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CROSSFIRE

Will Russia's Syria Plan Lead to Peace or Trouble?

Aired September 12, 2013 - 18:28   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, Putin's Syria plan. Is it a solution, a delaying tactic, or a trap?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am hopeful that the discussions can yield a concrete result.

On the left, Van Jones. On the right, Newt Gingrich. In the CROSSFIRE, Representative Alan Grayson, who supports Putin's peace plan, and Danielle Pletka, who thinks the president mismanaged the crisis. Following Russia's lead, the path to peace or exceptional trouble? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.

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

VAN JONES, CO-HOST: And I'm Van Jones on the left.

Look, if you had told me on inauguration day, that before Thanksgiving, President Obama would have Russia and Syria at the negotiating table and Syria officially offering to join the international agreement to ban chemical weapons, I would have said, hallelujah. T

his is what diplomacy is all about. This is a good thing. But rather than being happy, all we're hearing is the same usual crap from the same usual complainers.

GINGRICH: Now, wait a second.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I'm very, very concerned and very skeptical.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I've got real doubts about the motives of the Russians and President Assad.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R-OK), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I've never liked Mr. Putin. In fact, Obama never liked him until last Tuesday, when he came and bailed him out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JONES: Now, come on. You're going to join the complainers?

GINGRICH: Well, let me just say, we've had 19 days since the attack of the Obama rope-a-dope, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. Followed by three days now of a joint Russian/American talk, talk, talk. We're going to find out whether it leads to anything real or if doesn't.

But for this evening, I'm delighted that in the CROSSFIRE, Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson, who is for Putin's peace plan, and Danielle Pletka, who thinks the president has mismanaged the Syrian crisis.

Let me start, Alan, with you. You saw this morning, I'm sure, "The New York Times" op-ed piece by President Putin, instructing the American people. Let me just read one brief section of it.

He says, "No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian army, but by opposition forces to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons."

Now, do you agree with Putin that this could easily have been a clever black flag operation, or do you in fact agree with the American intelligence community that this was clearly done by the Syrian army?

REP. ALAN GRAYSON (D), FLORIDA: The weight of the evidence at this point was that it was done by the Syrian army. However, all members of Congress, all of whom, as you well know, have classified clearance, have received so far is a four-page unclassified document making all the arguments for war and a 12-page classified document, which you can surmise, does much the same. That's it. We haven't seen any of the underlying intelligence whatsoever.

And it puzzles me and disturbs me that the administration has held these vital pieces of information so close to the vest, that even members of Congress can't see it, although we're being asked to vote on war and peace.

GINGRICH: Well, look, it's an absolute fact, and everybody agrees to, that in his own country, President Putin opened a campaign in Chechnya that killed about 300,000 people. That's an absolute fact that he, in fact, invaded the independent country of Georgia. So I find it a little hard to take too credibly his defense of his Syrian ally.

Again, I think it's something I would ask you: Are you comfortable that Putin will follow through and that we can rely on him?

GRAYSON: It doesn't matter. Either he will or he won't. And nobody, nobody in America lakes being dictated to by a dictator. Nobody likes being chided by a dictator.

But one of your contributions to foreign policy is to point out the value of thinking in terms of national interests, rather than in terms of personality. It doesn't matter whether it's Putin came up with this plan or Paris Hilton. The fact is that we have to follow it through to see if it leads to someplace good.

JONES: Well, I think we might actually agree on this, because, it's a messy kitchen. The process has been messy, but the cake might be yummy. I mean, I think we might be in a situation where we get the chemical weapons out; we don't have to spend a bunch of money; we don't have to go to war. You must be very happy about where we are right now. Am I right?

DANIELLE PLETKA, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: You have such a lovely smile. I wish I could agree with you.

No, I'm not happy about where we are. I'm not happy about where we are for a whole variety of reasons. I think the president has made a profoundly confused case, and what we saw, as Newt said at the beginning is we saw push, push, push, push. "We've got to do it, we've got to do it, we've got to do it now. Congress has the to authorize this."

And then all of a sudden we step back and hand responsibility of this to Vladimir Putin. I'd be happier if we were handing it to Paris Hilton, to be perfectly frank.

