initiative and say he's skeptical about it, but say we've got to do that on the one hand. And on the other hand, we have to maintain the threat of the use of force. We have to make it real, and not imaginary. GERGEN: Yes.

BORGER: So he has to do two things at once.

COOPER: John, I mean, is there an advantage for the president, put asides the politics of this, put aside his own reputation and things like that if one can. Is there an advantage for him for the United States to pursue this diplomatic line with the Russians and with Syria and if it doesn't work out then it still has achieved some of their goals of drawing some sort of a red line and they could still do military action if they insist?

KING: If it doesn't work out, he's back to the point of having to decide number one, can he get congressional authorization and number two if he doesn't get it, will he strike? But if it works out, Anderson, and if Syria actually gives up its chemical weapons, if Russia is a partner in Syria giving up its chemical weapons, no matter how messy it has been so far that would be a big deal and the president will be judged by the ending, not the middle, the messy, muddled middle.

To Jake's point about the policy, that's one of the things that weighs on the president without the doubt, but Jake also knows this from covering this White House. Part of this, even CEOs who love this president, who have raised a lot of money for him, who have worked for this president and helped this president, their one criticism is he communicates often like a senator or a law professor, not like a CEO.

Once he makes the decision, he has to forget about his opponents, forget his own reservations and communicate with clarity. This president, you hear him, he says, even my wife doubts this. I understand the anti-war guys. I used to be one of them. When you're a CEO once you make a decision, you go to look straight forward and implement it. And that is the criticism even his friends still make about this president.

BORGER: You have to make the decision.

COOPER: Yes, we'll see what he says tonight. Again, Gloria, thank you, John King, David Gergen and Jake Tapper. We're just about 19 minutes away from President Obama's address of the nation. A live picture there of the White House.

Coming up, Wolf Blitzer will join me and we'll dig deeper on what we can expect the president to say tonight.


COOPER: Welcome back. We're 14 or 15 minutes away from President Obama's address the nation, a speech that no doubt has undergone some major rewrites as the situation in Syria changes by the hour. My colleague, Wolf Blitzer, joins me now from Washington. We're going to be together through the top of the next hour when the president's speech is scheduled to begin -- Wolf. WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S "THE SITUATION ROOM": Anderson, thanks very much. I'm joined now by former Obama speech writer, Jon Favreau, CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican strategist and former Mitt Romney spokesman, Kevin Madden and CNN political commentator and the "New York Times" op-ed columnist, Ross Douthat. Guys, thanks very much.

Jon, you've written a lot of speeches for this president. You're still a young guy, but in your perspective, how important is tonight's speech for this president?

JON FAVREAU, FORMER OBAMA SPEECHWRITER: I mean, I think it's important and he sees it as on opportunity to layout the case, for why what is going on in Syria matters to people back here at home. And I think he'll talk about why when a dictator uses chemical weapons and breaks international law, it endangers our national security and you know, we need to respond.

BLITZER: Can he turn, Kevin, public opinion around with this one speech?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, public opinion usually is not an event, it's a process. I think this is an important part of that process. I think Jon is right. I think the president very much has to focus acutely on the why, why is this in America's national security interest? Why it's a priority for him? But he also has to answer the what, which is what comes next? What is it that we are hoping to achieve? Is part of the long-term strategy on the national security interest and stability in that region? I think if he can do that, he can then help -- you know, change some constituents minds out there and work with Congress.

BLITZER: Beyond the national security and the political considerations, Donna, you believe there is a moral issue here for the United States of America.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely. This is not just a game of politics. This is about life or death. Over 100,000 people killed by conventional means, 1,500 by chemical means, 2 million people now displaced as a result of the civil war. The president needs to layout to the American why it's in America, our interest to care about what is going on in Syria and what he will do to hold Assad and others accountable.

ROSS DOUTHAT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: But, look, we're talking here as if this is the speech that we thought the president was going to give five or six days ago, a straight forward case for why we should go to war with Syria. But in fact, what makes this such an extraordinary strange evening is that actually the president who was on the verge of clearly failing to get congressional authorization for the war is going to be effectively explaining to the American people why he is, you know, reaching for and grabbing the lifeline that Vladimir Putin and the Russians just offered him, which is a little bit -- it's not just a little bit different. It's a fairly extraordinary turn of events. BLITZER: A dramatic turn of events and take us behind the scenes because you've been there and been in touch with some of your colleagues who are still working maybe even at this moment, last- minute tinkering with the speech. They basically had to rewrite a big chunk of it over the last 48 hours.

FAVREAU: I mean, they certainly had to take into account the developments with Russia and Syria today. But look, as the president said today, trust and verify. So I think that we have to see, obviously he's going to hold out diplomacy as the most viable option and the option that he wants to pursue the most, right? And he wants to have force as a last result. But he also knows it was the threat of force in the first place that got Russia and Syria to respond like this. So I think he'll continue to make the case while he wants to see it take its course, we have to be ready to act if it fails.

