Meet the Press   |  September 15, 2013

1: A view from the Senate on Syria crisis

After receiving an update from NBC's Andrea Mitchell, Sens. John McCain, Bob Menendez and Roy Blunt visit Meet the Press to discuss the latest developments in diplomatic negotiations with the embattled nation.

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

>>> this sunday morning the breaking news on a chemical weapons deal in syria . could president obama win without a fight? or is the deal just a stall tactic?

>>> with no end in sight to the syrian civil war the question remain, will syria 's president assad comply? the view from key members of the senate this morning, plus "the new york times" columnist tom friedman with his analysis and our roundtable on president obama 's search for a solution. authors bob woodward and richard wolffe . " washington post " columnist kathleen parker and republican strategist ana navarro analyze the president's decision-making. plus, the fifth anniversary of the financial meltdown, the great disconnect, the dow was up, so were corporate profits but income equality is bigger than ever. are we better than we were five years ago. former treasury secretary hank paulson is here in a sunday morning exclusive along with former congressman barney frank and cnbc's maria bartiromo . i'm david gregory . all that adead on this edition of "meet the press." for sunday, september 15th .

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>>> and good sunday morning, secretary of state john kerry is on the ground in israel right now where he's meeting with prime minister benjamin netanyahu whose reaction to the deal is cautious but supportive. we'll get a response from senator john mccain in a moment. but first andrea mitchell just back from her travels with the secretary of state with the very latest on this deal. andrea, it amounts to this, assad and the russians committing to say exactly all the chemical weapons that he's got.

>> right.

>> and to get rid of them by the middle of next year. why shouldn't that be universally cheered?

>> it is a very big deal , sweeping deal but there are a lot of ifs. is it going to work? the russians say they're speaking for assad . assad has not personally committed to this. he spoke to disclose in a week. what if he doesn't meet that deadline? the only enforcement is up to the u.n. and that's still to be negotiated and russia ruled out the use of force as a threat. that doesn't mean the president couldn't use force but with congress leaning against that with the american people against that, how credible a threat is that?

>> i don't want to get into the weeds on the united nations but when comes to force if somebody plays cat and mouse and wants to gum the works the u.s. is in a position to go to the u.n. and say, hey f. that happens then weath we're going to threaten force and are in a position to use it.

>> that's correct. in fact, tomorrow there's going to be this big report from the u.n. inspectors, not literally tying it to assad but it will build international pressure. at the same time, though, the only threat of force if it's credible at all will be u.s. unilateral force , the brits have said no, the french have now huge public opinion against it. there will be some arab support but the u.s. would have to stand alone and is it really credible this president would do that now? one other quick thing, libya voluntarily, gadhafi gave up his weapons. after he was gone we found more. the u.s. is still and russia still destroying our weapons 15 years after we agreed to. it takes a long time. this is very challengeing.

>> andrea mitchell , more from you. joining me now senator john mccain , republican from arizona, member of the armed services committee as you know, one of the most outspoken voices in the senate about u.s. policy in syria which is why i wanted to you here, senator. look where we've gone in a week. i've talked to the chief of staff at the white house . he says, look, russia was not on board a week ago. assad denied even having chemical weapons a week ago. and now they're both on board to destroy these weapons and yet you've called this deal a act of provocative weakness, why?

>> well, if -- suppose that this deal is made and then bashar al assad does not comply and continues, by the way, the slaughter of over 100,000 , the problem by the way in syria is not chemical weapons although as horrible as they are, the 100,000 that verizon been killed but suppose that he doesn't comply. they go to the u.p.s. let me give you the quote from mr. lavrov. he said, "nothing is said about the use of force or sanctions." so they go to the united nations . it's clear they would veto again. it is now in the hands of russia to decide whether bashar al assad is really complying or not.

>> can i ask you then how might we be in the united states in a different position if the goal -- if the goal was to prevent him from ever using chemical weapons again? i realize your deal is different. work with me. don't use chemical weapons again how might the situation have been different had the president stayed on course and been bombing by now.

