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Crisis in Syria: Decision Point

Aired September 10, 2013 - 23:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Tonight a special hour of CNN.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: America is not the world's policeman.

TAPPER: President Obama in America's living rooms. Using words that even he probably could not have predicted just 48 hours ago.

OBAMA: This initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force.

TAPPER: What began as a case for striking the regime turns into a cautious embrace of Russia's plan to get Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: It has to be real. It cannot be a delaying tactic.

TAPPER: But what about that Russian plan? Will it work? What has the Syrian regime ever done to earn the trust? And if President Obama thinks it's such a worthy idea, why wasn't it his plan A?

Sunrise in Damascus. How did the president's speech land in the potential target zone.

We'll go live to the Middle East.



TAPPER: Good evening, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to the special hour of CNN's CRISIS IN SYRIA, DECISION POINT.

A speech to a nation that does not want to go to war by a president who does not want to go to war.

Tonight President Obama moved to primetime on channels all across the cable box. He sought to bring understanding to his strategy for dealing with Syria. When the president first announced this speech five days ago there's no way he was going to say this about Russia's plan for Syria to give up control of its chemical weapons because the plan did not exist before yesterday. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: This initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force. I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path. I've spoken to the leaders of two of our closest allies, France and the United Kingdom. And we will work together in consultation with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the U.N. Security Council requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them.


TAPPER: The president giving an "if he" thumbs up to Russia's plan which Syria accepted today and the American public never even heard about it in any great detail before 36 hours ago. But the president argues that this would not even have been an option without the threat of military action by the United States, a threat that the president says must not waiver.


OBAMA: I've ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.


TAPPER: So did the president make his case to the American public? Did he make his case clear?

We've had our pollsters working overtime. We already have a very good indication of how the speech landed with viewers. Right now we're breaking these brand new exclusive instant CNN/ORC polls. We asked, did the president make a convincing case to strike Syria? The responses were about evenly split, 47 percent yes, 50 percent no, a difference within the sampling error.

We also asked people how they felt after hearing the president tonight. Thirty-two percent said they felt more confident in his leadership, 16 percent said they were less confident, 52 percent no change at all.

Perhaps the most interesting question of all. We asked this before and after the speech, would U.S. air strikes on Syria achieve any significant goals for the U.S.? Before the speech, 30 percent yes, they would, 66 percent no. After the speech, 36 percent said yes, air strikes would achieve significant goals for the U.S., 58 percent said no.

So he didn't really move the needle very much, at least not in this instant poll.

For the rest of the hour we're examining this critical moment in American foreign policy. I want to bring in Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican who's made no secret of his belief that the U.S. should take a much stronger stance against Assad, arming the rebels and more.

I also want to bring in our chief political analyst Gloria Borger, chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash, and our chief domestic affairs correspondent Jessica Yellin.

They will be with us all hour.

So, Senator Graham, thanks for being here. Do you think that what the president's speech will have any impact on, say, the voters in your state, where I believe, like all over the country, they're skeptical of this plan?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, I thought the moral case was very persuasive, quite frankly, and compelling. And that was what I remember most about the speech. When you ask yourself, when this is over, what do I remember?

I remember that we're an exceptional nation, that what Assad did violated the basic laws of humanity. And if we don't act who will? And they expect us to look the other way and we can't afford to. So here's the takeaway for me. After the leader of the free world made such an impassioned plea for moral outrage and a response, it's impossible for him not to react if diplomacy fails, not to act.

So if diplomacy fails he's painted himself in a corner. The leader of the free world can't say all these things at the end of the day do nothing.

TAPPER: Well, one thing I read in your Twitter feed, of which I'm an avid reader as is America.


GRAHAM: You need to get a life.

TAPPER: Is that you did -- don't think that he made the national security case.

GRAHAM: No, I --

TAPPER: What is the national security case?

GRAHAM: Well, look at it this way. Iran. One line about Iran. Of all the things that I worry about changing the world for the worst, it's not Syria, it's the Iranians getting a nuclear weapon. And how can you mention Syria without talking about the Iranians? The ayatollahs are sizing us up.

And if we get Syria wrong it will be end of the world because the Iranians are going to take this as a weak American response in Syria and they're off to the races to their nuclear weapon.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And, Senator, part of the reason, I think you would agree, that the president wanted you all just to hold off on this vote on authorization is because the votes weren't there. Is that fair to say? GRAHAM: Probably.

BASH: So do you think the president said anything that will persuade any of your colleagues, or maybe enough of your colleagues --

GRAHAM: I'm thinking --

BASH: -- to support any kind of military strike, even if it's just sort of the teeth to back diplomacy?

GRAHAM: I think he probably stopped some Democratic bleeding. I think that's probably --

BASH: Enough?

GRAHAM: Maybe. I mean, you know, right now I don't know what the vote totals on the Democratic side, but we could probably muster double-digits on our side at best. But this is a process. This is the first step. If it's 50-47 that's progress.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, if it -- when you said, though, that he's backed himself into a corner and now --

GRAHAM: Yes, he's that.

