Meet the Press | September 01, 2013
>>> breaking news this morning -- secretary of state john kerry joins me to explain president obama 's political gamble. why he decided to seek congressional authority for military action against syria .
>> this attack is an assault on human dignity . it also presents a serious danger to our national security .
>> with the debate now shifting to congress , we'll have reaction from kentucky republican senator rand paul , a member of the foreign relations committee , plus our roundtable on president obama 's leadership. has he presented a convincing case to a skeptical american public? will the abrupt delay of military action be interpreted by the world as weakness or careful deliberation?
>>> and the terrible human toll. our own ann curry joins me with her firsthand account of the life and death struggles of the syrian refugee camps . i'm david gregory . all that ahead on "meet the press" for sunday, september 1st . and good sunday morning. i'm joined by the secretary of state, john kerry . mr. secretary, welcome back to "meet the press."
>> glad to be with you, david .
>> let me get right to it. it's been a jarring 48 hours in the run-up to a potential conflict with syria . on friday, the president dispatched you, the secretary of state, to make the case to the country and the world that the assad regime used chemical weapons and you spoke with passion and great strength. this is what you said.
>> it matters because if we choose to live in a world where a thug and a murderer like bashar al assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the united states and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will.
>> that was friday. saturday morning the the president decides in an abrupt change to delay and seek congressional authority. you were making the case for a military strike . why the abrupt change?
>> well, the case remains the same, david . the president of the united states has made his decision. his decision is to take military action in response to this outrageous attack, this affront against the decency and sensibilities of the world . bashar al assad and now joins a list of adolf hitler and saddam hussein who have used these weapons in time of war. this is of great consequence to israel , to jordan , to turkey, to the region, and to all of us who care about enforcing the international norm with respect to chemical weapons .
>> and that i understand.
>> the president has made the decision, he has made the decision that he believes we need to take a military strike . but the military understands that whether that happens this week or next week is not going to make the difference with respect to sending the message. the message remains the same, and it's a message, i might add, that any president of the united states and any congress ought to seek to enforce. use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. and we cannot, cannot stand by and allow that to happen and create an impunity for its use. that would be the end of the chemical weapons norm, and that's why the president has made the decision. why go to congress ? because the united states of america is stronger when the congress of the united states representing the people and the president of the united states are acting together. and the president wants that strength represented in this initiative.
>> you're making the case, mr. secretary, which i understand, as you made it on friday. i think i'm still trying to understand the abrupt shift. i know that you and others on the national security team, based on my own reporting, were opposed to the president seeking congressional authority, thinking he didn't need it. the reaction from the syrian state media is that this is the beginning, they say, of an historic american retreat. do you feel undermined? do you think the united states has undermined its leverage in the world , its credibility, having ramped up the specter of military action as being imminent and then saying, well, no, we're going to go to congress first?
>> david , i completely disagree with the fundamental premise that you set out. no, i did not oppose going, nor did anybody else that i know of originally. the issue originally was should the president of the united states take action in order to enforce the credibility and the interests of our country and to deter assad from using these weapons and to degrade his capacity to do so. that was the issue. and that's the issue that we debated. there was no decision not to do that, and the president has the right to do that, and we argued -- argued -- we discussed the options in the context of his right to take that action. the president then made the decision that he thought we would be stronger and the united states would act with greater moral authority and greater strength if we acted in a united way . he didn't think it was worthwhile acting and having the syrians and a whole bunch of other folks looking at the united states , arguing about whether or not it was legitimate, or should he have done it or should he have moved faster. he believes he needs to move. he's made his decision. now it's up to the congress of the united states to join him in affirming the international norm with respect to enforcing the use of chemical weapons .
>> you look at the polling. our nbc news poll released late in the week, 50% of those asked oppose a military strike . the british vote in parliament failed as a vote for military strikes. and the abrupt shift now, does it undermine u.s. credibility or will it be seen as careful deliberation?
>> i hope and pray it will be seen as careful deliberation, as appropriate exercise of american constitutional process. the united states is strongest when the congress speaks with the president, when the american people are invested, because we've had an appropriate vetting of all of the facts. let me just add this morning a very important recent development, that in the last 24 hours we have learned through samples that were provided to the united states that have now been tested from first responders in east damascus and hair samples and blood samples have tested positive for signatures of sarin. so this case is building, and this case will build. and i don't believe that my former colleagues in the united states senate and the house will turn their backs on all of our interests, on the credibility of our country, on the norms with respect to the enforcement of prohibition against the use of chemical weapons , which has been in place since 1925 . the congress adopted the chemical weapons convention . the congress has passed the syria accountability act . congress has a responsibility here, too. and i think that congress will recognize that and realize that our interests with respect to iran , we are hoping we have a diplomatic resolution of this standoff on the nuclear program in iran . but if we don't, iran will read importantly what we decide to do with respect to the enforcement of this convention in syria .
>> mr. secretary.
>> likewise israel . israel is at risk. jordan is at risk. turkey is at risk. the region is at risk. and we believe that the congress of the united states will do what is responsible.
