Meet the Press   |  September 01, 2013

3: Roundtable: Syria in shadow of Iraq war

A Meet the Press panel examines how the Iraq war creates a culture of trepidation around the idea of American intervention in the Syrian civil war.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

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>>> when we come back, our roundtable, bill kristol ,

>>> joining thus morning, bill kristol , gwen ifill , katty kay , and robert gibbs . now here's david gregory .

>> and welcome to all of you. great to have you all. so much to get to. bill kristol , you posted this yesterday afternoon, a full debate at "the weekly standard ," a full debate in congress would be appropriate and desirable. do you applaud the president for making this switch?

>> yes. i mean, i wish we had intervened or he could have intervened a year or two ago, we would have had better options. there was no reason not to go to congress and good reasons to go. i think he did the right thing. i think we'll have a healthy national debate if next week or two. i think he'll prevail in congress . and i think the republican party will support the president, do the right thing for the country despite doubts about the character of the military assault he's about to launch. i think the republican party will step up and do the right thing and support the president against a chemical weapons using terror-responsibilitiering, iran -backed dictator.

>> gwen ifill , the inside washington intrigue is about the whiplash.

>> yes.

>> the president was ramping up for war and then said, no, let's go to congress first.

>> everybody was told that same story of him walk option ting on the south lawn with his chief of staff and changing his mind. he's concerned about his credibility with the american people . he's hoping congress is now concerned about their credibility with the american people . and there's a credibility question involving the syrian rebels who are now saying they're feeling a little bit abandoned, as if all of a sudden the u.s. is taking their sweet time when they feel they've got a problem. it was interesting that david axelrod , robert's old friend, the president's adviser, immediately tweeted out yesterday, well, the republicans have now -- the dog can now clock the car. it's on them. the white house wasn't unhappy about that characterization.

>> robert, i want to go to that. as press secretary and been around the president a long time, i know he's spoken about the fact that congress will complain, congress will criticize, but congress doesn't cast a tough vote. congress has failed republicans and democrats to revisit the authorization given the president after 9/11.

>> right. well, i think -- this is a deliberative president. this was a -- look, in many ways, this president became both the nominee of the party and the president of the united states as a reaction to the way we went into war without a rationale in iraq . right? so this is a president who's acting very deliberate ly and i think believes our coalition and the breadth of it is strengthened when not just the commander in chief but the representatives of the people weigh in on behalf of intervention by the u.s. military .

>> is he deliberative or is he too cautious or did he -- was he angrier by saying let congress put up or shut up here?

>> look, i think this is much, much more about presenting to the world a united american front , because let's be clear, the audiences that you talk about are not just in damascus. right? they're in tehran. they're with hezbollah. they're in a lot of places in the middle east . and i think projecting a united front by the united states is tremendously important. you can certainly quibble with and criticize the sequencing of the week's events, having kerry go out so vociferously both monday and friday. but i think in the end the president believes the strength is in a broad coalition.

>> katty, what do you say about all this?

>> i think rob setter being diplomatic at best. the sequencing of the week's events looks indecisive at best and perhaps weak and muddled at worst. i mean, it was an extraordinary week in which you had kerry come out effectively and say this terrible thing has happened, we have to respond, and then at the end of the week the president changes course. you can make the counter argument that people in israel and people in iran are watching the deliberations this week and thinking america is going to vacillate and is not going to act until it goes to congress . that causes delays, and it's causing quite a lot of uncertainty around the world. in that region in europe as well. what is the american strategy here? it looks confused. it looks unclear. it looks even as if the military outcomes and the political outcomes are not clearly laid out and clearly aligned.

>> bill kristol , what i heard secretary kerry say today is even if congress says no the president will say yes. he's decided. he's launching military strikes. he also said if assad were to use weapons again the united states might strike again.

>> i think practically speaking it would be hard for the president to act absent an a use of chemical weapons again, without getting congress on board, having gone to congress , but this is a difficult decision. in the first bush white house in 1990 . there were people who did not want us to go to congress for the first gulf war . john kerry voted against that authorization. we got it through against the leadership of the democratic party . i think in this case similarly republicans and i would think a majority of republicans will end up voting to authorize the use of force . what john kerry said to you, you mentioned he made news by mentioning the sarin gas . he also made news i think by trying to get senators mccain and graham and people like me who really want assad to go. the way to deter the future use of chemical weapons in syria is to get rid of assad . he's the one guy to use them. but senator kerry gave an opening to the hawks when he said the military option is limited, it's just to deter and punish the use of chemical weapons , but our political aim remains to get rid of assad and we will weaken assad appreciably. and i do think in fact there will be a way to recognize the views of the hawks like senator mccain and graham, maybe give the doves in congress something say nothing ground troops, at least for now, perhaps we should try to end this quickly. people forget this is a dynamic process. this authorization will go to the senate foreign relations committee for mark-up next week.

>> inwrin in a broadway allowing for lots of marking up. the members of congress say we made it better. but don't you have to have an agreed-upon goal? senator paul , for instance, can say i'm against this because this is about regime change . i don't care what you say. how do you then make the case -- and i guess that's what the sarin gas revelation was about today. how do you make the case our goals are common? that's the challenge going forward not only persuading the congress to go along with the president but persuading the american people . the polls this week did not give much comfort to the white house to plunge ahead.

