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Syria: How Long Should We Wait?; Interview With Reps. Marsha Blackburn And Steve Israel

Aired September 11, 2013 - 18:28   ET


ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, is Obama losing the Syria fight at home but winning on the world stage?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've seen some encouraging signs. In part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action.

ANNOUNCER: Should Congress force a deadline or keep waiting for the Russians?

On the left, Stephanie Cutter. On the right, Newt Gingrich. In the CROSSFIRE, Steve Israel, who supports the president's solutions in Syria, and Marsha Blackburn, who's opposed. Syria, how long should we wait? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.

NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Newt Gingrich on the right.

STEPHANIE CUTTER, CO-HOST: And I'm Stephanie Cutter on the left.

Later tonight, Secretary of State John Kerry takes off for negotiations with the Russians on eliminating chemical weapons in Syria. Now let's review what's happened in just the last 48 hours.

As a result of President Obama's threat of military force, Assad finally admitted Syria has chemical weapons. Syria offered to sign a treaty that it's resisted for decades, and Russia finally got involved in the peace process after obstructing us for two years.

Now Newt, sometimes you just have to call a spade a spade. This is progress. The president's use of force worked and you should admit that. I know you're a critic, but you should admit...

GINGRICH: Or -- or this is a very clever maneuver by Putin to guarantee that Assad survives. Time will tell which of those two versions is accurate.

But at the moment we have two members of the House in the CROSSFIRE tonight. New York Democrat Steve Israel supports President Obama's Syria plan. Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn is against it.

We're delighted that both of you are here. Let me start with you, Congressman Israel. How much do you trust the Russians to take the leadership in finding a path when it's their ally who's in the middle of this? REP. STEVE ISRAEL (D), NEW YORK: You will be happy to know, Newt, that I agree with Ronald Reagan's assessment: trust but verify. And we need to spend the next several days verifying.

That's exactly what's happening. Secretary Kerry is en route to Geneva to meet with Lavrov. They need to put this in a pressure cooker. And if it withstands pressure, then we should take it.

You know, it is actually in Putin's interest. I believe he's calculated that it is in his interest to do a deal. We have to ascertain whether it's in our interest to do this deal.

GINGRICH: Here's my question, when you look at David Kay and other United Nations inspectors, they say that this is virtually impossible to do. You have huge amount of chemical weapons scattered around the country in the middle of a civil war. And the process of trying to go in there and taking care of those would be enormously complex.

Doesn't it worry you that it may well be just -- it's an interesting ploy but that, in reality, the complexity of doing it is going to make it very hard?

ISRAEL: We won't know whether it's a ploy or a play, whether it's real or not until we vet it out. And that's our responsibility right now.

We've got a couple of benchmarks. One is what happens in Geneva. And the second is that the U.N. will produce its report sometime next week, and Congress will take a look at that report. Those two benchmarks give us a time frame for assessing whether we should proceed through a diplomatic route or through other means.

I'm hoping more than I've ever hoped in public policy that diplomacy works. But if it doesn't, I believe we have an obligation for our own security not to enable and empower regimes to use chemical weapons against us or their own people.

CUTTER: And Newt, the -- David Kay and others didn't say this was impossible. They said it was difficult. But the United States does difficult things. So now we have to try to work this out.

I think the president has done an excellent job of bringing an ally who's not been very much of an ally...

GINGRICH: Bringing an ally.

CUTTER: ... to the table to help us figure out a process. And Russia has blocked us every step of the way. Now they're coming to the table.

GINGRICH: So this was all a clever design...

CUTTER: Well, it's been our ultimate goal altogether to have a negotiated process. This is -- use of force was a last resort. Over the last two years, the president is working through a political process to topple Assad and prevent him from doing exactly what he's done, gassing his own people.

GINGRICH: It's not going to stop.

CUTTER: Absolutely.

GINGRICH: My question to Steve was that there's a pretty fair chance that this actually is going to solidify Assad, because in order to get to the weapons, you have to be able to have safety. In order to have safety...

CUTTER: Right.

GINGRICH: ... you're going to be reinforcing Assad's regime.

CUTTER: Actually, I think that the only way this would work is if you call a cease-fire. And a cease-fire means that the Syrian people are no longer getting killed by Assad. And the president's plan can continue to work.

Now, Congresswoman Blackburn, I have a question for you. You've been very much a critic of the president. You've been against the targeted strike. You've been critical of the president's plan. I'm not sure what your plan is. Could you outline your plan for me of what you would do to get rid of Assad?