JONES: Well, help me understand this. It seems to me that this is what diplomacy is all about. It's our president who put the warships out there, who called attention to these atrocities, who got this process going. He's responding to us. And now isn't the monkey on the back of the Russians? Their credibility is now on the line. They said they can fix this, they can make it go. Isn't this what diplomacy is all about? Am I wrong?

PLETKA: I think that you're partly right. I think that the question of diplomacy is all about this kind of thing. If you can muscle someone to the right line and then get them to step across it diplomatically, that's awesome.

JONES: And is that what -- is that not what we're doing?

PLETKA: Well, the problem is, they're not stepping across to us. They're stepping across to the Russians. I think Newt outlined who the Russians are. I think they outlined who Putin is.

Now, remember, Russia is a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention. They've got obligations under the CWC. They are not in compliance with the CWC, according to the State Department, which Mr. Obama...

JONES: Fair enough. But if they had reached out to Sweden or Brazil, they have no leverage over Syria. I mean, look, I don't like Putin. I don't like Putin. I don't like what Russia stands for, but you've got to deal with the facts on the ground. It's that Russia is a fact, Putin is a leader. He's got the leverage. Isn't it a good thing that Obama got him in the game?

PLETKA: It's great to be in the game. The problem is, is he giving us an answer? And I don't think we're getting a real answer. What we're getting is a delay.

And I've got to say to you, if the president of the United States comes in two weeks or three weeks, when this all falls apart, to the Congress and says, "OK, guys. That really didn't work. I had a lot of trust in Vladimir, because you know how close we are. But now things aren't going well, so please give me this authorization," tell me, what's going to happen? GRAYSON: It's not going to happen.

PLETKA: Bingo.

GRAYSON: Right now -- but it's hasn't -- it's been true now for two weeks that it's not going to happen. I mean, the current count at "The Washington Post" Web site is 25 members of the House in favor of this, 263 against. And the numbers did change after the president spoke. What happened was 11 members declared they were against it, and one member shifted from "for" to "against." That's the change in numbers since the president spoke.

The problem, fundamentally, is that there is no better option than the so-called Putin option, which is really in some sense the Kerry option, right now. There's no better way to do this. What happened is, the president presented his military options to Congress and Congress said, "No way. That doesn't make any sense to us. That's dangerous and it's pointless."

GINGRICH: But let me ask you a question, because I'm fascinated. You made a very important point here. If you had 11 people come out against and one person switched from yes to no, based on the president's speech the other night, why do you think the speech failed so decisively?

You know, ideally, presidents like to have momentum in the other direction, towards the speech, not away from it. And I'm just curious, what do you think? You're a solid Democrat, you know. What do you think happened...

GRAYSON: I think that...

GINGRICH: ... in that speech.

GRAYSON: ... even the president's supporters feel that the president's focusing exclusively on what happened in Damascus suburbs on the night of August 21 without focusing on what might happen or what should happen going forward.

He barely talks about the attack itself, the details of what the attack would look like. If he does talk about it, he never talks about the consequences of it. The potential counterstrikes. Is Syria going to go ahead and attack Israel? Is Syria going to attack the U.S.? Is Syria going to attack U.S. civilians? Is Syria going to go ahead and attack U.S. embassies in the region? There's no discussion of that.

PLETKA: Do you realize what you're saying? Do you realize what you're saying? And again, I don't want to defend the president's strategy. I think he's presented two extremely bad options to the American public, and he hasn't built a credible foundation for his foreign policy.

But what you are saying is we should be deterred by the likes of Syria and Hezbollah. Let me tell you, if the United States is now in a position where we are deterred by them, we're in a very sorry place. GRAYSON: That's completely the wrong way to look at this. Anyone recognizes right now, in fact, the general who's in charge of this attack said himself that our attacking Syria is an act of war. If you throw a punch, you better be prepared for someone else to throw a punch at you or maybe fire a gun at you.

GINGRICH: But let me ask you a follow-up, just one second. As recently as today, Secretary Kerry indicated very clearly that he thought the threat of force was essential to getting the Russians and the Syrians to be real.

Now, to what extent are you saying that you think the Russians, who also have pretty good intelligence in this country, can simply look and realize that the president is not going to be able to get the kind of support he needs to have a serious threat of force, unless he operates by not going to the Congress?