BORGER: He's got to act. So say the U.N. falls apart, which I think you --

GRAHAM: I can't believe that's a possibility.


But let's assume the Russians --



GRAHAM: Let's assume the Russians are not the beacon and the hope of mankind.

BORGER: OK. Let's stipulate that if you want.

GRAHAM: Yes. All right.

BORGER: OK. So if you assume that it's going to fall apart as you do, and you say --

GRAHAM: But I'm willing to try, actually.

BORGER: OK. But you say he's backed himself into a corner. So does he even have to go to Congress?

GRAHAM: You know, there's probably a reason 225 times presidents didn't come to Congress. I don't know if I'd come to talk with us. Quite frankly. The president has mismanaged this from day one about what we're trying to do, the goals we're trying to achieve. I think he made an unbelievably compelling case that we need to act here and compare that to the unbelievably small response we're going to give.

So at the end of the day, if I were the president I would act after this speech if diplomacy fell apart and I wouldn't come back to Congress.

YELLIN: Do you think he --

GRAHAM: Because if he does his credibility as a world leader is completely shot. You can't address the world and talk to your enemies and your friends in the tone he did and do nothing.

YELLIN: But was it a mistake not to lay out a timeframe for diplomacy to work?

GRAHAM: Don't worry. The Congress will help him there. If two weeks from now we're still talking about how many -- what the inventory in Syria is like for the chemical weapons, nobody is going to be able to tolerate that.

YELLIN: Really? You don't think he's shown exceptional patience today?

GRAHAM: What I think is the president really is trying to do -- force does matter. I don't think we'd have this conversation without the threat of military force. I really believe the president's right about that when the Foreign Relations Committee passed the resolution. I think Assad and Russia took this a bit differently.

TAPPER: Let me ask you a question. A senior White House official told me that this was the goal for the speech. He said the purpose of the speech was to acknowledge the public's misgivings, to address them. He went through the list.

GRAHAM: Right.

TAPPER: We did not expect to swing public opinion. The idea was to spell out in detail why the use of chemical weapons in Syria matters, why it's a longtime threat to the U.S., why the international community led by the U.S. should respond and why the Russian diplomatic initiative never would have happened if it weren't for the threat of U.S. force.

Do you think he achieved these things --


GRAHAM: I think he's three for four.

TAPPER: Three for four.

GRAHAM: That's pretty good in baseball. Yes, I think the one thing he forgot to tell us is what happens if this war goes on for a year? Does it matter if the king of Jordan is a victim of the civil war? I think it matters a lot. Does it matter that Iraq --


TAPPER: Let's talk about the war going on for -- are you talking about the civil war? Are you talking about the U.S. involvement?

GRAHAM: Yes. I'm talking about the consequences of this.

BORGER: You're talking national security.

GRAHAM: Yes, national security. What happens if Assad is winning a year later?

TAPPER: OK. It's the civil war. OK. Yes.

GRAHAM: Yes. OK. Is it a civil war or is it something greater? Clearly it's a civil war with catastrophic regional consequences. Losing the king of Jordan is a high likelihood if Assad is winning a year from now. Iraq is falling apart mainly because of Syria, not completely.

TAPPER: But why do we lose the king of Jordan?

GRAHAM: Because of refugees. He's told me, I can't -- one reason we're going to lose him, he's told me and Senator McCain I've got 600,000 Syrian refugees, 40,000 new Syrian kids in Jordanian schools and he's hanging on by a thread. If he has another 400,000 or 500,000 he's gone.

BASH: But to that, you're making the regional argument that --

GRAHAM: Right.

BASH: -- you and the president also tonight said that they were concerned that the president didn't make. But, you know, it wasn't that long ago, it seems like six life times ago. It wasn't that long ago that you were standing on the president's driveway frankly trashing him and saying that he should have been out there talking about this on a more broad level with regard to dealing with Syria.


GRAHAM: I'll continue to trash him in that regard.


BASH: And you're trying to -- and -- I'm sure you're going to be invited for dinner.

GRAHAM: No. No. I like the president actually.

BASH: No, but you were -- in all seriousness you were trying to extract leverage out of him with this particular situation by getting him to do even more, arm the rebels and is that now --

(CROSSTALK) BASH: -- completely off the table?

GRAHAM: The president said in a --

BASH: Narrowing to chemical weapons?

GRAHAM: No people don't want to get involved in the Mideast anymore than they have to. But tomorrow is the anniversary of 9/11. Could you imagine 12 years ago, the night before 12th anniversary we would be talking about what should we do if there's a chemical weapons attack by Assad what should be the response?

TAPPER: You're saying 12 years ago it would have been a no- brainer we go in?

GRAHAM: I'm saying that we're losing the lessons of 9/11 that Iraq is -- there's a lot to be learned from Iraq.

YELLIN: But a lot --

GRAHAM: But it can't overshadow the lessons of 9/11. And they're pretty simple to me. Safe havens for al Qaeda are forming in Syria. They're beginning to form again in western Iraq and Iran. The biggest prize of all is to stop their nuclear ambitions. And the way we're handling this is making it more likely the Iranians will get a nuclear weapon and al Qaeda will have more safe havens.

