Meet the Press   |  September 08, 2013

3: Roundtable: Crucial week for Obama

A Meet the Press roundtable forecasts the pressure on this upcoming week for the president to make his case for intervention in the Syrian conflict.

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

>>> we've got a little news this morning. i want to check in with our chief foreign affairs correspondent, andrea mitchell , in paris traveling with secretary of state john kerry . ab dr andrea, he's rallying the international community . what have you learned?

>> reporter: kerry said he is picking up momentum. he said today that the saudis have actually endorsed air strikes , but they have not said so publicly. so far he has no public endorsements of usair strikes except from the french. and the french said today and yesterday that they now want a delay. they want a delay to go back to the united nations because they are also, of course, pressured by public opinion here in france. so the secretary said just now that he is going to take that back to the president, consider a delay, going back to the u.n. where you know there is that russian veto. it does seem to be going one step forward , two steps back. but all of the arab leaders here today did condemn assad 's use of chemical weapons , universally, they said that it was assad and they condemned it as crossing an international red line . by the way, kerry picked up a lot of friends here in france by doing an entire speech about assad , condemning assad in french to the french people . and in flawless french, at that. david ?

>> andrea mitchell , thank you very much in paris traveling with the secretary of state. our roundtable is here. jane harman , chuck todd , newt gingrich , david axelrod , welcome to all of you. the question for all of you, the president's got it all cut out for him now, tuesday night. he's got to try to change the trajectory of this, chuck todd , and convince the public and congress to act. how does he do it?

>> it was amazing that you have a northeastern moderate republican , peter king , a southern conservative republican just now in mccaul, a liberal to moderate centrist democrat from orange county , california, and all in some ways beating up the president, even the yes vote for him wasn't exactly a show of confidence on that. it looks -- what's interesting here is the white house is doing this full-court press even as they realize the house might be close to a lost cause. they're going to try this pr effort. you see the videos are coming out. then we have what denis is doing today, what the president's doing tomorrow with a bunch of interviews. then the nation -- i thought the most effective thing he did on friday at the press conference that i was at in russia is when he made it about -- he made an interesting, i thought, patriotic pitch which is, you know what? we're america . we're stuck. i'm sorry we have to be the world's policemen. i don't like it. it was sort of this reluctant like we have no other choice. no one else will act. no one else is going to punish him. and it's terrible that we're in this position, but we're -- that's -- you know, we're stuck doing it. i actually thought it was effective. the first message i heard out of the administration that was potentially effective.

>> but newt, he's saying, denis mcdonough is saying, it's going to be limited. don't worry. very, very limited. very targeted. and by the way, if we don't act, iran, the real enemy, is watching. that's what mcdonough said this morning.

>> i thought denis was very effective making a bad case. i think that's their problem. if the strategy is inexplicable to a normal american, we're going to sort of punch you, but we're not going to punch you too hard. and we really would like you to leave, but we don't want you to leave enough to get rid of you. and we hope there's a political solution although we haven't got a clue what it is. i mean, that's very hard to build momentum for. and you have to be communicator in chief before you're commander in chief. and tuesday night's speech, i think, really matters because he has to show a coherence and a discipline and a directness that average americans can identify with.

>> i mean, the issue here -- i'm sorry, jane, go ahead.

>> well, i get it. i served in the house for nine terms. i won 17 elections including primaries. i was primaried, as they say. it's a new word in our lexicon, three times after my vote for the iraq intervention where i said i believed the intelligence, and the intelligence turned out to be wrong and i was wrong, but the notion of going to war or launching a limited strike at least to me to protect our values and to project american power in a way that deters really bad consequences in iran and north korea and so forth is, by my light, the right thing to do. and i think what's going on here, my view, is all these folks in both parties, especially in the house, are worried about being primaried. the base in each party is against this. i'm sympathetic to that. the economy hasn't rebounded in most parts of the country. they're against it. so these folks think that their re-election, my view, matters more than perhaps taking a principled stance.

>> i think that's too hard. it's perfectly rational.

>> they don't want to vote for it. and that's why, again, the president's pitch matters so much.

>> america , david axelrod , doesn't want to go to war. and i don't think america necessarily believed that denis mcdonough says we're not going to war, that they can take that to the bank.

>> well, of course, the president here is kind of whipsawed between those who want more aggressive action and those who are afraid this will lead to war. and the irony is he was the president who got elected because he recognized early that the case on iraq was faulty, that it was a bad thing for us to do. but on this, i think that it's very, very clear. chemical weapons are in a different category. you know, we have 400 kids basically gassed as they slept, tortured, and then killed, their ability to breathe taken from them. and this is what these weapons do. this is why we proscribed them for 100 years. and the notion that we're going to let that go without an answer is an open invitation to use them again not just by assad but other players in that region and around the world. it would be disastrous.

>> but i remember how democrats went after the bush administration for raising the specter of weapons of mass destruction being used against our own troops to make a case for war that never happened because there were no wmd there. denis mcdonough just said that here. he said we don't want our own troops being targeted by these awful weapons.

>> but david , but these weapons are there. this is a completely different case. the weapons were used. we have film, we have all kinds of intelligence that suggests who used them. it's a much different case.

>> would syria attack the united states with weapons?