GRAYSON: Well, in fact, I do believe that Putin has access to "The Washington Post" Web site. So that much is true. I imagine Syria high command also has access to "The Washington Post" Web site, so that much is true also.

One possibility is that the Russians and the Syrians are going ahead because of the threat of military force. Another possibly is that there's been a breakdown in the command and control of these weapons within Syria, and now even the Syrian dictator realizes this is trouble, he'd better get rid of them.

JONES: Hold on a second. Let me just -- I don't understand what you want to happen. I know you. I know you very well. You are somebody who cares about poor people. You care about children. You spent most of your life sticking up for the least of these. The worst-off people on planet earth right now, 2 million of them, are stuck in these refugee camps. There's going to be 3 million or more.

This president is trying to get something done about it. I happen to agree with every step he's taken. But for you, a liberal Democrat, and somebody who's a hero for a lot of people, to apparently be perfectly fine with America not using its power to get something done is kind of shocking. If you don't support the president, what is your plan for peace over there?

GRAYSON: Listen, I'm in favor of doing things, except for things that make things worse. The war in Iraq clearly has made things worse.

JONES: Sure, sure. I know what you don't want to do. But what do you want to do?

GRAYSON: No electricity, no food, no water.

JONES: Hey, listen, I'm with you. I don't want the war. But I'm getting very, very concerned that with this break in the action, that we're going to be less concerned about what's going on there. What is the nonviolent peaceful plan that you would be for that would do something about those people who are being gassed, that would do something about those people who are suffering in those refugee camps? Democrat, Democrat.

GRAYSON: OK, the answer is to help the living, to help the survivors, to give them food, to give them water, to give them shelter. But there's no such thing as a humanitarian bomb. There's no such thing as a humanitarian missile.

JONES: Are you also going to stand back -- you have been hawkish, you've been tough, you've been strong. Is America now out of the democracy business? Are you, at this point, prepared to stand back and let horrible things happen overseas?

PLETKA: Absolutely not.

JONES: What should we do?

PLETKA: Well, I think, first of all, you know, we can't turn back time. Had we been doing the right thing, we would have stepped in...

JONES: But we can't drive back in time.

PLETKA: ... before al Qaeda was there. But you're absolutely right. Right now there's only one answer. And that is a diplomatic answer, for sure. The only thing that is going to get Assad to the table for negotiations is when he thinks that otherwise, he is going to lose this fight. That's the imperative.

JONES: So? Well...

GINGRICH: From that standpoint, I think it's very, very important for us to look at whether getting rid of chemical weapons, but keeping Assad, is an acceptable outcome, because that's certainly the direction that they're moving in at the present time.

PLETKA: It's entirely confusing. The president came out in June and decided to arm the rebels. Now, again, this was almost two years into a fight. Why then? I can't tell you. But he decided to -- and then he didn't! Why, why...

GINGRICH: We'll go back to that in just a minute. But let me say first that I am amazed that anyone in America would be insulted by "The New York Times" op-ed by Putin. Because Putin is unworthy of being insulted by. I'll explain why after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GINGRICH: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I just want to take a minute, personally, to talk about this "New York Times" op-ed piece, almost certainly largely written by a Washington firm that's hired by the Russians. But supposedly offered by President Putin.

I'm a little surprised at all the different reaction: Senators who wanted to vomit, congressmen who were insulted. Look, Vladimir Putin is honestly and authentically a KGB officer. He grew up in the KGB. He was trained in the KGB. He spent his career locking people up, overseeing torture, overseeing killings. This is a genuinely tough guy. And he has one interest. Great Russian nationalism. And he's very open about it.

Now, this is a guy who for public relations purposes wrestles bears. He goes out and shoots tigers, stripped to the waist, to prove he's a tough guy. The idea that we would take his statements seriously. You could go through and read that document and you could find at every single stage that it's a lie.

This is a guy who clearly, for example, invaded Georgia. He didn't go and ask the U.N. This is a guy who killed 300,000 people in Chechnya. He didn't worry about humanitarian concerns.