BORGER: But let's talk about al Qaeda, because, you know, one of the cons argument that the president actually laid out is that the rebels, if you had armed the rebels, as some of you had wanted, or the rebels end up triumphing as a result of some kind of intervention that you're handing over authority to bad guys.

GRAHAM: I thought the president did a pretty good job of knocking that down. The one thing I can tell everybody at this table and anybody that's still listening to this debate is that there are 35 million Syrians. The likelihood that they're fighting to get rid of Assad to be ruled by al Qaeda is zero. Are there al Qaeda members filling in the vacuum? Yes, most of them are coming from Iraq. There's indigenous problems and they're foreign fighters.

I have no concern whatsoever that al Qaeda will win by force of arms at the ballot box in Syria. Are the rebels mixed? Are there radicals within the rebels? Will it be a confusing mess the day after Assad falls? Yes. But to say that this -- our nation shouldn't help the opposition because al Qaeda is present in Syria will lead to an al Qaeda-run nation is to me just not plausible.

BORGER: Have you --

GRAHAM: I thought the president did a pretty good job talking about that.

BORGER: Have you convinced members of your own party about that?

GRAHAM: Well, when I hear a member of my party say we'll be the air force for al Qaeda, I said, have you ever actually been to the region? Have you sat down and talked with them?

BASH: You're talking about Ted Cruz?

GRAHAM: Well, if Ted said that I'm talking about Ted Cruz. The idea that Syria is going to wind up under al Qaeda control is not plausible. The idea there'll be a blood bath after Assad falls is realistic. The longer it goes the worse it gets. But this is not about replacing Assad with al Qaeda from our point of view.

TAPPER: Let's take a quick break. Senator Graham and our panel, please stand by.

Coming up, is it a diplomatic option or an escape patch for the administration? We'll look at whether or not Syria can really be trusted to offer up its chemical weapons stockpile.



Just when it seemed like the Obama administration had used one red line after another to paint itself into a political corner, then comes the so-called third option. It's a proposal to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons and avoid an attack, floated as a hypothetical by Secretary of State John Kerry and pounced upon by the Russians like a jungle cat on a gazelle.

On the surface it sounds like a plan that could satisfy those who want to punish Syria without taking military action but could it just be a stall tactic to get the U.S. off Syria's back?

Joining me now is CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, if military action was a tough sell, the case for a diplomatic solution, the third option, as you say, may be no easier. It's based on emptying Syria of its chemical stockpiles in the middle of a civil war, all brokered by its biggest backer and arms supplier Russia. That's why I've been hearing the kind of skepticism I have today from administration officials. One U.S. official telling me there's, quote, "a grudging recognition that you can't ignore the deal, but that doesn't mean we'll ultimately accept the terms."


SCIUTTO (voice-over): On the day senators were going to start voting on authorizing force against Syria, Secretary John Kerry will instead go to Geneva to talk peace with his Russian counterpart.

KERRY: President Obama will take a hard look at it. But it has to be swift. It has to be real. It has to be verifiable. It cannot be a delaying tactic.

SCIUTTO: Turning Russia's proposal into a reality is already facing its first hurdles. Russia says it would be unacceptable to blame the Syrian regime for last month's chemical attack and insists any resolution must come with a renunciation of force by the U.S.

PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (Through Translator): You can't really ask Syria or any other country to disarm unilaterally while military action against it is being contemplated.

SCIUTTO: Undeterred, U.S. officials say they will still seek a force authorization and that that will only strengthen diplomacy.

KERRY: Nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging.

SCIUTTO: Looming over the negotiations, deep distrust that the Syrians are truly committed to giving up their chemical weapons for good and that Russia is committed to making them keep their word.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R) ARIZONA: When you see the plane loads of Russian arms flying into Damascus on a daily basis, tons and tons, when you see the Russian veto time after time of any resolution in the Security Council, I think is ample reason to be skeptical.

SCIUTTO: But the practical obstacles to ridding Syria of chemical weapons may be even more imposing than the diplomatic. Syria has 1,000 tons of numerous chemical agents, including ingredients for mustard, sarin and VX gas. In six known sites and many more unknown, now likely dispersed and hidden as the U.S. has considered strikes.

All this in a country in the middle of a civil war.

(On camera): This is one of the -- one of the largest chemical stockpiles in the world. As you say it a number of sites. And dispersed already from those sites.


SCIUTTO: Reasonable timeframe to reliably put them all in one place and get rid of them?

CIRINCIONE: It will take weeks to get inspectors there, to conduct an initial inventory, to secure the site will probably take several months. Destroying the weapons, that will take years.


SCIUTTO: Those estimates do not account for the fact that Syria is also a country at war with the difficulty of even the simplest tasks is magnified. Inventorying weapons, transporting them, destroying them and keeping inspectors safe.

These are some of the questions Secretary Kerry and his team, now including a Pentagon WMD expert, will be addressing and testing with their Russian counterparts in Geneva -- Jake.

TAPPER: Thanks, Jim.

