Nightly News   |  September 09, 2013

Obama wants to ‘trust but verify’ in Syria

President Obama says Syria saying it would consider giving international control to its chemical arsenal is a good step, but it doesn’t coincide with the country’s past actions. NBC’s Savannah Guthrie reports.

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

>>> told nbc news he hasn't decided what action to take in syria if congress votes no to a military strike . even though the campaign to get a yes vote continues, all day today there was a steady stream of lawmakers in and out of the white house . late today it was a steady stream of oh journalists as the president granted interviews to six networks including this one. it was something secretary of state john kerry said today almost offhandedly that received a lot of attention -- the idea that syria might agree to hand over control of its chemical weapons to other nations. the reaction to that and the president's own words late today leave the impression that suddenly a military strike is now less certain. savannah guthrie has emerged from her conversation with the president in the white house and starts us off from there tonight. savannah, good evening.

>> reporter: good evening, brian. the president was remarkably candid with me saying he's sure he has the votes in congress to approve the military strikes. he was open yet cautious about the idea, the latest overture from russia that perhaps the chemical arsenal could be controlled by international inspectors. are you skeptical? does it seem like a stalling tactic?

>> i think a famous american president once said "trust but verify." you have to take it with a grain of salt initially. but between the statements that we saw from the russians, the statement today from the syrians, this represents a potentially positive development. my preference consistently has been a diplomatic resolution to this problem.

>> reporter: would you act without congress ? the answer could be yes, no, or i haven't decided.

>> i think it's fair to say that i haven't decided. i am taking this vote in congress and what the american people are saying very seriously. because if you ask somebody, you know, i read polls like everybody else. if you ask somebody, if you ask michelle do we want to be involved in another war, the answer is no. so i reognize how important that debate is. it is my belief that for me, the president, to act without consensus in a situation where there is not a direct imminent threat to the homeland or interests around the world that that's not the kind of precedent that i want to set. we are going to spend this week talking to members of congress , answering their questions. i'm going to speak to the american people tomorrow night directly. i will evaluate after that whether or not we feel strongly enough about this that we are willing to move forward.

>> reporter: are you uh confident you're going to get the votes?

>> i wouldn't say i'm confident. i'm confident that the members of congress are taking this issue very seriously, and they are doing their homework. i appreciate that.

>> reporter: you have said these strikes, if they take place, will be limited. my question to you is how could you possibly know that? if we strike and assad retaliates or iran does or hezbollah, they strike u.s. interests or even strike u.s. citizens at home, what then? you may want limited action, but can you really promise it?

>> well, look. nothing is 100% guaranteed in life. but i think it's fair to say that our military is outstanding. our intelligence is outstanding. we have shown ourselves capable of taking precision strikes on military installations in ways that would degrade assad 's capabilities to deliver chemical weapons but that would not lead to escalation.

>> reporter: assad had a message today when asked if he would retaliate. he said, expect everything. members of congress don't think there is a strategy for day two, three, four.

>> that's not the case. first of all, syria doesn't have significant capabilities to retaliate against us. iran does, but iran is not going to risk a war with the united states over this. particularly given that our oh goal is to make sure that chemical weapons aren't used on children. it is unlikely we would see the kinds of retaliation that would have a significant impact on oh u.s. interests in the region.

>> reporter: today secretary of state kerry said the strikes would be unbelievably small. what does that mean? are we talking a pinpediatririck, a punch in the gut?

>> our military is the greatest the world has ever known. when we take limited strikes it has an impact on a country like syria that does not have a tremendous military capability. they have a tremendous military capability relative to sieve civiliasieve l civilians, relative to children being gassed. they don't have a military that matches up with ours in any kind of way.

>> reporter: a senior official told me late today it was vladimir putin who first raised this idea of international inspectors perhaps controlling syria 's chemical arsenal. that's an idea that if it ultimately doesn't go anywhere, at least, brian, it's vigorously being pursued tonight.

>> savannah guthrie starting us off after her conversation with the president tonight. thanks for that.