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R), TENNESSEE: Yes. I think that there are several things that do need to be done.

No. 1, Russia needs -- this is an opportunity for them to prove that they are an honest broker. And we don't know that yet. So this is an opportunity for them to step up and to say, "You know, we're going to be an honest broker in this."

The second thing is one of the things we hear from people is where is the U.N.? And what is the U.N. going to do through this process? What are they willing -- why is the international community not a part of this?

So those are items that need to happen. But another thing that I hear from my constituents, who have been very much opposed to this -- and by the way, I have a major military post in my district. I have a lot of military retirees. They are very frustrated that the president has not been able to clearly define the situation, define a strategy, define an execution and he is not talking about Iran.

CUTTER: Right. Well, he is talking about Iran. And let me just -- to that point about not defining a strategy. Obviously, we heard him define a strategy last night about deterring and degrading Assad from using chemical weapons, and there's an opportunity there clearly for Russia. But he has outlined a plan for stabilizing the region and toppling Assad. And he's been actually exercising it for the last two years. A billion dollars in humanitarian aid. Working through a political system so that the world is coming together, isolating Assad and ridding him of power. Crippling sanctions and supplying weapons to the vetted opposition, the moderate opposition so that they can fight Assad's forces on the ground... BLACKBURN: Stephanie, he still...

CUTTER: That's the plan. What in there would you do differently?

BLACKBURN: He still wavers. He still wavers between having a military or a political solution.

CUTTER: Why can't you do both?

ISRAEL: I'm sorry. I disagree with you.

BLACKBURN: Yes, he is. Yes, he is.

ISRAEL: He said he's going too far too fast, and he should do something other than military.

BLACKBURN: And there are members of your caucus...

ISRAEL: Correct.

BLACKBURN: ... doing the same thing.

ISRAEL: Correct. And now there is the potential to satisfy them, those in your caucus and my caucus who don't support a military strike. Now you're criticizing him for trying to satisfy that possibility.

Look, I think we've got to keep reasonably all the options on the table and make decisions based on what is in our best interests. And remember what the strategic objective is, my final point on this.

The strategic objective has always been to deter and degrade the Syrian regime's chemical weapons capability. Not just to protect the citizens -- citizens of Syria but because of Iran, because we don't want to send a message to Iran that when you use weapons of mass destruction our policy is, don't worry...

BLACKBURN: Steve, deter and degrade...

ISRAEL: You should worry. Because of troops...

BLACKBURN: ... change the momentum on the battlefield. You know, are we or are we not going to get rid of Assad? When you talk to those in the region, you talk about the humanitarian aid there, but talk to some of those in Kurdistan, Stephanie. They've not been able to get any help.

CUTTER: Right. So what I don't understand, Congresswoman, is what you would do specifically that's different from the president. It's a very difficult situation. Specifically what would you do differently? How would you get the humanitarian aid to those people faster in the middle of a civil war? How would you do that?

BLACKBURN: Yes. And beginning to work with our allies, working with Jordan and Turkey and Kurdistan.

CUTTER: Which the president is doing.

BLACKBURN: Kurdistan, you can go talk to the individuals up there. No. Baghdad has not made certain that those in Kurdistan have the supplies that they need. They are flooded -- they are flooded with refugees.

GINGRICH: Let me just make a point here that sort of reinforces how complicated this is. If it's hard to get aid to refugees, imagine how hard it's going to be for U.N. inspectors to get to chemical sites in the middle of a civil war.

And the question I have for you, Steve, is if you're faced with this choice -- and, yes, we can get rid of the chemicals but in a process that actually keeps Assad in power. I think this is Putin's goal. Are you comfortable living with an outcome?

Because a cease-fire ultimately would allow the regime to reorganize and restructure, and the rebels would lose. Are you comfortable that that is a better -- an outcome better than we were going towards in terms of degrading? Clearly the people who wanted more stuff were trying to get to degrade and get rid of Assad.

ISRAEL: Let me tell you where we were headed and why I'm comfortable with a strategic objective of deterring and degrading the use of chemical weapons.

We were headed to an amplified use of chemical weapons, a more unstable Syria, the possibility that Nusra could access those chemical weapons, once Assad drew them out, empowering Iran, empowering North Korea, empowering Hezbollah. That is the worst scenario for our own national security.