>> i think that's what's tremendously important. i think we saw what happened in britain when plunging ahead caused a prime minister to lose a military vote for the first time in two centuries. this gives the president more time to make the case to a very this war-weary public about why we're doing what we're doing, to re-establish red lines , to re-establish societal and international norms. and i do think the onus is certainly on the white house and the administration to enunciate if this isn't part of a longer term policy in syria , what is part of it? giving the president a chance to make that case in a longer way is not necessarily --

>> i think the legacy of the iraq war , one of the chief legacies, is that the united states spent a decade trying to engineer the kind of democratic change in the middle east that has not taken root, and that the american public is not prepared to go there again, to say nothing of the fact that syria is even more complicated arguably as a sectarian matter than iraq , katty.

>> yeah. i think the vote in london was a concrete example of the damage that has been done --

>> right.

>> -- to american intelligence and american-led policy in the middle east by the iraq war . and it was clearly the ghost that hung over parliamentarians. a word of warning to the white house . my understanding from london is that whatever the evidence that are being presented to parliament, whatever the case cameron might have made -- and yes, he called them back hurriedly, didn't give it much time, but there was so much antipathy in britain and the parliamentary body not to go along with another american-led venture in the middle east on the understanding that we don't know where this finishes, this could end well as it has in the past, and we don't want to be seen just to sign up on something --

>> that's why it's important too you have this vociferous debate, pass a congressional authorization to do so, and have everybody involved in a united front on this. none of that would be solved, quite frankly , that you just outlined, by going hurriedly and doing this in a way that doesn't --

>> but you have to the risk that congress votes no.

>> the lesson learned from cameron is that he did rush it, he did bring everybody back from vacation, and this is something they don't want to to. he got martin dempsey , chairman of the joint chiefs , to give him a window, give him time. we were counting back from the president's departure from the summit in st. petersburg saying something has to happen in 48 hours , and you have the military saying no it doesn't. tomorrow, next week, next month. so he's buying time in part to put it to congress .

>> cameron lost partly because he's the conservative prime minister, held the majority of his own party. nonetheless, the entire labor party , tony blair 's party, voted against him. president obama will not have that problem. he'll hold half the democrats, presumably. republicans will not be irresponsible as they have been in the past and i think put country ahead of party, and he'll get enough republican votes, a majority of republicans, especially if they can tweak the resolution to go to war. i think he'll go to war with bipartisan support.

>> bill, a lot of people criticize the president and say what is his doctrine in foreign policy ? what's his overall strategy? one thing i think is actually clear from all this is that his one bottom line is the united states cannot allow wmd to be used. hangover from iraq notwithstanding, you cannot allow bad guys to use the worst weapons.

>> right, and the implication of that is of course maybe you shouldn't allow bad guys , the worst guys to get the worst weapons in the first place. this does have implications.

>> do you think he did that?

>> of course he did. but better late than never monopo. honestly late is more difficult. better late than never and it does establish a predicate, incidentally, for the dictators many the region seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction .

>> let's understand the fundamental difference from iraq , right. we know that there are chemical weapons and they have been used. we're still looking for the chemical weapons in iraq .

>> saddam used chemical weapons . against his own citizens actually.

>> right.

>> and the world did nothing.

>> the world did nothing and we should have done something then.

>> for months we looked for rationale for iraq . we continued to look for that rationale for iraq after we started a war with iraq and still haven't come up with the chemical weapons rationale. so doing this in a deliberate way again, this is why the president was elected to be president, because we're going to --

>> i understand why it's easy to get caught up in the iraq hangover and reargue the iraq war . but the question we should be listening for as we watch the case being made is iran .

>> sure.

>> you heard secretary kerry talk about it this morning. we saw the president allude to it not only in his public statements but in this authorization that's been sent to congress . that's going to be the case and worry not only for the president but also for allies in the region who are part of the tiny little coalition of the willing , jordan and turkey.

>> isn't it interesting, to your point, that secretary kerry said, my former colleagues won't turn their back on the impact what iran sees and u.s. credibility. he put it out there, you know. he said this is about u.s. credibility at this point.

>> to some extent we in a situation where not acting is worse than acting in terms of american credibility around the world and in the region and in terms of trying to prevent people in that region, whether it's president assad or the mullahs in iran from thinking that they can get away with this again. and one of the arguments that the white house is going to use to members of congress as they speak to them this week is this undermines the security of our allies including israel in the region and because they know there are a lot of friends of israel in congress . that's part of the reason --

>> there's a broadening of a political argument to get folks more on bill's side of the aisle more comfortable with something that is not regime change but is limited to enforcing chemical weapons .

>> look, it may be just in this town of washington, but the inside administration intrigue, do you think the secretary of state was hung out to dry ? do you think he was undermined when the president sent him out there, only to have the president change his mind?

>> say yes. say yes.

>> you've never said anything on this show that made news.

>> say it publicly.

>> i will say this. as i said earlier, one, i think kerry made a forceful and persuasive case that he will have to make continually for the next ten days. again, i think the sequencing of the week's events was not in any way in the order that i think was the way they would want to have unwound this.

>> i think we get that.

>> that sounded like yes to me.

>> that was the press secretary.

>> very quickly, then i have to go.

>> to be fair, when i was in the first bush white house , we screwed up everything in september, object, november in terms of the presentation. jim baker said this is a war about jobs, mixed signals. at the end of the day we got congressional authorization and the first iraq war is considered to have been a great success and the country was for it. i don't think the minor mistakes they've made over the last week or two affect the outcome.

>> i have to leave it there. thank you all very much. more on this to come, of course. coming up, ann curry has just return in from the largest syrian