>> of course, the president probably wouldn't have been bombing and if it had been an unbelievably small attack, i'm not sure --

>> secretary kerry said --

>> how often difference it would make. no's not scary and unbelievably small attack. the point is if the agreement had said that there will be the use of force automatically or the russians had agreed that they could go under chapter 7 to the united nations security council , that puts an entirely different cast on it. right now it's up to the russians to decide that. and, by the way, they didn't even assign blame for this attack. in fact, putin and his op-ed piece, stirring piece said that it was a rebels, it was the free syrian army that committed this. there is not a seriousness on the part of the russians , and, again, here we are going to see if it works we're going to see the russians facilitating the departure of chemical weapons while planeload after planeload of russian aircraft coming into damascus full of weapons and devices to kill syrians of which there is over 100,000 . whatever happened to the president's red line where he said, if they use these chemical weapons , whether we will respond and --

>> okay, but as you know i think the president would say to you, okay, the reality is that red line was to prevent him from using weapons and we have the prospect here even if we don't completely trust the russians of getting to a point where he no longer has weapons. why shouldn't that be seen as victory?

>> it's not a matter of trust . it's a matter of whether it will be enforced or not when the -- mr. lavrov said there is nothing in this agreement about the use of force . i.e., they will not agree to the use of force no matter what bashar al assad does.

>> two points that i want to try to pin you down on.

>> sure.

>> which is, if the russians stand in the way, if they're gaming the president and the us right now and this is --

>> they're in charge.

>> they're in charge so if they stand in the way of any potential force what would you do as president in the interim in case they do that and if that eventuality happen.

>> well, first of all, i would step up our support for the free syrian army . the president two years ago said bashar al assad has to go. where is that statement? and i would do -- give them the support that they need to change the momentum on the battlefield to lead to the negotiated departure of bashar al assad . that has always been the goal. at least certainly stated by the president of the united states . now there is no comment about that. now he is able to have killed 1400 people and he has killed over 100,000 . where is the u.s.' response to that? and up until a few days ago, not one single weapon had reached the hands of the free syrian army except for some mres whose time was about to expire.

>> your goal is the president's goal ultimately --

>> that bashar al assad --

>> should go. should be out of power.

>> yes.

>> what should the us sacrifice in order to achieve that goal?

>> sacrifice some of our weapons that are viable like anti-tank and anti-air weapons which we have not given them. ak-47s don't do very well against tanks and give them the support that they need to succeed. look --

>> do you have a partner on the other side on the opposition that you are prepared to say is going to lead syria in a democratic future.

>> then we'll have to help the syrian national council get rid of the jihadists and extremists and two years ago, by the way, they weren't there. a year ago with the momentum on their side, until 5,000 hezbollah, iranians stepped it up. it's going to be tough, it's going to be difficult but to believe that the syrian people who are moderate are willing to be governed by al nusra is a misreading of --

>> this deal which the president supports, a winner or a loser in your mind gentleman.

>> i think it's a loser because i think it gave russia a position in the middle east which they haven't had since 1970 . we are now depending on the good will of the russian people if bashar al assad violates this agreement and i am of the firm belief given his record that is a very, very big gamble.

>> senator mccain , thank you very much. as always i appreciate your time. i want to bring in the chairman of the senate foreign relations committee democrat from new jersey, robert menendez and roy blunt will join us in a moment. chairman menendez , you heard senator mccain and you said this past week anything short of punishing assad would be a mistake. well, he's not getting punished. not at the moment.

>> well, david, look, this is a diplomatic breakthrough that is full of opportunity and fraught with danger. the opportunity is that we actually end up in a better place than we envisioned with the use of force which is the elimination of all of assad 's chemical weapons and his production facilities, in essence closing down these factories of death. the fraught part is that, in fact, assad who has still not said whether he has signed on to this agreement ultimately even if he begins to move forward with some of the beginning elements of the agreement doesn't fulfill elements of the agreement as we move along , the russians find as they often do saying some -- in their mind some plausible reason why there should be no enforceable action at the united nations and we're back to where we started except that assad has bought time on the battlefield and continued to ravage innocent civilians. that's the challenge here and so i'm looking forward to keeping the use of credible force on the table because that's the only reason we've gotten to this point even to this possibility and it is the only reason, for example, in the past that gadhafi and libya and saddam hussein in iraq when the issue was giving up chemical weapons initially believed the force was real and gave up those weapons at that time.