And so incrementally, I think we've got to start with, stop the chemical weapons capability from expanding and then go to other options. But the strategic objective is stop the chemical weapons capability from expanding.

GINGRICH: So -- and that is what the president said last night.

Along that line -- along that line, if the Russians and the Americans and the Syrians agree, the United Nations will agree. At that point, would you be comfortable if American troops are back to boots on the ground? If American troops were part of the force that protected the inspectors?

ISRAEL: We are not even close to that. Look, I want to see the "I's" dotted and the "T's" crossed on this. We don't know how many facilities they have. You're asking me to do the House closing before I've even sold the House. I want to know exactly what the capability is -- that's all part of...

CUTTER: There's a bigger question here. If we are able to get a deal that is satisfactory to us, that protects our security interests with Russia, that it goes back to the Security Council, my question to you, Congresswoman, is if the resolution passes the Security Council, requiring Syria to turn over its chemical weapons, backed up by use of force, would you support a use of force resolution in the Congress?

BLACKBURN: We'll wait and see what -- what they come forward with.

CUTTER: But doesn't that satisfy your requirements?

BLACKBURN: Well, not totally. And I think there's more to this. Where do they get those weapons and then have they moved some of those out of the country? There are a lot of...

CUTTER: Lots of questions. Assuming all those get answer...

BLACKBURN: You're making a lot of -- you're making a lot of assumptions on that.

CUTTER: So are you.

BLACKBURN: Also, well...

CUTTER: You're making a lot of assumptions that it's not going to work.

GINGRICH: I'm really confused now. If you got an agreement in the U.N. Security Council, why do you need to pass a resolution...

CUTTER: It needs to be backed up by force. And the force by the United States is a big part of that.

GINGRICH: It's a remarkable reversal of roles. So you want to be able to use force even if the Syrians basically surrender?

CUTTER: No. Newt, do you think that the Syrians are going to -- do you think the Syrians are going to surrender their chemical weapons?


CUTTER: Easily, if it's backed up -- if it's not backed up --

GINGRICH: If Putin...

CUTTER: I don't think we should be that naive.

GINGRICH: If Putin says to them privately, you have to do this or we will abandon you.

CUTTER: OK. So you think...

GINGRICH: I think Assad has a big problem.

CUTTER: ... that we should agree to something without use of force on the table? You think we should agree to something without use of force on the table?

GINGRICH: I think if they surrender, you're allowed to say yes. You don't have...

CUTTER: Where's the "trust but verify"? That's a lot of trust in Putin.

ISRAEL: I don't know if that's good or bad for me. That assessment.

GINGRICH: If it's not verifiable, maybe you have to do something else.

CUTTER: That's very true.

GINGRICH: So next, we'll ask our guests if this U.S. senator is right.


SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: The president just seems to be very uncomfortable being commander in chief of this nation.



GINGRICH: Welcome back.

Secretary Kerry leaves for Geneva in a few hours to negotiate a Syria peace deal with the Russians.

Meanwhile, President Obama's apparent strategy of ultimately talking tough, then acting weak is hurting his credibility and driving some people nuts. Listen to what Republican Senator Bob Corker told CNN.


CORKER: The president just seems to be very uncomfortable being commander in chief of this nation.


GINGRICH: Let me ask you, when you have Senator Corker who's the ranking Republican on foreign relations and who carried the resolution with Senator Menendez, tried to be an ally to the president, when you have that kind of very direct language, essentially expressing despair, doesn't that concern you about the president's ability to work with the Congress?

ISRAEL: Look, I think the American people are just tired of that kind of hyperbole. They want leaders with responsible solutions, not leaders who spend all their time engaged in that kind of blame.

I would also remind Senator Corker, when he questions the comfort level of this president, that this president was very comfortable killing Osama bin Laden.

CUTTER: And ending the Iraq war and bringing to an end the Afghanistan war.

And Congresswoman Blackburn, I have a question for you. Do you think Senator Corker is worried about his politics at home with that statement?

BLACKBURN: No, I don't. I think Senator Corker is expressing the frustration of the vast majority of the American people. This is an issue of leadership. And whether you're talking about the Syria situation, the lack of attention of it -- a president who was a U.S. senator and state senator voted present, basically what he did with the serious situation over the past week was began by voting present.

You have Secretary Kerry go out and make a speech, the president with his security team...

CUTTER: So bringing Assad to his knees and Russia to the table is acting weak?

BLACKBURN: I would disagree with you.

CUTTER: That's not a strong act?