When he lectures us, that's his right. But for us to take it seriously is a sign we have forgotten who Vladimir Putin is and why, while we have to deal with him as the president of Russia, we don't have to respect his views; we don't have to respect his opinions; and frankly, we should laugh at him when he tries to lecture America about exceptionalism, because he ain't exceptional. He's just one more in a long tradition of dictators and thugs. So that's my view.

But Alan, I'm curious.

JONES: A little hot now! Let's talk about President Obama.

GINGRICH: So he's not Paris Hilton. But, seriously...

GRAYSON: Here's the interesting thing. Someone who leads a country that was, until 20 years ago, the Soviet Union, appealing to our faith in God. Did you notice that?

GINGRICH: I noticed that.

GRAYSON: What did you think of that?

GINGRICH: I thought it was written by the Washington speechwriters. But I thought it was -- it was a remarkable post-Soviet document, because he cites the pope. I mean, can you imagine Brezhnev or Khrushchev or Lenin or Stalin? You want to know who lost the Cold War? The communists lost the Cold War.

GRAYSON: Well, Stalin would ask, how many divisions does the pope have?

JONES: Fair enough. And I -- nobody around here is a fan of Putin. And...

GINGRICH: Let's make that very clear.

JONES: Nobody around here is a fan of Putin at all, so that's fine. And I appreciate your passion.

But I also think it's important for us to look at what set him off. He's mad that the president said something about American exceptionalism. We should talk about that at some point.

I'm proud of this president. As mad as I am at Putin, I'm proud of this president. And it seems to me that you're not as proud. And I don't understand why not.

When I look at this situation, I think to myself, we were in a lose/lose situation a week ago. We either rush into a war, which seemed like a bad idea, or we stand back and do nothing. Now we're in a win/win situation. Russia is in this game. Their credibility is on the table, on the line. If they do well, we get peace. If they screw up, we have all of our options on the table. Why are you not proud of this president?

PLETKA: First of all, we don't have all our options on the table, because the president went -- well, stop a sec. The president went to Congress. Congress, votes aren't there. We know that. Fewer votes will be there in two weeks, three weeks, a month. I can promise you that. So I don't think the president any longer has all the options on the table.

No. 1, he has -- he has transferred the chestnuts that were in the fire to Putin's fire. And Putin is now holding onto them.

It seems to me that the president of the United States is not in a good position when he articulates something as a matter of the most important national security to us, and then says, "I'm going to let Vladimir work it out."

JONES: You're still mad that the president went to Congress? The president...

PLETKA: No, I actually -- look, I spent ten years working for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I'm a huge believer in the prerogatives of Congress. What I don't like about what the president did is the hypocrisy and the inconsistency.

JONES: The president is being hypocritical?

PLETKA: Why was Libya something that was totally good not to go to Congress, and Syria, he had to go to Congress? Why was Libya, which was less in our national interests -- though I supported him, as I would on Syria, let me make that absolutely clear -- but Syria he has to go to Congress. It's completely incomprehensible.

JONES: Danielle, here's my big concern.

PLETKA: Mm-hmm?

JONES: I think this president is doing something remarkable. You have a Rwanda on one side and Iraq on the other. A Rwanda, where we don't do anything, there's a disaster. You have Iraq where we do something reckless and stupid, and there's a disaster.

And there's a winding road between those two outcomes and this president, yes, he's zigging, he's zagging, because it's a zig-zaggy road. And I'm afraid that we don't recognize when somebody's actually trying, in the moment, to do the right thing.

You know, Peyton Manning -- talked about this before -- as a quarterback, he will wait until the very last second. OK, OK, this is -- the quarterback -- OK, I lost you, fine. I lost you. But my only point is, sometimes leadership is messy! And I think he's doing a good thing.

How can you say...

(CROSSTALK)

PLETKA: ... my bosses who say there are only two things in the middle of the road: yellow lines and dead critters.

All I can say to you about that is I think that the president has managed to engineer the worst of all worlds. One in which we don't get rid of the dictator in Iraq, but we still have all the dead people of Rwanda.

GRAYSON: That was never going to happen anyway.

GINGRICH: I think key question in terms of the limits of the president. Having turned to the Congress, but now having sort of backed off from turning to Congress, because it's now all in limbo, has the president lost the ability to strike unilaterally? Or could he, in fact, get away now with turning and saying, "We tried. We did our best. As commander-in-chief, I'm exercising my powers."