Back with us to dig deeper into this third option is Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, along with our panel, Dana Bash, Jessica Yellin and Gloria Borger. Senator Graham, you have already stated you don't trust the Russians. I have to say the number of members of Congress flocking to embrace this plan from Putin, not to mention members of the administration, I can't help but feel that there's a certain desperation there to get out of this pickle as opposed to a real optimism that this could work.

GRAHAM: Well --

TAPPER: Am I being cynical?

GRAHAM: Well, yes, but --


GRAHAM: Maybe deserved so. But let's look at in all honesty. Do you believe the Russians have been affected by the threat of a strike in Syria? I think that's a possibility. Why not try it? Everything that the peace outlined is true. But if you could secure the weapons in a couple of months, I don't care if it takes a couple of years to destroy them, the world would be better.

John and I have been pretty hard on this, right?

TAPPER: John McCain?

GRAHAM: Yes. So I'm just here to tell you that no matter what you hear from me, I don't want any more war than necessary. I've seen what it does to people. And if there's one in a hundred chance that this could yield a result to get the chemical weapons off the market, even though it would leave him in power, I would be willing to take that. But we're not going to wait for weeks or months. This has got to be done pretty quick.

BORGER: Well, should there be a timetable?

GRAHAM: Yes. Yes.

BORGER: So what should it be?

GRAHAM: Well, I think a couple of weeks to get the -- I think Britain, France and the United States should introduce a resolution, challenge the Russians to put up or shut up. Listen to their suggestions to change it and have a vote. Not let this draw out, draft up a resolution, a united front by the three countries I named, and tell our Russian friends and colleagues, how would you want to change it? Tell me in 24 hours. Then let's vote.

BORGER: Putin said no threat of the use of force, though.

GRAHAM: Well, you know, again, that makes the cynic in Jake come through here. I've never really believed this was a reality. But I'm willing to try it.

BASH: And how much of a -- of a position should Congress have? And I know you're working with several of your counterparts, Democrats and Republicans, to come up with a modified authorization to deal with diplomacy --

GRAHAM: You only have one commander-in-chief and one secretary of state. Now I know why. As much as we've criticized these guys, could you imagine 535 of us doing this? So at the end of the day, I think you will see if there's a serious pathway forward in the United Nations, a resolution of force that will have an exit ramp, an off ramp for U.N. action, if it really comes to pass.

YELLIN: But why is it worth engaging this at all now? Respectfully, they have had two years. They've had more than two years. If they were serious about doing this, they've had plenty of time to come forward.

GRAHAM: Why is it worth it if you could take 1,000 tons or whatever the number is of chemical weapons off the market away from Assad, deny to Hezbollah and maybe some al Qaeda elements that could overrun these caches? It'd be the best couple of weeks you could ever --

YELLIN: But you just said you don't trust them.

GRAHAM: There's a lot of things I don't trust. But at the end of the day let's try it because the goal, if we could successfully defang Assad and take the chemical weapons off the market, it would be a great outcome.

BORGER: Can I get back to Jake's point, though, which is that -- I think, I don't want to put words in your mouth -- that this would sort of be in everyone's mutual self-interest to get this off the table in Congress so they don't -- they don't have to vote, get -- you're shaking, you're nodding your head.

Get it off -- get it off the president's docket. He's got a lot of other stuff to deal with, right? I mean is this --

GRAHAM: Well, it's not like --

BORGER: Is this kind of mutual -- maybe get it off Russia's docket?


YELLIN: Kick the can.

GRAHAM: I think -- I think there's a mutual benefit to try to see if this thing can end better than it's ending today. And if you could have a pathway in the U.N. let's try it. But if it fails then I think the president could look everybody in the eye, I've tried everything I know to do. I even tried to work with the Russians. And when Lindsey Graham says he's willing to work with the Russians that shows you that we're trying to do everything possible to get these weapons off the market and avoid a --


BORGER: So you're saying it's not phony? BASH: But if it fails --

BORGER: It's real?

GRAHAM: I'm telling you if it fails, if a couple of weeks from now it clearly is not going to happen, after this speech, I cannot imagine the president of the United States, after saying the things he said tonight, the answer is that he used these weapons and we didn't do a damn thing about it as a nation.

Can you imagine how that would play out in the world with the case being made tonight and all of the things he said? Nothing ever happened in Syria?

TAPPER: OK. So game it out for us. Let's say it doesn't work out which I think we can all agree the odds are it's not going to work.

GRAHAM: Right. Right. Right.

TAPPER: But we all hope it will but it probably won't.

GRAHAM: Right.

TAPPER: Then what? Then what does the president need to do?

GRAHAM: Then the president has to use military force to strike Syria.

BASH: Without Congress? Even after he's talked about the old --


GRAHAM: In my view, after tonight --

BASH: -- constitutional democracy in the western civilization?

GRAHAM: -- he has no option.

TAPPER: So you think --

GRAHAM: He can't hide behind us.

YELLIN: Could he get a vote by Congress? Could he get the authorization from Congress?

GRAHAM: Well, I don't know if he moved the numbers tonight in the House. It seemed highly unlikely.