BLACKBURN: I think that the president's been very weak on the national stage and I think that the ones who have gotten attention on both sides of the aisle for standing firm has been the members of the U.S. House of Representatives that...

CUTTER: Absolutely. With their critique.

BLACKBURN: Or the conservatives have said...

CUTTER: You have been very good with your (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

I still cannot understand what you would do differently than the president with the plan that I outlined.

BLACKBURN: I have told you what I would do differently. First of all, a president has to be the commander in chief and the decisive leader. And what the president did was to take this issue and then he fumbled it. He said, "Here you go" to the House. Look at David Axelrod...

CUTTER: You don't want to vote on it?

BLACKBURN: I told you, I would vote no. I'd have voted no.

ISRAEL: Well, you already did vote on that issue. Look, I respect your view, but you and 400 other members of Congress voted for the Syria Accountability Act, which emphatically and specifically states that we should not allow Syria to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

BLACKBURN: And everyone agrees on that.

ISRAEL: So you say that the House -- well, you may agree on the passage of the bill, but how do you hold that regime accountable for the Syria Accountability Act?

BLACKBURN: And we have continued to talk about that.

CUTTER: And how do you do it? I think there's only one way to do it. And that's to put use of force on the table, which as a result brought Russia to the table to help us negotiate a peace process.

BLACKBURN: I'm not sure that...

CUTTER: If our allies are coming to the table...


GINGRICH: But -- I know there's this whole line starts with the SEALs having killed bin Laden, and it goes on to...

BLACKBURN: Taken out by the Special Operations post from Ft. Kendall in my district.


CUTTER: Authorized by the commander in chief. I think it was --


GINGRICH: But here's my question. When you have the secretary of state describe, quote, "an unbelievably small attack," that was not -- that was London just before the Russians bailed us out.

CUTTER: But that unbelievably small attack, you know who listened to that? Assad. And Assad finally admitted that it has chemical weapons and will turn it over to the international community. Putin heard it and finally admitted to take part in this peace process. They heard it loud and clear.

GINGRICH: I don't think Assad heard it at all.

CUTTER: However small you think it was, it was pretty loud over there.

ISRAEL: Newt, you're making a process argument, the process that went into where we are now. And I appreciate that you're a historian. In fact, you endorsed my book on military history and doubled its sales from six to 12.

You know who's really interested in presidential process and who said what?

GINGRICH: As an author, what was the title of your book?

ISRAEL: "Charge!"

The people who are really interested in the process that lead to a policy are presidential historians. But the American people care about the outcome.

CUTTER: Right.

ISRAEL: And we want this outcome to be the degradation and the deterrence of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. So who cares who said what? GINGRICH: You're doing something that's very specific. I don't disagree with this, but you're doing something very specific here. We've had the president and many other people say over two years' time Assad has to go. OK? The president talked even last night about degrading, about getting rid of Assad, et cetera.

The fact is, if Putin pulls this off, Assad will be strengthened and stabilized. Now, we'll achieve something that's historic. I'm not disagreeing with you. But are you comfortable, as a person who's pretty expert in the region, are you comfortable with Assad, in fact, winning on the survival, giving up chemical weapons but winning in terms of the survival of the regime?

ISRAEL: I'm more comfortable with that then any of the other scenarios that we have outlined, including Nusra acquiring those chemical weapons, Iran being empowered to use weapons of mass destruction, and North Korea taking a look at Syria and saying, "Well, we've got a bunch of U.S. troops on the border. Why don't we try that?" I'm more comfortable with that scenario.

CUTTER: And I also think that your statement this is guaranteed Assad stays in power is absolutely wrong, because the only way...

GINGRICH: Absolutely wrong?

CUTTER: Absolutely wrong. That the only way -- I only speak in absolutes.

GINGRICH: OK. The only way that we're going to remove chemical weapons from Syria is if there is a- some sort of a ceasefire on the ground, which means that Syrian people are no longer getting killed by their own dictator, which means that we can focus on a political solution, which is what the president is bringing the world together to do.

And that means that the European Union, the U.N., NATO, Jordan, Israel, Turkey, all of our allies come together and send a message to Assad and isolate him.

And the other thing that I think is going on here is Putin is saying to Assad, "Look, buddy, I can save you from going to the criminal court. I can save you from getting the death penalty because you violated a world standard here and killed your own people with gas. So we're going to work out a solution here, and you can come to Russia."