>> senator roy blunt is here, as well. before i ask you what you would have done, you opposed a military resolution and opposed military force in syria . that's what the president was after. do you think congress will keep the threat of military action alive as this process goes on?

>> you know, i think it depends a lot on what kind of military action the president is talking about. in fact, until --

>> we know precisely what it's not.

>> but we also know precisely what he said he was going to do and this is not the president coming to us and saying i'd like to do something in syria . this is the president coming to us and saying, here are the two things i'd like to do. i'd like to do something that is incredibly small but consequence, whatever that means and assad will still be there when it's over. that's a different verification. as late as march this year i was for establishing a safe zone of some kind in syria for the refugees and probably the insurgency. that as the insurgency good for complicated i'm not sure that was still as viable in march of this year as it was a year earlier when i thought it was the right thing to do. but i didn't think what the president was proposing in such specific terms was the right thing to do and i think it would have been a mistake for us to have a small attack that assad was still, said, look, the americans took their best shot at me which it wouldn't have been but he could say whatever it would be and i'm still here, i think assad is a lot stronger today than he was two weeks ago.

>> chairman menendez , for you, as well, look, senator mccain disagrees about this. he would have done a no-fly zone, he would have sent lethal weapons earlier and bolster that opposition in a way this administration did not. but the reality is the goal this president has is not to get involved in civil war and to try to stand up for a principle which is that you shouldn't use the worst weapons in the world no matter what kind of conflict that you are in. that's it. that's the limited american goal and the public is not even for that. chairman menendez , to you first.

>> well, look, david, number one is i think i've heard the president say there are two goals, the immediate goal is the punishment of assad and in this case if you can achieve giving up all of the chemical weapons and production facilities then you've even gone beyond that for the use of chemical weapons and to send an international message that do not cross that line and also my view strategically sending a message, for example, to the ayatollah in iran , do not think about marching towards nuclear weapons , there is a consequence or to the dictator of north korea . the other one independently that the president has said apart from the specific set of contemplative actions he had he said assad must go. now, that is through hopefully a diplomatic process, part of the -- when i say this is full of opportunities, if we could not only eliminate the entire chemical weapons program, eliminate all the chemical weapons it might also create a foundation in which you could finally go to the negotiated agreements that russia and the united states were going to pursue what they call geneva 2. that's an opportunity but there's a lot to go before we realize the opportunity but i have heard the president say that assad must go. now, i agree with senator mccain in this regard. dramatically more assisting the vetted moderate syrian opposition is i think incredibly important to achieve the first goal and i also hope that we will pursue assad for war crimes even the comments of ban ki-moon, the secretary-general of the united nations are very significant. he's rereserved most of the time. the comments that he has committed crimes against humanity is something i'd like to see pursued

>> that's interesting. i want to underline that because i've heard others and heard from some viewers too about that being a big issue whether he's pursued for war crimes . let me give you the last word, senator.

>> i think senator menendez mentioned iran . i think we should -- iranians should understand what has happened in the last two weeks is not the template for iran . a nuclear capable iran is not acceptable. this would be a totally different debate in the congress. i hope the administration's reaction would be totally different and, frankly, i think what's happened in the last two weeks is going to take us a while to recover from. our friends wonder what we'll do and our adversaries have taken heart in seeing the uncertainty of the last two weeks.

>> senators both, thank you very much. andrea, you're sticking around and be right back along with tom friedman , jeffrey goldberg and robin wright . and what are americans saying about what they want out of u.s. leaders in the world? the debate over intervention versus isolationism coming up.

>>> plus, five years ago today, the u.s. economy was near collapse after the worst financial crisis since the great depression. are we any better off today? former treasury secretary hank paulson is here along with one of the chief wall street watchdogs at the time, former congressman barney frank . later our political roundtable with the crisis in syria and what it means for the president's broader agenda. we're back here