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President Obama Addresses Nation

Aired September 10, 2013 - 21:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: And we're following breaking news. We have new details of what President Obama will say in the White House East Room tonight. I am told he'll explain why the regime of Bashar al-Assad must be held accountable for using chemical weapons against his own people. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We're less than 90 seconds away from one of the most critical moments of the entire Obama presidency. I am told the president will say that the United States is in fact prepared to launch targeted and limited air strikes against Syria without any U.S. ground troops, and it won't be like the wars, he will say, in Iraq and Afghanistan. He'll tell the nation that the threat of military action by the United States has already helped convince Bashar al-Assad to agree to give up control of his chemical weapons stockpiles a proposal floated by the Russians.

The US remains skeptical. But this last minute development has already delayed a vote in Congress on the use of force of both the President seemed likely almost certain to lose in the House of Representatives.

Our anchors, our correspondents and our analyst they are here to share their takes on the President's speech and how it could alter his legacy and the world's perception of American power. An undecided congressman is with us tonight, the Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland. We'll see if he's ready to take a stand after he hears what the President has to say.

Also we'll get reaction from Americans across the country who actually wants the President's remarks and our CNN instant poll heading into the speech public opinion as you know has been firmly against the intervention in Syria, the President will now explain why he believes what's happening in Syria is in the US national interest.

The President walking into the East room right now.

OBAMA: My fellow Americans, tonight I want to talk to you about Syria, why it matters and where we go from here.

Over the past two years, what began as a series of peaceful protests against the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has turned into a brutal civil war. Over 100,000 people have been killed. Millions have fled the country. In that time, America's worked with allies to provide humanitarian support, to help the moderate opposition, and to shape a political settlement, but I have resisted calls for military action because we cannot resolve someone else's civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The situation profoundly changed, though, on August 21st, when Assad's government gassed to death over 1,000 people, including hundreds of children. The images from this massacre are sickening: men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath, a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk.

On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off-limits, a crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war.

This was not always the case. In World War I, American G.I.s were among the many thousands killed by deadly gas in the trenches of Europe. In World War II, the Nazis used gas to inflict the horror of the Holocaust. Because these weapons can kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant, the civilized world has spent a century working to ban them. And in 1997, the United States Senate overwhelmingly approved an international agreement prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, now joined by 189 governments that represent 98 percent of humanity.

On August 21st, these basic rules were violated, along with our sense of common humanity. No one disputes that chemical weapons were used in Syria. The world saw thousands of videos, cell phone pictures, and social media accounts from the attack, and humanitarian organizations told stories of hospitals packed with people who had symptoms of poison gas.

Moreover, we know the Assad regime was responsible. In the days leading up to August 21st, we know that Assad's chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighborhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces. Shortly after those rockets landed, the gas spread, and hospitals filled with the dying and the wounded.

We know senior figures in Assad's military machine reviewed the results of the attack and the regime increased their shelling of the same neighborhoods in the days that followed. We've also studied samples of blood and hair from people at the site that tested positive for sarin.

When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory, but these things happened. The facts cannot be denied.

The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it, because what happened to those people -- to those children -- is not only a violation of international law, it's also a danger to our security. Let me explain why.

If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians.

If fighting spills beyond Syria's borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel. And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad's ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.

This is not a world we should accept. This is what's at stake. And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime's ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.

That's my judgment as commander-in-chief, but I'm also the president of the world's oldest constitutional democracy. So even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security to take this debate to Congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the president acts with the support of Congress, and I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together. This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the president and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people's representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.

Now, I know that after the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of any military action -- no matter how limited -- is not going to be popular. After all, I've spent four-and-a-half years working to end wars, not to start them. Our troops are out of Iraq. Our troops are coming home from Afghanistan. And I know Americans want all of us in Washington -- especially me -- to concentrate on the task of building our nation here at home, putting people back to work, educating our kids, growing our middle class. It's no wonder then that you're asking hard questions.

So let me answer some of the most important questions that I've heard from members of Congress and that I've read in letters that you've sent to me. First, many of you have asked, won't this put us on a slippery slope to another war? One man wrote to me that we are still recovering from our involvement in Iraq. A veteran put it more bluntly: This nation is sick and tired of war.

My answer is simple. I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective, deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad's capabilities. Others have asked whether it's worth acting if we don't take out Assad. Now, some members of Congress have said there's no point in simply doing a pinprick strike in Syria.

Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn't do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.

I don't think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can makes Assad -- or any other dictator -- think twice before using chemical weapons.

Other questions involve the dangers of retaliation. We don't dismiss any threats, but the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military. Any other -- any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day. Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise, and our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakable support of the United States of America.