>> mr. secretary, i want to underline the news you made this morning. this is a sarin gas attack perpetrated by the assad regime. this is a slam dunk case that he did it.
>> we don't -- the words " slam dunk " should be retired from are the american national security issues. we are saying that the -- that the high confidence that the intelligence community has expressed and the case that i laid out the other day is growing stronger by the day. we know where this attack came from. we know exactly where it went. we know what happened exactly afterwards. we know the preparations were being taken before, for this attack. we know that people were told to use their gas masks , to prepare for the use of a chemical barrage. we also know that after it took place they acknowledged that they had done it and were worried about the consequences and whether the u.n. inspectors were going to find out. i think this is a very powerful case, and the president is confident that as that case is presented to the united states congress and the american people , people will recognize that the world cannot stand aside and allow --
>> -- an assad or anybody else to break an almost 100-year-old acceptance. these weapons are not to be used.
>> so here's the fundamental question. president's made his decision you say to take military action . if you go to congress and congress says no, you don't have our authority to strike, will the president move forward with military action against syria anyway?
>> david , let me be very blunt. i do not believe congress of the united states will turn its back on this moment. i think the interests that we have with respect to potential future confrontation, hopefully not, but the challenge of iran , the challenges of the region, the challenge of standing up for and standing beside our ally israel , helping to shore up jordan , all of these things are very, very powerful interests.
>> i understand. but if congress says no --
>> i believe congress will pass it.
>> if congress says no, the president will act regardless of what congress says?
>> i said that the president has the authority to act, but the congress is going to do what's right here.
>> you know there's a debate, and the debate will continue in congress about the future of assad and what the united states actually ought to do. the president talks about narrow, limited action, almost punishment against assad . you've called assad a murderer and a thug. in the past, the president has said that he has to go. you know senator mccain and others have said they would only support a strategy that ultimately topples assad . why not go beyond something that's limited and narrow? why not try to erode his conventional capability, and indeed even try to topple him from power?
>> well, let me draw a distinction here, david . the president of the united states has said that assad must go, and this is the policy of the united states . but we do not believe that this military action the president has decided to take should be more than an effort to try to deter and prevent the use of chemical weapons and to degrade his capacity to use those weapons. so the military operation is not calculated to become involved in the effort to topple him, but the political operation and the support for the opposition is. and the president of the united states , as you know, has declared that we will provide additional support to the opposition. we do not believe there is any scenario under which assad can continue with any kind of authority whatsoever to govern in syria . and so, yes, the policy is politically through the geneva process, through our commitment to the ultimate negotiated settlement that will have to take place, there is no future for assad in that governance. but this military operation is specifically geared to prevent a future chemical attack and to deter and to degrade the assad capacity to be able to do that. now let me be clear. whatever the president ultimately decides to do in that context i assure you assad will feel its impact and they will know that something has happened.
>> before i let you go, how can americans feel confident that america 's first strike against syria in this civil war will be its last?
>> david , that will depend on whether assad decides to use chemical weapons or not. the president of the united states does not intend to and does not want to see the united states assume responsibility for syria 's civil war . that is not what he is setting out to do. what he is setting out to do is enforce the norm with respect to international convention on chemical weapons . and it is targeted to do that. it will clearly have an impact on assad 's military capacity. but we e will continue and we will even i think sharpen the focus of our efforts to support the opposition, to work with allies and friends in the region, all of whom understand that assad has lost any legitimacy as a leader of syria and to try to hold syria together with a political solution that can be achieved through the geneva process. and we will continue to work with russia in conjunction with us in that effort to try to achieve that political settlement. that is our top priority. that is the fundamental objective of all of our efforts. it is to recognize that there isn't ultimately a military solution. there has to be a negotiated political solution. and the president remains deeply committed to that.
>> mr. secretary, thank you for your time. i appreciate it.
>> thank you.
>>> i want to bring in senator rand paul , republican from kentucky, he's on the foreign relations committee as well. senator, welcome.
>> good morning. glad to be with you.
>> so you heard the secretary of state break news this morning that the evidence, the intelligence suggests now this was a sarin gas attack at the hands of the assad government. the secretary saying as he just did the case is building and will continue to build. is that enough for you to now vote to authorize the president to use force?
>> no. and i think it's a mistake to get involved in the syrian civil war . and what i would ask john kerry is, you know, he's famous for saying, you know, how can you ask a man to be the last one to die for a mistake? i would ask john kerry how can you ask a man to be the first one to die for a mistake? i would ask john kerry , do you think that it's less likely or more likely that chemical weapons will be used again if the we bomb assad ? i will ask him if it's more likely or less likely that we'll have more refugees in jordan or that israel might suffer attack. i think all of the bad things you can imagine are all more likely if we get involved in the syrian civil war .