YELLIN: No, no. In a few weeks.

GRAHAM: Well, I don't know.

YELLIN: If this Russia option doesn't work.

GRAHAM: I don't know -- I don't know if things changed. Anything is possible but I'm assuming right now that two weeks from now the House will not authorize.


BASH: You had dinner with the president and the vice president a couple of days ago. Can you give us a little behind-the-scenes anything we should know about their thinking?

GRAHAM: Yes, the president is working really hard and you think (INAUDIBLE)?


BASH: No -- no, but --

GRAHAM: He really is.

BASH: You're a Republican senator who is -- you know --


TAPPER: This is not the thing that --

BASH: It's not -- is not uncontested back home.

TAPPER: Will go off the record and say the president's awesome.



GRAHAM: I mean, you can say --

BASH: You could get in trouble --

GRAHAM: The easiest thing politically for me at home, if Obama says A, I say B. You know, when Bush made some mistakes in Iraq, I said hey, I think this is a mistake. But at the end of the day, I know the president has screwed this up in about 1,000 different ways. But name the time when some things haven't been screwed up in foreign policy. This is not the first time. But this may be really at the top of the list of how to screw things up.

I think he really is trying to find a way to get the answer right. But after tonight's speech, there is no other right answer. If diplomacy does not achieve the desired result, of taking these weapons off the market, he must act. And if I was in Syria tonight and I heard this speech, I don't know what it's going to do here in America. But if I'm Assad I've got to believe after tonight I'm going to get hit.

TAPPER: All right, Senator Lindsey Graham, thank you so much for coming in. We appreciate it.

Gloria, Dana, Jess, stay with me.

Coming up, it's morning in the Middle East. Morning in Syria. Senator Graham was just talking about. So how is that part of the world reacting to the president's new rhetoric? We'll go there and find out next.


TAPPER: Day is just beginning to break in the Middle East where President Obama's speech on possible military strikes in Syria will no doubt dominate the headlines.

Welcome back to CRISIS IN SYRIA: DECISION POINT. I'm Jake Tapper.

So did the president's words soothe concerns in that region over what could happen if the U.S. is forced to act, or did they only heighten the uncertainty about what lies ahead?

Let's go to CNN's Arwa Damon who is live from Beirut with reaction.

Arwa, what are you hearing?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Jake. Well, the issue for a lot of people here is that even though military action may have been averted for now, many do believe that there will come a day when it is going to become an inevitable reality.

That being said, the president's speech happening here at around 4:00 in the morning. Syrian state television not broadcasting it. But they did run a ticker saying that President Obama had asked Congress to delay its vote and that the United States would be giving diplomacy a chance.

And that is what a lot of the headlines we're seeing in Lebanon are saying as well that this Russian proposal is at least going to be given a try. This paper also has a nice little diagram about where Syria's possible chemical stockpiles might be. Another also addressing the issue of how again the Americans would be giving the Russians a chance and yet another bringing up the issue about a U.N. resolution under Chapter 7 and how the Russians would not necessarily go for that.

Now if we talk about the Syrian opposition's reaction to all of this, interestingly Facebook pages that we've been monitoring continuing to broadcast or upload clips of the suffering happening inside, but no real direct reaction to Obama's speech. But an activist that I was speaking to a few hours before the speech took place was so utterly dejected about what had happened, he's been living under siege.

And he's been wondering why it is that if the U.S. can pressure the Russians to pressure the Syrians to disclose their chemical weapons program, why that same kind of pressure can't be applied, for example, to at least try to enforce a cease-fire or at least try to put some sort humanitarian corridors into place -- Jake.

TAPPER: Arwa Damon, thank you.

And what about the United Nations? President Obama said he plans to give U.N. inspectors the time to report their findings on the August 21st attack. And odd turn from just a week and a half ago when it seemed like the White House could barely wait for them to get out of Syria before striking let alone give their report.

Nick Paton Walsh joins us now from New York where he's been monitoring the U.N.

Nick, there was a Security Council meeting that the Russians ended up postponing. What happened and what do we know about this draft being put forward by France?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's been a remarkable day of diplomacy. Almost hard to stop your head from spinning as you try to keep track of it. It started with the French putting forward a draft resolution which have much in it the Russians could never have signed. Remember they have a veto pass at the Security Council. Elements of it suggesting people responsible for the August 21st attack should be put on trial, blaming the Syrian regime for it, and saying there'd be serious consequences if chemical weapons weren't handed over fast enough.

Then as you say, the Russians called for a 4:00 consultation with the Security Council presumably put forward their text. They then been that meeting, withdrew it, citing changing circumstances according to diplomats I've spoken. But now Reuters have been putting out what they say is a draft of the French resolution, which has some key details, 15 days for Syria to declare all its chemical weapons stocks, who will have to provide a media access to record personnel and chemical weapons sites.

But also it says there will be necessary measures if they fail to comply fast enough. That's a pretty standard term from Chapter 7 in the U.N. charter which you'd have to normally resort to for humanitarian means in a crisis like this. Suggestions perhaps of further P-5, Permanent 5 Security Council meetings tomorrow.