Many of you have asked a broader question: Why should we get involved at all in a place that's so complicated and where, as one person wrote to me, those who come after Assad may be enemies of human rights?

It's true that some of Assad's opponents are extremists. But Al Qaida will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.

The majority of the Syrian people, and the Syrian opposition we work with, just want to live in peace, with dignity and freedom. And the day after any military action, we would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism.

Finally, many of you have asked, why not leave this to other countries or seek solutions short of force? As several people wrote to me, we should not be the world's policemen.

I agree. And I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions. Over the last two years, my administration has tried diplomacy and sanctions, warnings and negotiations, but chemical weapons were still used by the Assad regime.

However, over the last few days, we've seen some encouraging signs, in part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action, as well as constructive talks that I had with President Putin. The Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. The Assad regime has now admitting that it has these weapons and even said they'd join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use. It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments, but this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad's strongest allies.

I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path. I'm sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet his Russian counterpart on Thursday, and I will continue my own discussions with President Putin.

I've spoken to the leaders of two of our closest allies -- France and the United Kingdom -- and we will work together in consultation with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the U.N. Security Council requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control.

We'll also give U.N. inspectors the opportunity to report their findings about what happened on August 21st, and we will continue to rally support from allies from Europe to the Americas, from Asia to the Middle East, who agree on the need for action.

Meanwhile, I've ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails. And tonight I give thanks, again, to our military and their families for their incredible strength and sacrifices.

My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements; it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world's a better place because we have borne them.

And so to my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America's military might with the failure to act when a cause is so plainly just.

To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor, for sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.

Indeed, I'd ask every member of Congress and those of you watching at home tonight to view those videos of the attack, and then ask, what kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?

Franklin Roosevelt once said, "Our national determination to keep free of foreign wars and foreign entanglements cannot prevent us from feeling deep concern when ideas and principles that we have cherished are challenged." Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used.

America is not the world's policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong, but when with modest effort and risk we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.

That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

BLITZER: Almost exactly 15 minutes, the President of United States, doing his best to try to convince a very skeptical American public that what's happening in Syria right now is in fact in the national security interest of the United States. We have complete analysis of what's going on.

Jake Tapper is with us. Jake is the Chief Washington Correspondent of CNN, the Anchor of The Lead.

All right, Jake, did the President make the case to a lot of Americans who don't see this is a major national security threat to the United States that the US has to maintain that credible threat of military force in Syria.

JAKE TAPPER, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, one of the things that was so interesting about what he did this evening was he specifically addressed doubts, specific doubts. Six or seven questions about, why should we get involved? I've never hear -- heard a President talking about the needs to show force going through all the different arguments ticking down. So, I don't know if he successfully made his case to the American people according to polls.

The American people are convinced that Assad did this and then it was wrong. But they still don't want to get involved, but he addressed specifically what if this is a slippery slope. What if the enemies of -- what if the Assad regime retaliates. Why aren't -- others get stepping into the fray? Why is it have to be us? Why aren't we seeking other solutions? He went bit by bit trying to go. This is a -- This was a speech specifically to a public that doesn't want to go to war. And in fact, it sounded like a President who doesn't want to go war.

BLITZER: Yes, he certainly doesn't want to go to war, but he wants that threat to hover over these discussions that are taking place right now.

Newt Gingrich is here. Stephanie Cutter is here. John King, Gloria Borger. Newt Gingrich you got to admit that if there is an opportunity for some sort of peaceful solution to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, it was impart if not largely the result of this threat of US military force.

NEWT GINGRICH, CNN HOST: I think that helped although I think Kerry's description of an unbelievably small attack probably didn't, you know, threatened the Russians.

BLITZER: You heard the President saying this, the United States military does not do pinpricks.

GINGRICH: Well, you can go back and look at dropping two bombs ago in the buckets (ph). You know, (inaudible) he does with the politicians tell up to and these politicians say pinprick, they do pinprick. That's the duty of the military to (inaudible)

BLITZER: But you just heard the Commander in Chief say they were not be pinpricks.

GINGRICH: Well, it was just different than the Secretary of State. Let me just say three quick points.

The speech was a mistake. If you're going to ask the Congress to wait, you don't burn up an evening speech. You have a press conference in the afternoon. You say, "I have decided to follow up on this. And if I need to, I will report to the country," if in fact it initially fails.

Very hard to do two speeches in two or three weeks and he just burned up and now has weeks for people to take it apart. So, those -- giving a speech tonight I think was a mistake, even much better off to that. Second ...

BLITZER: Hold on that second thought. Let Stephanie Cutter, go ahead react to that. Was this speech tonight a mistake?

STEPHANIE CUTTER, CNN HOST: Absolutely not and, you know, there's no reason why he can't get two speeches. I think that the country was calling for a speech like that. He made a very persuasive case, the clearest case yet of why this is in to the United States security interest and why we must act.

