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Interview With President Obama

Aired September 9, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, my interview with President Obama and his first public response to a possible, a possible way out of attacking Syria.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is a potentially positive development. I have to say that it's unlikely that we would have arrived at that point where there would have been public statements like that without a credible military threat.


BLITZER: I asked the president if this is Bashar al-Assad's last chance to avoid a punishing U.S. military strike, and if he's worried about a new threat that a gruesome chemical weapons attack like the one in Syria might be launched against Americans, all part of my one- on-one interview that's about to air.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the White House. This is a THE SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria."

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's get to the breaking news.

I sat down with President Obama here at the White House just a little while ago, as a new proposal aimed at avoiding a U.S. military attack on Syrian targets appeared to be gaining some serious momentum, Russia now urging Bashar al-Assad to give up control of his chemical weapons stockpiles to the international community, seizing on an idea suggested earlier in the day by Secretary of State John Kerry.

I asked President Obama about that and more on this, the eve of his address to the nation, as he faces serious risk of losing votes in Congress on the use of force.

Right now, my interview with the president.


BLITZER: Mr. President, thanks so much for joining us.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you. BLITZER: This latest idea floated by the secretary of state, John Kerry, picked up by the Russians, is it possible this could avert a U.S. military strike on Syria?

OBAMA: It's possible if it's real.

And, you know, I think it's certainly a positive development when the Russians and the Syrians both make gestures towards dealing with these chemical weapons. This is what we have been asking for, not just over the last week or the last month, but for the last couple of years, because these chemical weapons pose a significant threat to all nations and to the United States in particular.

That's why 98 percent of humanity has said, we don't use these. That protects our troops. And it protects children like the ones that we saw in those videos inside of Syria.

So, it is a potentially positive development. I have to say that it's unlikely that we would have arrived at that point where there were even public statements like that without a credible military threat to deal with the chemical weapons use inside of Syria.

But we're going to run this to ground. And John Kerry and the rest of my national security team will engage with the Russians and the international community to see, can we arrive at something that is enforceable and serious?

You know, one reason that this may have a chance of success is that even Syria's allies like Iran detest chemical weapons. Iran, you know, unfortunately was the target of chemical weapons at the hands of Saddam Hussein back at the Iraq-Iran War.

And so we may be able to arrive at a consensus in which it doesn't solve the underlying problems of a civil war in Syria, but it does solve the problem that I'm trying to focus on right now, which is making sure that you don't have over 400 children gassed indiscriminately by these chemical weapons.

BLITZER: Because Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. secretary-general, says not only control of the stockpile of chemical weapons, but then go ahead and destroy them. He's ready to take that to the U.N. Security Council.

That's a lot better than deterring the Syrians from going ahead and using these chemical weapons.

OBAMA: Absolutely.

And that's why we're going to take this seriously. But I have to consistently point out that we have not seen these kinds of gestures up until now. And, in part, the fact that the U.S. administration and I have said we are serious about this I think has prompted some interesting conversations.

And these are conversations that I have had directly with Mr. Putin. When I was at the G20, we had some time to discuss this. And I believe that Mr. Putin does not see the use of chemical weapons as a good thing inside of Syria or anyplace else.

And so it's possible that we can get a breakthrough, but it's going to have to be followed up on. And we don't want just a stalling or delaying tactic to put off the pressure that we have on there right now. We have to maintain this pressure, which is why I will still be speaking to the nation tomorrow about why I think this is so important.

BLITZER: Is this Bashar al-Assad's last chance?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I think that it is important for Assad to understand that the chemical weapons ban which has been in place is one that the entire civilized world just about respects and observes.

It's something that protects our troops, even when we're in the toughest war theaters, from being threatened by these chemical weapons. It's something that protects women and children and civilians, because these weapons by definition are indiscriminate. They don't just target somebody in uniform.

And, you know, I suspect that some of Assad's allies recognize the mistake he made in using these weapons. And it may be that he is under pressure from them as well. You know, again, this doesn't solve the underlying terrible conflict inside of Syria.

But if we can accomplish this limited goal without taking military action, that would be my preference. On the other hand, if we don't maintain and move forward with a credible threat of military pressure, I do not think we will actually get the kind of agreement I would like to see.

BLITZER: You're being seen right now on CNN and CNN International around the world, including in Damascus.

What I would like you to do, Mr. President, if you're amenable to doing it, look into the camera, talk directly to President Bashar al- Assad, tell him specifically what you think he must do to avert a U.S. military strike.

OBAMA: You know, I don't need to talk in the camera. I suspect he's got people who will be watching this.

BLITZER: He's probably watching it himself.


OBAMA: We have been very clear about what we expect.

And that is, do not use chemical weapons. Control the chemical weapons. And now, because we have seen Assad's willingness to use chemical weapons, we are going to have to go further and give the international community assurances that they will not be used, potentially by getting them out of there, at minimum, making sure that international control over those chemical weapons takes place.