BLITZER: I think everyone agreed, but maybe let's ask Kevin. Do you agree the president's credible threat of military action convinced the Russians and Syrians they should at least think about destroying those chemical weapons?

FAVREAU: Look, it's hard. I think one of the things there has been a great amount of consensus on is that the president has bungled this throughout the entire process.

BLITZER: What about the threat of force? Has that played a positive role right now bringing us to this diplomatic potential breakthrough?

DOUTHAT: But the threat of force has been steady weakening for the past week as it's become clearer and clearer -- that option remains on the table except that there aren't to vote for in Congress. The president presumable is not actually going to strike without the votes. So the question is what, what exactly are Russia and Syria doing? That's what we don't know. It would have made more sense if Russia and Syria were responding to the threat of force for them to have made this offer --

BLITZER: Donna, go ahead.

BRAZILE: They know that a strike would change the balance in the civil war and Wolf, what we failed to remember is that leaving these weapons unchecked, unguarded in the hands of potential terrorist, Assad using them again will wreck a lot of harm, not just over the Middle East but possibly here. So I think the president's threat, the threat he used and will continue to use has brought these new players to the table and let's see if it works.

BLITZER: Jon, you've been involved with the president in writing these speeches. He really is a hands-on and gets involved in drafting. He's not just somebody who reads it and makes a few changes. Does he also rehearse it? Does he go before the camera and practice and practice knowing the next 15 minutes, how long this speech presumably could be very important?

FAVREAU: I mean, I think for any big speech, most presidents practice the speech. He does the same thing when it's a very big speech, and -- but he does get very involved in the writing of the speech. I know he was very involved in the writing of this one.

BLITZER: And when we very involved, spends a lot of time meeting with all --

FAVREAU: He also spends a lot of time by himself actually, you know, writing.

BLITZER: This is the kind of speech, Kevin, that a national security speech. Everybody has got to sign off because there are so many diplomatic and national security nuances, the Pentagon, the State Department, intelligence community have to clear basically what the president. They have to feel comfortable with what he's saying.

FAVREAU: Also, as we've seen, so many circumstances have changed just today in the last 12 hours that the president has to put a frame on this that still leaves viable options. One is if these diplomatic over tours by the French and the Russians, the Syrians, they don't materialize, can he go back to Congress and how does he make that argument now for what the next steps would be. Should he need to go back to Congress again for authorization?

BLITZER: We're moments away from the start of the president's speech. Guys, don't go too far away. Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: Yes, well, thanks. The opposition, the Free Syrian Army calls the proposal to get Syria to hand over its chemical weapons nothing but a stalling tactic that gives the Assad regime more time to kill innocent Syrians. Now a lot of people are questioning just how realistic, even how doable this idea is. You heard former weapons inspector, David Kay, earlier this evening in the program talking about it. I want to drill down on this because the more we learn about it, the thornier the whole issue sounds.

Jim Sciutto, our chief national security correspondent has a reality check for us tonight. So we talked to David Kay, Jim, the administration has to be walking into this with their eyes wide open. Do you get a sense of how realistic or not this might be?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: If selling force was a tough sale, selling this plan is equally tough. You get a thousand pounds of chemical weapons in the country, six known sites, and many more unknown sites. You know over the last several weeks because of the threat of force and the civil war, this government has been moving those chemical weapons around, and that's during peacetime, difficult enough.

So this is happening during a war. You got secure roads. You got to keep any inspectors going in safe and you also have the risk that the rebels are going to go after these weapons, as well, so a lot of risks that make it a very difficult to sell the peace plan as much as was the sell the use of force.

COOPER: As David Kay pointed out, it can take years to actually destroy these weapons and it probably has to be done on site because you are not going to be transporting chemical weapons through unstable areas in Syria and then get them on a boat in Lebanon or something.

SCIUTTO: No question. The short-hand I've been given is weeks to do an inventory of the sites, months to secure those sites and years to destroy them. The U.S. government is still destroying some of its chemical weapons. So that kind of timeframe again comes in a peaceful country. This is not a peaceful country. You got to add time to that timeline, as well.

COOPER: Yes, and point out, the U.S. is still destroying their chemical weapons. The U.S. decided to destroy their chemical weapons under Richard Nixon so you get a sense of timeline there. Jim, I appreciate your reporting. We have a lot to talk about on "360 LATER" tonight after the president's address.

I want to bring in part of the "360 LATER" panel to see what they will be looking for in the president's address tonight. With me are CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour and CNN's Fareed Zakaria, host of "GPS." Christiane, first of all, over the last 24 hours this story has shifted dramatically. What to you are the key points right now?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, there is absolutely no doubt as other panels have that it is the credible threat of force that has brought Russia/Syria to this position now. We're still waiting to see whether it's all serious and what they didn't say when it comes to the United Nations. Will Russia agree to a U.N. resolution? One that will want to have the threat of force in that as well --

COOPER: Putin says no?