And in terms of the pinprick versus the small attack to address Newt's criticism, I think that the President is right. The military doesn't do pinpricks and the whole purpose of describing what this mission is, is to assure the American people that this is not going to be a slippery slope into war. No boots on the ground, no open-ended war. This is a targeted strike to deter and degrade a dictator who poisoned his own people.

GINGRICH: May I just say, the challenge of being a historian (ph) in the city is my words was a pinprick angles (ph) and 20 pinpricks. It's not that to put that to one side. Two big things in the speech I found very confusing. One is Franklin Delano Roosevelt went to war when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor despite every effort of the best politicians in the 20th Century, he could not convince the American people, the polling numbers were overwhelming, FDR would not have given this speech, FDR would have been very cautious because he didn't oppose 85 percent of people.

Second, as a Republican, I just want to say this bluntly. As a Republican, I am sick of this President and his allies misstating history. The Congress voted to go into Afghanistan, the Congress voted to go into Iraq, John Kerry voted to go into Iraq, and Hillary Clinton voted to into Iraq. So let's not pretend there was no legislative branch involvement in the last decade.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN HOST: The thing that struck me tonight about the President's speech was as Jake said he went through all the cons, OK. And the big pro of course national security but he made the moral argument about why America is exceptional, we are different from everybody else, we have the burden of leadership in this country when it comes to people gassing their children. And he said, "Thereby saving our own children in the process."

But I think the moral argument is something nobody would sort of quarrel with him about. We, right, we all ...


BORGER: ... we all understand that. That the question that I have is did he explain the back and forth in his own mind about this because if we do have this moral need ...


BORGER: ... to defend the world then why didn't he just do it, right? I mean, why didn't he use the ...

CUTTER: I think he answered that Gloria. He made it clear that we're stronger as a country when we act together. And going to Congress was a way to do that. That sent a signal to the world. Particularly if we were getting a UN Security Council resolution that we were acting as a country.

JOHN KING, CNN HOST: It's fascinating. Well if you notice from our days covering the White House to the speaker's point, I don't know if he burned the speech or not whether it was right or wrong. But their decision for a President to give a speech to the American people talking about potential military conflict, when that happens, military action is plan A it is front and center. This President was saying its plan B, that B standby we might have to do this we're going to give diplomacy a chance.

That is rare, hasn't happened in my lifetime for a president to say I'm trying to prepare you for plan B, listen to me we might get to this at some point. In part, just Stephanie's part, putting, who do you have given a press conference, maybe. But when they have talked about this in a press conference format, the President often acknowledges the arguments of the other side and the opposition has grown when the President and secretary can't ...

BLITZER: Hold your thought ...

KING: ... talk about it in other public statements.

BLITZER: Hold your thoughts from now. I just want to alert our viewers. CNN has been doing some instant polling with people who were actually watching the President's speech. We're going to have the results of what the American public actual -- people who actually watch what they think.

But I want to bring in now a key member of the United States House of Representatives Elijah Cummings is one of those undecided democrat. The President, Congressman was speaking at you. You have not yet made up your mind. Correct me if I'm wrong.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: He's not only speaking to me.

BLITZER: He was speaking in part to you.

CUMMINGS: To you and my decision.

BLITZER: Did he convince you that he's right?

CUMMINGS: I thought he did a very good job and I still haven't decided. But I got to tell you, it was not a waste of speech. As a matter of fact I told the President, "He needed to make this speech."

I thought he made a great or more argument. I, you know, this whole idea that our troops could be gassed. That is very significant I mean you don't hear that too often, that's real. I mean in other words, it would be unfair warfare but, you know, what I wanted the President to do and I think he did it was to tell us why this is in the national security interest of the country. I thought he did a good job, and I like the fact that he acknowledged Iraq.

I told the President when he came to the Congress, he did not only come to us he came to our constituents. When you've got 90 percent of your constituents saying, "No" ...

BLITZER: In your district ...

CUMMINGS: ... in my district and this is a district which is 77 percent formed the President by the way, voted for the President. You got to address my constituents too and other members of Congress are in the same place. And the other thing that he did was, you know, there's a question of what are the objectives.

One was to degrade is to degrade the capacity of Assad's to use weapons. I'm thinking -- dealt with the second piece, if he does no completely degrade his capacity, then what truly is its deterrence? And I think he kind of hit on it but I would have liked for him to explain ...

BLITZER: What else does he need to do to convince you, a great supporter of his ...

CUMMINGS: He's got to show me ...

BLITZER: ... that you will vote in favor of this authorization.