But all eyes really on the Russians and this meeting in Geneva between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov. What they can do to bridge this pretty substantial gulf between their positions -- Jake.

TAPPER: Nick Paton Walsh, thank you so much. I want to bring back our political panel, Gloria, Dana, and Jessica. Our panel, rather. Not political.

The president waited more than two years to get into the conflict here. Arwa raises a really interesting point from the activist with whom she spoke. And we've all had this discussion about what's the difference between the 100,000 people killed in Syria --

BORGER: Right.

TAPPER: -- before the 1400 were killed by chemical weapons. The president obviously make the case that chemical weapons don't -- don't distinguish between a soldier and an infant and they can kill massive amounts of people at the same time. But the activist makes a point. If the U.S. can get involved and the Russians can get involved to get rid of these chemical weapons, can't they stop the bloodshed?

BASH: They can. If the desire is there. And the problem that we have seen over the past two years or maybe not the problem but the issue is that it's been so complicated and it has been a very difficult thing to get, frankly, President Obama to do. And we -- we talked about this last night that there were members of his Cabinet -- Hillary Clinton and others that we now know -- who were arguing to get more involved, to be more aggressive in helping the rebels that they could verify were not members of al Qaeda or -- and so forth.

And there was not a desire to do that, or at least that wasn't the conclusion of the commander in chief.

TAPPER: You know what's interesting is that President Obama, in not wanting to arm the rebels, not heeding the calls from Lindsey Graham and John McCain and Secretary Panetta and Secretary Clinton, was trying to avoid this exact show that we're doing right now.

BORGER: They haven't said, I told you so at this point.

TAPPER: Well, I'm

BORGER: Except for maybe McCain.

TAPPER: It's written all over their faces.

BASH: Right. Yes.

TAPPER: I mean, he was trying to avoid getting us involved in something like this. And he was able to until the chemical weapons got involved.

YELLIN: And look, he's still -- I mean, I have to say, I don't see what Senator Graham saw. I thought that the speech tonight was -- could be summed up as never mind. I mean, I really don't think that this was a speech saying he's definitively going to strike Syria. And there's -- he's still -- he's looking for a way out still. And there's a good chance that -- I mean as you pointed out, if the diplomacy works great, if he can find another option, great. The president is clearly trying to -- make this point still. But they -- he does not want to go to war.

BORGER: Have we forgotten the red line, however?

TAPPER: Right.

BORGER: You know, this is a president who had a red line. The red line was chemical weapons. Chemical weapons are outlawed, illegal.

YELLIN: Sure. Right.

BORGER: Violate international norms. Are an affront -- TAPPER: But Syria is not a signatory to that.

BORGER: Right, but as the president said tonight, an affront to our humanity. He said we know Assad is responsible. And when he talked about the morality of not being able to just sit and watch this because we are America after all, then I sort of -- I see what Lindsey Graham is saying, which is that having made the moral argument to the country, how do you then walk it back and say, never mind?

YELLIN: Absolutely.


BASH: The only way he could get to never mind at this point, given what he said tonight and given the gyration that we've seen over the past week, is if he's somehow successful at the U.N. Somehow successful with the Russians. If that doesn't happen he can't -- I don't know how he can say never mind.

YELLIN: He wants more of a coalition. He wants more allies. He wants more time to bring more people along. I'm not -- I mean there -- I could see a scenario absolutely where in the next -- he creates a diplomatic opening and it doesn't work out and there is a strike by the U.S. But I think that there was enough wiggle room created here where we don't -- we don't necessarily see that happening.

TAPPER: And remember what David Kay, the former U.S. inspector in Iraq, said that this takes a long, long time. In Iraq it took years. There was a deal, OK, we'll let the inspectors in and it takes --

BORGER: Right.

TAPPER: It took literally years before the conclusion was drawn, OK, Saddam's not really actually serious about this. This could theoretically --

BASH: Is that because they weren't there?


TAPPER: Well -- that's a whole other thing. Although he was claiming they were. I mean --

BASH: But they weren't. I mean, maybe that's why --

BORGER: But there's a danger here also of making it seem too simple, right? OK, we're going to strike -- we're going to find the chemical weapons and, you know, we're going to get rid of them. And that will be it. And that will teach Assad a lesson.

I mean, you know, so there's kind of a danger when you talk about the moral imperative, then you have to also be able to say, OK, this is what we will achieve and degrading Assad's capability may not be enough when you have such a huge moral argument then why not just degrade Assad? TAPPER: We have to take a very quick break.

Dana, Jess and Gloria, please stick around.

Up next some more poll numbers from our instant poll.

Plus the president has made his case to the nation. Congress is in a holding pattern. So now what?

We'll discuss what happens tomorrow when we return.


TAPPER: Welcome back to our CNN special CRISIS IN SYRIA: DECISION POINT.

Tonight the president laid out his case and his plan for how to deal with Syria. After the president finished speaking CNN and ORC conducted an instant poll to gauge the public's reaction.