AMANPOUR: Right, where does that leave us? I think that there is no question about that. The president needs to make absolutely clear which obviously he will in his speech that that is what he's going to go after continually if this diplomacy doesn't work. I spoke to the former British foreign secretary today, David Milliband, who knows a little bit about that. He was obviously a politician during the Iraq war.

But he says knowing how this all works that he was convinced that in the G20 meeting a week ago, President Obama convinced President Putin that he was serious and that he was going to go and take this military strike unless there was another alternative. So I think, you know, he's got to make the moral cause about weapons of mass destruction.

He's got to make the cause about the credibility gap of the United States, if they don't pursue this to the very end. He's got to talk about, you know, securing these weapons and also explaining it in America's national security interest.

COOPER: But when you look at the details, I mean, we heard from David Kay. When you look at the details of the difficulty, how long it takes and how many people, more than a thousand inspectors, 500 to a thousand, David Kay said tonight. You know, the devil is in the details on this thing. FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, CNN'S "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": The devil is in the details, but the bigger problem is the larger sale because the president fundamentally was approaching this with the idea that he had to sell the idea that it was important to take military action against Syria, and what we know going into the speeches, he did not have a majority of the American people. He did not have majority of the Congress. He did not have a majority of NATO. He did not have a majority of the United Nations Security Council.

So in other words, a very tough sale and now you have this exit strategy and alternative, which is a potential diplomatic solution, very fraud, very complicated with all the problems you're describing, but just imagine how much more difficult it becomes to convince people that look, this is a vital national security interest worth military intervention when people are going to say, but wait a minute, why don't you give diplomacy a chance?

So I think it just has taken the air out of the balloon of the idea that there is an imminent danger here. That we have to use military intervention and that there is some kind of immediate need for an American air strike.

COOPER: If there isn't an immediate need, but it's more a general there has to be a red line. The world cannot allow the use of chemical weapons. Is there an advantage for the president to pursue this diplomatic means even if it doesn't work out --

AMANPOUR: Well, he's clearly going to. Obviously, this speech is going to lay that out. In fact, some of his congressional allies, I spoke to Congressman Van Hollen today on my program and he said that they have 30 days in order to be able to work out a diplomatic solution to this and if that doesn't happen, then the president would get the authority to do the military efforts.

So I think that that has to be the needle that's being threaded tonight. The whole hearted, you know, full throttle attempt to pursue this diplomatic initiative to its end and if that doesn't work, also, to build the case for a military strike.

Let's not forget the massive and international debate over what won't be a land war or any kind on sustained military campaign, but perhaps a couple of days of cruise missile strikes and perhaps air strikes what they call standoff strikes.

COOPER: Does anyone ever believe that they are getting into a war that will end up --

ZAKARIA: That raises a kind of interesting problem, which is that there are two rational for the action, but there are almost two groups of people who want some kind of military action. The people who want an action that deals with the issue of chemical weapons and the importance of maintaining that norm, and so there is that and for those people, this diplomatic root says this is a big deal, take it seriously.

There is another group of people, frankly, who want to use the chemical weapons issue as a way to depose Assad and alter the balance of power in Syria and to get rid of a brutal dictator. They will be very unsatisfied, dissatisfied. Somebody like John McCain is probably looking at this and says wait a minute, we had this opportunity to help the rebels, to change the balance of fire to get rid of Assad and now we're stuck negotiating with Assad about letting inspectors come in --

COOPER: We have to pursue it --

AMANPOUR: Yes, but the fiercest criticism about this Russian initiate is partly that, that now they say that this is linking President Obama really like this with Putin and Assad because if this is to work, then Assad is going to be our guy. He's the one who will be, you know, handing over these weapons and we have to pursue it to the end. So it basically means, according to the critics, there is no more get rid of Assad. Assad must step down. That's gone according to critics.

ZAKARIA: Vladimir Putin is achieving his two main objectives here. Putin's main objectives were he wants to keep Assad in power. Well, this ratifies Assad's status because we have to deal with him. He has to let inspectors in. The second thing he wanted to make sure was that these chemical weapons would not possibly fall in the hands of Islamic militants who might use them in Chechnya, Dagestan, and parts of Russia. This gets the chemical weapons either out of Syria or destroyed. It's a win/win for Putin.

COOPER: Christiane and Fareed and I will be back at 10:00 Eastern for "AC 360 LATER." We'll also be joined by Andrew Sullivan. We'll also be joined by Ann Marie Slaughter. We're expecting President Obama any second now. You see the podium there, the east room at the White House. I want to hand it over to Wolf Blitzer as we await the president's speech -- Wolf.