CUMMINGS: He's got to make it clear to me, and I thought he did a pretty good job here tonight that this is not going to mushroom into something else. My constituents are tired of war. I mean they are painfully tired. They saw what happened to Iraq. We went to Iraq, went some on troops (ph). This is what they tell me not only did we go to -- on some on troops (ph) but then we spent $1 trillion, we lost men and women. The first person to be killed in Iraq was from my district. And so they want to know that it's not in Iraq.

BLITZER: Did you vote to authorize the war in Iraq?


BLITZER: You voted against it?

CUMMINGS: That's right.

BLITZER: And so your inclination is to vote against any military authorization?

CUMMINGS: Not necessarily, not necessarily. I, you know, the one thing that I am -- we were emulated about today was this Russian proposal and I understand what the President is doing. The President is saying, "OK" and we need to get the President credit. They wouldn't be talking. These Russian isn't going to be talking if it were not for the President who made a decision. Keep in mind he made a decision to go in. And then he said, "I want to bring the country with me".

So that decision had a great bearing on the Russians and the Syrians but I -- but I've got to get pass, Wolf the idea that it might mushroom into something else, that -- and that's the uncertain ...

BLITZER: In other words, there would be unintended consequences ...

CUMMINGS: That's right.

BLITZER: ... and there could be an escalation of this war and once again US troops would be on the ground ...

CUMMINGS: 11 years, trillion dollars, people killed that's what our folks are worried about and I think that that's what -- that's the worry whether it's a Republican district or a Democratic district. To be frank with you, in my district I've only talked to maybe three or four people out of probably 2,000 or 3,000 who said that they are for this.

BLITZER: So you think folks who watched the President that they -- are they impressed or? CUMMINGS: I think folks that were watching -- I think he would -- I think he probably swayed some people but, you know, trying to -- when you've got the backdrop of Iraq, when you got a Collin Powell who people trust, I mean one of the trusted men in the world to come with enacted information and a lot of my constituents say, "Well, you know, we trust the President. We love the President, but you sure that information is accurate?"

But one of the things that is interesting about this, it seems that the public now from all the polling is convinced that Assad did use chemical weapons. I think the President painted a great picture of what happened is horrific picture but a great picture, very graphic and I thought he did a good job with that.

BLITZER: Elijah Cummings, I know you're going to be weighing heavily ...

CUMMINGS: Big time.

BLITZER: ... your mind what he said that. I sense there's a little bit of a shift but you're not there with them yet.


BLITZER: Elijah Cummings, Democrat on Maryland, thanks very much for joining us.

CUMMINGS: Thank you.

BLITZER: Newt Gingrich, what do you think? We got a congressman who is undecided, a liberal democrat who loves the President of the United States but he's not yet ready to go there.

GINGRICH: OK, I thought Congressman Cummings laid it out perfect. I mean I think he did take that interview and showed around the country and it captures exactly where the American people are in every district whether they're for or against the President election. People have come to conclusion and said that Assad is really bad. 80 percent of the country believes Assad did use poison gas.

They think it's a terrible thing and yet and that part of it, something that Stephanie had talked to out loud, which is this country is tired. We have been through over a decade of war and it's very hard to convince people that we're somehow going to magically ...

BLITZER: And Stephanie and you've worked with the President for a long time. If he hasn't yet been able to convince Elijah Cummings that he is right, he's got an enormous challenge ahead of him.

CUTTER: Well, I think the Congressman reflects where the country is really and as Newt said this is a country that is very war-weary. We've been at war a long time and the President is the person who's actually bringing those wars to an end. And -- But it's just -- it's right for the American people to approach this with some skepticism.

The President has been -- and tonight he gave a great speech to lay out why the US must act, why it's in our security interest and what the consequences are if we don't ...

BORGER: But why should (inaudible) will be skeptical without the United Nations, I mean this is a -- then the President did not spend a lot of time in his speech talking about the unintended consequences of going to the UN for example which should be the Russian saying, "You have to eliminate the threat of the use force," you know, Kerry now going on his ...

CUTTER: Well that treaty (ph) -- apparently he got blown up today.

BORGER: Right and that got blown up today but in factoring in how people feel about it there's a, "OK, now we're going to take this to the United Nations and I bet if you pull the Americans on the UN they ...

KING: And brought (ph) the Middle East strong and Iraq was supposed to be quick and limited Americans don't see any good of coming up (ph) on it as the Congressman say we pay the high price. Egypt, everyone was so euphoric when you had a new government those young people in the streets, look what happen. Libya, lost control for awhile then Benghazi. They looked at the Middle East and they say, can we really do any good?

BLITZER: All right, guys don't forget we have an incident poll that we're going to be reporting on what the American public will actually watch the speech, what they think our continuing coverage goes on right now. Piers Morgan, picking it up. Piers?