Here is some of what we found. When we asked speech watchers if they favored the approach the president described in his speech, 61 percent said they favored his approach, 37 percent say -- they have said they opposed it.

But look at this. We also asked whether the president made a convincing case for U.S. military action in Syria, 47 percent said yes and 50 percent said no. That would seem to suggest perhaps that they didn't think he was making that case. All the people who supported his view of what he was proposing.

And finally we asked these watchers if the U.S. has a national interest in Syria. Before the speech 30 percent said yes, 65 percent said no. After the speech, 39 percent said yes, U.S. has a national interest in Syria, 60 percent said no.

Again, he didn't move the needle very much when it came to the issue of does the U.S. have an interest in that.

Secretary of State John Kerry leaves tomorrow night for Geneva where he will meet with his Russian counterpart to discuss Russia's plan to get Syria to give up its chemical weapons. A senior administration official told our John King that in that meeting the U.S. will demand verifiable timelines and procedures for putting those weapons under international control.

Another senior administration official told John that any discussion of scheduling votes on this should wait until after Kerry's meeting.

Let's get back to our panel. Gloria Borger, Jessica Yellin, Dana Bash.

So, Dana, Kerry, the next thing we know that's going to happen is Kerry on Thursday will be in Geneva. I guess he leaves tomorrow night. What's going on on Capitol Hill? Have all the votes just been tabled for now?

BASH: Yes. Yes.

TAPPER: They're all done for now?

BASH: I mean, they're not done. There -- as the president apparently, I'm told, said inside a meeting of Senate Republicans this afternoon on Capitol Hill, press the pause button. And that is what's happening right now to the point where the Senate majority leader canceled what was supposed to be a big classified briefing tomorrow on -- to give an update on Syria because he basically said what's the point? We need to wait.

Anything that we're told now about the strategy diplomatic or otherwise could change on a moment's notice.

So absolutely that was the message that the president gave today. He probably didn't have to say it really very explicitly because we knew that yesterday --

TAPPER: Right.

BASH: -- when Reid canceled the vote, at least delayed it, he didn't do that on his own. That was in consultation with the White House. For several reasons but again I think we also need to be realistic here. It wasn't just because he saw a diplomatic movement.

TAPPER: No, no, there's something --

BASH: He didn't want -- he didn't want to have a vote that was going to lose.

BORGER: They're going to lose. And so when the president --

TAPPER: In the Senate?

BORGER: Yes. Well -- anywhere.

BASH: Both Houses.

BORGER: Both places. So it was in everybody's self-interest to hit the pause button. I spoke with the senior administration official today who said, we support the pause. And I said, you support the pause or is it your pause? And, you know, that's a little murky, right? Who asked for it first?

TAPPER: Wait. A senior Obama official said we support the pause?

BORGER: The congressional pause.

TAPPER: As if --

BORGER: Right.

TAPPER: As if it wasn't their request. BORGER: Exactly. Exactly.

BASH: The pause (INAUDIBLE).

BORGER: Exactly.


YELLIN: Let's get real. Everybody wanted the pause.

TAPPER: Right.

YELLIN: They're not clear about what they started or what they favor at the back end. They're a little bit murky on beginnings, and middles and ends at this point. I think that's fair to say.

BORGER: Right. And I think -- it's in everybody's self- interest. It works for everyone, right?


BORGER: So why not --

TAPPER: So let's say -- OK. So let's say John Kerry comes back from Geneva and there's some discussion still going on. And obviously it's not going to -- you know, there's not going to be a fight there. They're going to -- it's a diplomatic meeting. There'll be some discussion. Then what?

BASH: I was told by a senior Democratic senator tonight after the president's speech that they probably have about at least a two- week window. Maybe -- maybe a little bit less but maybe a little bit more. About a two-week window. To give the diplomatic process a little bit time to work.

In that time they're going to continue to work on what we talked about with Lindsey Graham, which is the kind of modified authorization to say to keep the teeth of military force in but still pressure the diplomacy process.

TAPPER: Right. This is a bipartisan measure being discussed right now.

BASH: Exactly. Right. In both Houses, the House and the Senate. The sort of -- the big players in the Senate including Lindsey Graham and Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

TAPPER: What would it do?

BASH: It's all being done -- what it would do is, well, it's not written yet so it's very murky.

TAPPER: Right. Theoretically.

BASH: The theory is that -- TAPPER: Let's pause that everything is murky.


BASH: Good point.

TAPPER: And table the word murky.

YELLIN: Always.

BASH: What it would do is it would first of all make clear that Assad did use these chemical weapons. But more importantly, it would say that the U.N. -- Assad would have to, through a U.N. process, give up those chemical weapons. If not the threat of military force is still there. That's effectively what it would do.

TAPPER: Why are they --

BORGER: But they're not voting on military force.

BASH: But the thing to keep in mind is that that is an initial idea. They haven't written it and they will not really write something until they see what happens at the U.N.


BORGER: This is typical --

TAPPER: This is being written by David Mamet.

BORGER: This is typical of Congress.