That can be accomplished. And it does not solve the broader political situation. I would say to Mr. Assad, we need a political settlement, so that you are not slaughtering your own people, and, by the way, encouraging some elements of the opposition to engage in some terrible behavior as well.

You know, what I'm thinking about is, right now, though, how do we make sure that we can verify that we do not have chemical weapons that can be used not only inside of Syria, but potentially could drift outside of Syria?

BLITZER: He said in an interview with Charlie Rose that if you, the United States, attack, launch military strikes, he will respond. "Anything" -- he said, "expect anything," not only from him, but from his allies.

That sounds like a threat to the United States.

OBAMA: Yes, Mr. Assad doesn't have a lot of capability.

He has capability relative to children. He has capability relative to an opposition that is still getting itself organized and are not professional, trained fighters. He doesn't have a credible means to threaten the United States.

His allies Iran and Hezbollah could potentially engage in asymmetrical strikes against us, but, frankly, the kind of threats that they could pose against us are typical of the kinds of threats that we are dealing with around the world and that I have spoken of recently, which is embassies that are being threatened, U.S. personnel in the region.

Those are threats that we deal with on an ongoing basis. They are always of concern. Obviously, we saw the situation in Yemen just a few weeks ago, where we wanted to respond by getting some of our folks out of there. But the notion that Mr. Assad could significantly threaten the United States is just not the case.


BLITZER: There's more of my interview with President Obama coming up here in our special report, "Crisis in Syria."

I will ask him about possible threats to the United States on Wednesday, the 12th anniversary of 9/11. We are going to get his answer to that question. That's coming up later.

But let's bring in our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, right now.

Gloria, you heard the president. He seems much more positive, shall we say, than some of his other officials who spoke out earlier in the day about the potential for some sort of diplomatic breakthrough right now that would avoid the need for U.S. military action.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, what stood out to me, Wolf, is that he seems to be talking about the utility of the threat of the use of force more than he's talking about the actual use of force, which is the case, of course, that he's got to be making before the United States Congress and the American public tomorrow night.

So the question is whether this shift is going to be long-lasting, or whether it's just today, because they believe they have to kind of give the Russians their due. We don't know the answer yet, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we will continue of what is going on.

Stand by, Gloria.

We have a full panel also standing by with more thoughts on what President Obama just said in the interview with me and what he didn't say. My interview -- more of my interview with him, that is coming up as well.


BLITZER: Potential, a potential breakthrough in the Syria crisis. I spoke about that with President Obama. He used the word breakthrough himself in that interview. You saw it just a little while ago. More of the interview coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

In the meantime, though, let's bring in our chief national correspondent, John King, our chief domestic correspondent, Jessica Yellin, and our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

John, it seems like there's been a pretty dramatic shift in U.S. tone, conversation, shall we say, as a result of this Russian proposal.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, just a week or so it looked like we were going into some military action within hours or days, and now you heard the president there in the interview you just had with him saying he hopes, essentially voicing hope that this proposal floated by Secretary Kerry, mocked at the time by some of his own deputies, and then suddenly embraced by the Russians this by this evening has become a serious proposal, perhaps a way out.

In an odd way, the president is almost betting on it in that interview, because they scheduled these interviews, Wolf, for the president to address the deep skepticism that we see in the Congress and more importantly that we among a broad swathe of the American people from left to right in the political spectrum.

The president didn't take much time in that interview to try to make his case, to address that skepticism, to talk about does he have a viable plan? Can you do something in a limited way that would make a real difference inside Syria? The president knows that that is the challenge. He seems to be hoping this Russian proposal bears fruit.

BLITZER: He certainly does.

Jessica, if it does bear fruit, that would cause a big sigh of relief here at the White House, because as much as they're threatening the use of force, they don't want to do it. They certainly don't want to do it without congressional authorization. JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF DOMESTIC AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Right. We could call it the goof that saves the president, although maybe it wasn't in that case such a goof, but maybe a little bit of an intentional if somewhat devious slip by John Kerry, given this is something that's been discussed privately by some of the leaders, but never quite publicly like this, Wolf.

Look, the president, you heard it there, was talking about how he's now shifting this discussion, as Gloria said, to a threat of force rather than so much focused on the actual use of force. What's striking about this is that it doesn't become a real threat when you're acknowledging that it's merely a threat.

So it's once again a very confusing conversation we're having and you have to wonder what the president really intends by all this, and so once again we're questioning why is the president in this position? Why is he going to Congress? And why should any member of Congress take the risk...


BORGER: And, Wolf, you can't get the public behind you if the public doesn't know where you are. I think in listening to your interview, Wolf, it's sort of not clear where the president is.

He hasn't sort of cleaned up his own ambivalence, if you will. And when you want to project to the American public and say, yes, we need to use force, they need to hear that.

YELLIN: He delved back into his ambivalence.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: All right. Guys, stand by. We're going to continue this analysis.