GINGRICH: Well, the question I've got is, one, I think Putin is not suggesting -- what Putin is saying is, "You agree to this. We will reinforce you during the ceasefire. We will make sure you have plenty of conventional equipment. Between us and the Iranians, you will survive. Your choice is not survival if you do it without me."

I don't think it was the Kerry speech. I think it was the Putin phone call who changed Assad's view.

BLACKBURN: Well, and one of the things that I think would cause us concern is Russia trying to do this. Are they not being honest, they're trying to do this just so they can sell weapons to Syria?

CUTTER: We have to say no to that.

BLACKBURN: That's exactly right. And that's...

CUTTER: That would have to be part of the deal. If there's a ceasefire, you've got to stop selling weapons to Syria.

GINGRICH: And that means everybody else has to stop supplying the rebels.

CUTTER: Well, that -- We need to see how that works out. But you can't have a ceasefire with weapons coming over the border.

BLACKBURN: And you want to know what Russia's motive is in this.

GINGRICH: You know what Russia's motive is.

BLACKBURN: Well, we want to make certain that that is trust and verify.

CUTTER: And if we, part of this is exposing Russia's motive. And by exposing Russia's motive, hopefully their motive is in good faith, trying to rid Syria of chemical weapons. But if it's not in good faith, then it only strengthens our hands at the United Nations, to isolate Russia...


BLACKBURN: The stronger position, if this president had the ability to act with more authority. And I think that that is something that is frustrating to the American people. He does seem very uncomfortable when it comes to foreign policy issues.

And I had one of my retired military retirees that had worked in intel, who was looking at this and said, why does everything end up in a crisis situation with him? Why does he seem to make decisions that strengthen al Qaeda?

ISRAEL: You were around for eight years of the Bush administration.

BLACKBURN: And there are plenty of times...

ISRAEL: Let's talk about crisis. Let's talk about crisis. We -- we have a situation in Iraq. We were enmeshed in Iraq. We are now out of Iraq without crisis.

We went into Afghanistan. The crisis was that we did not go into Afghanistan with proper force. President Obama decided to authorize a surge. That was a pretty significant decisive act. And we're winding down in Afghanistan.

BLACKBURN: Well, let's talk about another crisis.

ISRAEL: Osama bin laden was alive. Now he's dead.

BLACKBURN: It is lacking pay in the military.

ISRAEL: So tell me what part of that means he is not willing to use authority.

BLACKBURN: Paying our men and women in uniform. A $400 billion cut followed by a sequestration of $500,000 before we go into -- before he says he wants to go do something with Syria. The president chose to cut that 1.6 percent pay raise that our men and women in uniform were going to get down to 1 percent. So they're going to get...

ISRAEL: We can try to turn it off. I'll tell you how you can do it, and it's a reasonable way to do it.


BLACKBURN: That filled those dollars for the U.S. military.

CUTTER: Thanks to Steve Israel and to Marsha Blackburn. It was just getting good. But we can do it again.

Next we "Ceasefire." Here's one thing we can agree on. CROSSFIRE is getting noticed, even at the White House. We'll show you next.


GINGRICH: Tonight on CROSSFIRE we've been debating Syria. Now let's call a "Ceasefire."

I know I have been a real skeptic, but I think we can agree, it would be really great if the Syrian peace process worked.

CUTTER: Yes. I think we both agree on that. I just wish we had started our show there.

GINGRICH: Well, there's a lot of steps between here and there.


GINGRICH: ... still open.

CUTTER: We can all be hopeful that it works out.

GINGRICH: I think it probably will.

Before we go, we noticed a very interesting exchange at today's White House briefing.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Hey, Ed? We can debate on CROSSFIRE one day when we're both out of our current jobs. But the -- the...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We can arrange that.

CARNEY: The -- he's going to set us up. We'll talk to Stephanie and Newt.


GINGRICH: Well, we want Jay to know that we're quite willing and ready to talk with him any time he'd like to come by. He has an open invitation to come and be in the CROSSFIRE here with us.

CUTTER: I for one would love to have him on the show.

And you can join the debate right now. Weigh in on our "Fireback" question via Facebook or Twitter: "Should Congress force a deadline for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons?" Right now, 68 percent of you say yes, 32 percent say no.

The debate continues online at as well as Facebook and Twitter.

From the left, I'm Stephanie Cutter.

GINGRICH: On the right, I'm Newt Gingrich. Join us tomorrow for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.