>> it's interesting because secretary kerry was pretty blunt, and i've got his remarks right here, talking about what you and your colleagues will do in the senate and the house . he said, i don't believe my former colleagues in the united states senate and the house will turn their back on our interests, on the credibility of our country, on the norm with respect to the enforcement of the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons , which has been in place since 1925 . so you speak about the bad things that will happen. he says for you and others not to authorize force is really hurtful to u.s. credibility.
>> well, the one thing i would say that i'm proud of the president for is that he's coming to congress in a constitutional manner and asking for our authorization. that's what he ran on. his policy was that no president should unilaterally go to war without congressional authority. and i'm proud that he's sticking by it. but you ask john kerry whether or not he'll stick by the decision of congress , and i believe he waffled on that and wobbled and wasn't exactly concrete that they would. but absolutely if congress votes this down, we should not be involved in the syrian war . and i think it's at least 50/50 whether the house will vote down involvement in the syrian war .
>> you think it's 50/50. it's that close. you don't think that this is a compelling case that's been made and that congress will follow suit.
>> in the house . i think the senate will rubber stamp what he wants, but i think the house will be much closer vote. and there are a lot of questions we have to ask. i think it's pretty apparent there was a chemical attack . but we now have to ask are we going to go after chemical weapons with our bombing. everything i read says that we're unlikely to bomb chemical sites because of the potential for civilian damage and civilian loss of life. the other question is all of the bad things that are going on, one of the bad things going on is that hundreds of thousands of people have gone into jordan as refugees. if we begin a bombing campaign in syria , i think that accelerates, it accelerates the misery. if we get involved, you know, people say, well 100,000 people have died, we must act. well fshgts if our weapons get involved and we get involved, do you think more people will die or less people? i think the war may escalate out of control. then we have to ask ourselves who is on america 's side over there? if the rebels win, will they be american allies? assad 's definitely not an american ally. but i'm not convinced anybody on the islamic side, the islamic rebels will be american allies.
>> it seems to me, senator, that what the president is saying in that drafted resolution that he's lyde congress to authorize, that the united states must draw a line at the use of chemical weapons , any weapons of mass destruction , in war, that you simply cannot allow it and that if we strike assad and he uses them again, i heard secretary kerry say that the united states might strike assad again if he uses the weapons. why not draw that line in the sand as the president wants you to and say we can't allow wmd to be used?
>> i think the line in the sand should be that america gets involved when american interests are threatened. i don't see american interests involved on either side of this syrian war . i see assad , who has protected christians for a number of decades, and then i see the islamic rebels on the other side who have been attacking christians . i see al qaeda on one side, the side we would go in to support, and i see it to be murky. i don't see a clear-cut american interest. i don't see either party that is victorious victorious, if either is victorious, being an american ally.
>> you are a united states senator . you may at some point be a candidate for the presidency. how would the united states look if the president says i have decided to take military action , i want congress to give me authority, and congress does not give that authority?
>> i think it would show that he made a grave mistake when he drew a red line . i think a president should be very careful about setting red lines he's not going to keep. but then again, when you set a red line that was not a good idea in the beginning with, and now you're going to adhere to it or try to show your machismo, i think then you're trying to save face and really adding bad policy to bad policy.
>> your colleagues in the senate like senator mccain and senator graham, you've tangled with them on some of these matters before. they've made it very clear that the only resolution they would support must go farther. it must essentially really push assad from power. secretary kerry is likening assad to saddam hussein and adolf hitler . you don't see a vital american interest despite those arguments?
>> no, but i think they make an interesting and a valid point. if we're going to launch cruise missiles and it's not going to affect the outcome, basically what they're pushing for, and my interpretation of the current obama administration's policy, is they want to fight for stalemate, then they want to negotiate a settlement. they think that assad has the upper hand now. they want to balance it out. but what i've told them is i'm not sending my son, your son, or anybody else's son to fight for stalemate. you know, when we fight, we fight when we have to, but i see things in a very personal basis. you know, i see a young john kerry who went to war, and i wish he would remember more of how awful war is and that it shouldn't be a desired outcome. neither are chemical weapons , and they should absolutely be condemned, but i think the failure of the obama administration has been we haven't engaged the russians enough or the chinese enough on this, and i think they were engaged. i think there's a possibility assad could already be gone. the russians have every reason to want to keep their influence in syria , and i think the only way they do is if there's a change in government where assad has gone but some of the same people remain stable. that would also be good for the christians . i think the islamic rebels winning is a bad idea for the christians and all of a sudden we'll have another islamic state where christians are persecuted. so i think really the best outcome for all the major powers would be a peaceful transition government, and russia could influence that if they told assad no more weapons.
>> nor paul , we he'll leave it there. thank you for your views this morning.
>> thank you.
>>> coming up here, our own chuck todd , our chief white house correspondent, will be here with the inside story on what changed the president's mind.
>>> plus, our political roundtable weighs in on whether his decision weakens u.s. credibility and the rest of the world .
>>> later, nbc's ann curry just back from a syrian refugee camp on the toll of war. what the u.n. says is the worst humanitarian crisis in 20 years. we know