Coming up next, Hillary Clinton gives President Obama a helping hand on Syria. Our special report, more of my interview with the president on this crisis in Syria, that's after this.


BLITZER: A show of support today for the president's Syria strategy from the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She spoke out publicly for the first time about a potential U.S. military strike against the Syrian regime.

Most everything the former secretary does these days is seen through the prism of a possible run for the White House.

Once again, here's our chief domestic correspondent, Jessica Yellin.


YELLIN (voice-over): Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke up in support of President Obama's Syria policy. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: It demands a strong response.

YELLIN: But she managed to avoid a full-throated endorsement of a military strike.

CLINTON: Potential international control over Syria's stockpiles only could take place in the context of a credible military threat by the United States.

YELLIN: As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton didn't mince words about U.S. policy towards Syria.

CLINTON: The regime of Bashar al-Assad must come to an end. Horrible event that chemical weapons were used, and everyone has made it clear to the Syrian regime that's a red line for the world.

YELLIN: Privately, Clinton pushed to arm the rebels, but the president did not sign on until after she left government.

Now the White House needs her help with a CNN poll showing 55 percent of the American public opposed to striking Syria, even with congressional approval. The administration wants Clinton to lend her credibility to their plan. The president is putting Clinton in a tricky and all-too-familiar position. Flash back to 2008.

OBAMA: I was opposed to Iraq from the start.

YELLIN: In the Democratic presidential primary, then candidate Obama beat up Senator Clinton over her vote to use force in the Iraq war.

CLINTON: I think I made a reasoned judgment. Unfortunately, the person who actually got to execute the policy did not.

YELLIN: It helped, establishing Obama as the outsider candidate of change. Clinton's campaign hit back.

NARRATOR: It's 3:00 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep.

YELLIN: It was too late to help Clinton, but in some quarters that impression stuck.

Last week, as the president publicly worked through his position on Syria, former RNC Chair Ed Gillespie tweeted, "Clear now, when the 3:00 a.m. call came, Barack Obama couldn't find his glasses, knocked phone off nightstand, still reaching around for receiver."

It's a reminder that nothing in politics staying in the past, a lesson Hillary Clinton knows well.


YELLIN: Wolf, as a private citizen, former Secretary Hillary Clinton clearly has no obligation to take a definitive position on whether she supports a military strike on Syria, especially since she has no ability to control how that can play out. Today, she clearly showed her support for the Russia option -- Wolf.

BLITZER: She certainly certain did.

Jessica, stand by.

Let's get back to the breaking news, my interview with President Obama here at the White House just a little while ago. Remember, we're only two days away from the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

And I asked the president about that.


BLITZER: One final quick question -- 9/11, the anniversary this Wednesday, should Americans expect some sort of attack?

OBAMA: I think that we're always on heightened alert on 9/11. And we will continue to be. What we have seen over the last decade is because of the heroism of our troops, because of enormous sacrifices of them and their families, America is safer than it was right before 9/11.

But we still have threats out there, particularly outside of the homeland. And we also have lone wolf threats, as we saw during the Boston Marathon bombings. So we have to remain vigilant. We are not going to be able to protect ourselves 100 percent of the time against every threat, but what we can do is make sure that we understand these threats are real, we have to be prepared, but not overreact in ways that potentially compromise our values and our ideals over the long term.

BLITZER: Mr. President, thanks very much.

OBAMA: I appreciate it. Thank you, Wolf.


BLITZER: Now to breaking news that's happening right now.

Let's go to our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

Dana, what's going on?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What's going on is the Russia developments have caused a change in the United States Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was going to set things up for a Wednesday procedural vote on authorizing military force.

He's decided to delay that, and the specific reason I'm told by a senior Democratic source is because of these developments in Russia. They don't want senators to be locked into having to vote even in a procedural way on Wednesday. They want to give things more time, I'm told, to percolate and see what happens on the world stage with Russia. Very interesting that they are delaying this.

BLITZER: Are they upbeat, a little bit more encouraged maybe there will be a peaceful diplomatic way out of this current crisis as a result of this initiative?

BASH: I don't know if they are upbeat or encouraged, but they are definitely hopeful.

I just had a Democratic member pull me aside coming out of a private briefing with all members and with Secretaries Hagel and Kerry and so forth who said that he's getting a lot of questions about what's going on with Russia, and a lot of members very clearly are really hoping, every finger and toe crossed, that this is a way out, not just primarily for the U.S. military to have to deal with this, but also for members of Congress to have to deal with this as well.

BLITZER: We will have a lot more on this story, obviously, the breaking news.

Remember what the president just told me. He said that he actually discussed this idea with Putin when they met in St. Petersburg at the G20 summit.

Remember, you can always follow what's going on here in THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter.

Go ahead and tweet me @WolfBlitzer. Thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer at the White House.

"CROSSFIRE" starts right now.