YELLIN: What's going on behind the scenes -- remember when the president said before the election, I'll have -- to the Russians I'll have a lot more flexibility after the election? I mean, all those ideas are coming back into play now. People are talk about the president and how he's -- this is getting a little bit into politics now. And the president has -- he's getting into a new kind of very uncomfortable territory for him if this drags on beyond two weeks.

BASH: He's getting into an uncomfortable --

YELLIN: I mean, in terms of politics.

TAPPER: Right.

BASH: That's right.

YELLIN: In terms of politics. I don't --

TAPPER: Right now there's some limited support for what he's doing.

YELLIN: Right.

BORGER: But it's so -- but it's limited. TAPPER: That's right.

BORGER: It may have gotten -- he might have had a little bump out of tonight's speech. But I don't know how long-lasting it will be. And don't forget, I mean, he was given a speech tonight to a public that does not support the use of force.

TAPPER: Right.

BORGER: He's been dealing with the Congress. And by the way I've never seen him talk to as many members of Congress as we've seen him. Including --


Including on health care reform as he's done over the last week or two. So he's got everything on the line here. He is pursuing a policy he knows is unpopular. And if he does strike, as Lindsey Graham believes that he will, and which could be likely if the U.N. fails, then he will be doing something that is directly contradictory to what the public wants him to do. Now one might argue that it's presidential leadership.

TAPPER: Right. And there's a historical record of presidents doing things like this.


TAPPER: That are limited strikes that the public doesn't want them to do and then the public comes around.

BORGER: Right.

TAPPER: It has happened.

BORGER: Because they end up supporting the troops. They end up supporting the action. And again, the moral argument he made, I don't think anybody quarrels with that, right?

TAPPER: Let's take a quick break. I promise I'll come to you, first, in the next one.

Coming up, President Obama came in as the closer in the campaign to sway public opinion on military strikes in Syria. But was his speech the biggest turning point of the day? Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to our CNN special CRISIS IN SYRIA: DECISION POINT. Time now for our turning point. We have a lot of major developments today. The Russians postponed their vote in the U.N. President Obama made his pitch directly to the American people in primetime. Secretary of State John Kerry announced plans to start talks in Geneva on Thursday with Russian diplomats.

Gloria, let's start with you. What was your turning point of the day?

BORGER: My turning point was when Putin came out and said you cannot have the threat of the use of force. America, you need to take that off the table. And I thought, OK, fine, it's over.

TAPPER: So it's not real at all.

BORGER: It's not real.

TAPPER: Is of course the threat of force according to Obama is the only thing that got us.

BORGER: It's the only thing that got us to the table. He said you have to take it off the table. And I thought well, this U.N. thing is a charade.

TAPPER: Dana Bash, you turning point.

BASH: Well, first of all, can I say that this story is so remarkable that every day the turning point can be that the day before was completely opposite of what we think it was going to be?


But having --

TAPPER: Powerful.

BASH: Yes, exactly. Having said that, the fact that John Kerry's successor in the United States Senate, Ed Markey, a loyal Obama Democrat, announced -- felt the need to announce this morning that he would vote against military authorization is remarkable. And that's a turning point to me because it was so telling. When I saw that I said this is never going to happen right now with Ed and major change in the politics of this issue. Because it's just not going to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate.

TAPPER: Right.


BASH: The Democratic president --

TAPPER: Safe seat forever, Ed Markey's seat.

BASH: Yes. I mean, and he's obviously -- he's in a liberal state of Massachusetts. But regardless, the fact that he is sitting opposite of John Kerry, the guy who was in his Senate seat.

TAPPER: Right.

BASH: Making these pleas that this is the right thing to do, and he said, you know what, I don't think so, says it all.

TAPPER: On the other hand he's voted present when it was at the committee. (CROSSTALK)

BASH: That's because --

BORGER: Courageous.

BASH: Right. I mean, that's --

TAPPER: But maybe he felt like he had to take a position, is all I'm saying. I'm trying to come up with a --

BASH: OK. That's very nice.

TAPPER: I'm being sweet. I'm being a nice guy.


BASH: You are. You're such a nice guy.

TAPPER: Jessica, your turning point for the day.

YELLIN: When the president decided to tack on the diplomatic option to the end of the speech and give himself a way out. We knew it was coming, but for me that's meaningful because I don't think this president is actually afraid of the use of force. We see him unflinching in his use of drones.

But I think what he's concerned about is the broader implications of striking Syria for the Middle East. I think this is a president who looks very far down the road and worries about long-term consequences of use of force there. And that is what keeps him awake at night when he thinks about striking Syria. And so when he backs off he backs off because this could have far-reaching consequences.

TAPPER: At the end of the day he doesn't want to do this. He doesn't want to --

YELLIN: But if he doesn't it's not because he's afraid of striking, he's afraid of commander in chief powers it's what it could lead to.

TAPPER: Dana, Jessica, Gloria, thank you for joining us tonight. Fantastic job as always.

And thank you for watching. You can catch me, weekdays, Monday through Friday at 4:00 p.m. Eastern.

Up next President Obama's address on the crisis in Syria in full, anchored by our own Wolf Blitzer. Have a good night.