>> there's no doubt they're fighting side by side with hezbollah. they could certainly use them against israel . they could be proliferated from there. and it gives a signal to everyone else -- every bad actor on the planet, the united states , the world community is in a fetal position , and you can do what you want. that would be a terrible signal.

>> i think peggy noonan actually captured a good part of this in her column this week. this country has been engaged in the middle east seriously since october of 1979 . we are tired of being a region where everybody wants to kill each other. it's very un-american. and as this whole -- because we're a country that wants a solution. tell me what the end game is. well, the middle east , the end game may just not be not killed. israel has survived.

>> here's the problem. to me -- and i'm as cynical as anybody when it comes to political motivation. and i think about half of the republican opposition here is the political opposition . but i think a good 50% of it is not. i think about 75% of the opposition of the democratic party is rational and principled and may be about 25% of it is politics. i don't think it's as political as you think on this. i think there is -- but what does this look like on day four? the president, denis mcdonough , what does it look like day four?

>> go ahead.

>> that's what the president hasn't answered.

>> first of all, the word "un-american" makes me cringe. we're all patriotic americans, whatever our point of view is on this. we want america 's interests to be advanced. the people who have looked at this carefully think day two comes out okay. israel is prepared for day two. and we're prepared for day two. and day three and four won't be beautiful either, but this is a choice among bad options. this is the least bad option. even a guy like bill kristol writing in "the new york times."

>> civilians are going to be killed.

>> they're going to be killed anyway.

>> part of the legacy of iraq was that the bush administration failed to anticipate what could go wrong. so if denis mcdonough says limited strike, degraded ability to use chemical weapons , what happens if they retal rate against israel ? we get drawn in. what happens if he uses weapons again? do we have to strike again? what happens if the battlefield momentum is changed dramatically because of our military action and it begins to disintegrate? we had this point of view going into libya. what happened a year later? the ambassador was killed because it was chaotic.

>> what is the result of inaction and the israelis themselves have sent a signal that they felt -- that they feel we have to act because if we don't, it will encourage the use of these weapons.

>> let me, first of all, my reference on america was behavior of people in the middle east . i think it's very hard for us to understand people who three, four and five generations kill each other in order to set up a blood feud --

>> deep religious beliefs, by the way. this is crusade kind of stuff. this is not the history of america .

>> part of what we have happening in the country -- and i think in a democracy this is not a bad thing -- people are allowed to have views. and partly what's happening is a country talking to itself and the american people saying, "a," i don't understand why it's our problem. "b," i doubt very much that we can fix it. and "c," the guys who are against assad strike me as about as sick as assad is. so you really don't have a good guy/ bad guy environment here.

>> you know, the problem is it's not our problem until it's our problem. so if you don't accept the moral argument, how about the practical argument that we live in a very small world now, and if these weapons proliferate, that ultimately it washes up on our shores. we've seen that in a tragic way already. we need to contain this. and i think that is a fundamental point the president has to make.

>> and he's going to make it. i mean, he knows that this is clinch time. when the tough decision came about taking down osama, he did it. and i think he's unflinching here. and i actually think the move toward congress -- the process is very messy -- but putting this in congress 's box is a very smart thing to do. there's an international lesson on what a mature democracy looks like going on right now. and whatever the result is, it won't be rifle fire on our streets.

>> given what david said, the moral case, the practical case and the fact that the president has made all the holocaust references, i want to ask you all the question i asked denis mcdonough . how does he not act even if congress says no?

>> and that's why i think this whole limited --

>> i'm not making a case for war in saying that. i'm just saying it's a predicament.

>> i think his case would look better, the moral argument would be the practical argument that you just made would be easier to understand if they weren't saying, but it's going to be a very limited strike, and it's not going to tip the balance of power too much, although i notice -- i did notice that denis was saying no, no, no, it may tip the balance. i think they're trying to change that tune. and i think that goes to the then the third part of this equati equation, right? if you're a member of congress , you're going well, then what does it do? and there are going to be tv pictures. we are going to kill civilians. we're going to kill some innocent victims with these bombs.

>> the president has to make the case this will have an impact. we've seen examples in the past when they happen where there were limited strikes that did make a difference. but in answer to your question, david , i think denis answered it in just the right way, which is don't ask -- answer an if question. i think it's very hard for him to act if congress votes it down. very hard to act.

>> i think the decisive point was that friday night walk with denis where the president said, i'm going to go to congress . i mean, prior to that, literally he could have bombed, done a national speech and said, here's why i did it. i'm commander in chief.

>> ask for forgiveness, not for permission.

>> almost no negative fallout. now he's in a situation where if he can't win this vote, i don't see how he politically stays --

>> do you think it was right for him to take us there?

>> i do think it was right for him to take us there, but now he's told the american people you get to define what i will or won't do.

>> quick thought.

>> that's brilliant. the american people should buy into america 's actions around the world. and this has serious consequences. i think serious consequences if we don't act. we should have been doing this for 12 years. we haven't had a post-9/11 conversation. we've had commanders in chief taking unilateral action. and this is much better.

>> all right. the debate continues. we'll take a break here and come back. more with our roundtable. also "today's" savannah guthrie with an exclusive interview with anthony wiener. will his wife, huma, be by his