GRAYSON: Well, the price you pay when you ask people for advice is that sometimes you actually have to listen to it. And when the president came to Congress and asked us for advice, many serving members of Congress are veterans. Many others like me have some experience, because I've prosecuted war profiteers in Iraq. We can make independent judgments.

We're in the classified briefings. We hear about the military plans, and we say to ourselves, "This just isn't going to work." This idea that there was ever another option is entirely illusory.

The president -- the president does not command forces that could end the war, the civil war in Syria. The president does not command forces that could overthrow the dictator. The president does not command forces that could even reduce the stockpile of chemical weapons. I mean, I've heard what the plans were. And I'll tell that the way we were headed, we weren't even going to be able to prevent another chemical attack.

So people look at this. They weigh the illusory advantages and the enormous risks, and they say to themselves, "This is not a viable approach."

JONES: So are we now in a better position? Before, we were wondering, can we deter the chemical attacks? Can we degrade his capacity? We're now in a position we might be able to destroy all the chemical weapons. That's...

GRAYSON: That's right. That's right.

PLETKA: That is -- that is claptrap. The idea that we are going to destroy all of his chemical weapons? He has already reportedly -- at least, I heard Wolf tell me -- begun to move the chemical weapons out of Syria into both Iraq and Lebanon. The chemical...

GRAYSON: That's not true.

PLETKA: Sorry.

GRAYSON: No, that's not true.

JONES: Why do you say it's not true?

GRAYSON: Well, I can. I have certain information. But you can bet that if there were proliferation even attempted, that the Israelis would attack and prevent it. And so I think probably the president. In fact, when the president drew his famous red line, he was actually responding to a question about proliferation, not about use in the civil war.

PLETKA: I would only point out to you that the Israelis allowed a full-blown nuclear site to be built in Syria before they actually hit it.

GRAYSON: That's my point.

PLETKA: If it happened today, I don't think they would have -- if it happened today I don't think they would have tested.

GINGRICH: Don't you had it's very clear that the president will not get authority, in your belief strongly that he can't operate without it, that in fact, Kerry has been stripped of almost any serious leverage, and we're now relying on the good will of the Russians.

GRAYSON: That's not the way diplomacy works. Diplomacy works, as you well know, because in your experience, diplomacy works when everybody ends up happy or at least not sad. It doesn't work through coercion. When you endeavor to conduct diplomacy through coercion, you end up with people evading their responsibilities.

JONES: Aren't we in a situation now, though, where people are so concerned about Russia eclipsing the U.S. that the American public make it very uncomfortable with Russian coming away with the win? If you're for diplomacy, as I know you are, that means both sides get to win. Do you think the American people are going to be happy seeing Russia strutting around saying, "Look, you know, we're the winners here"?

GRAYSON: Listen, the American people will be happy if the government does not shut down in three weeks. They'll be happy if we don't run out of money in five weeks. They'll be happy if we do something for the 20 million Americans who are looking for full-time work can find it.

JONES: You're talking isolation.

GRAYSON: Not at all. No, but I don't think anybody could say that the only choice is to invade country after country, occupy them for a decade at a time, versus isolationism.

PLETKA: Is that what the president...

GRAYSON: There's got to be some kind of middle ground.

PLETKA: What president have I met? Was the president suggesting that we invade Iraq and occupy it for ten years? I've got to get out more.

GRAYSON: And what do you think would happen if we hit them? They hit us? We hit them? What do you think that is?

PLETKA: I think Barack Obama's not invading anyone.

JONES: Thank you very much. I wish we could go on with this but, unfortunately, we're going to have to call it there.

I really want to thank you, Congressman Grayson.

And I want to thank you, Danielle for being here.

Next we're going to "Ceasefire." And tonight when we get back we're going to agree to disagree with Vladimir Putin.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JONES: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, we have been debating Russia and Syria and American exceptionalism. But now I want to call a "Ceasefire."

You know, Vladimir Putin has been attacking the president for sticking up for American exceptionalism, and I disagree with him on this point. And I -- and I do so passionately.

Because America is exceptional. We have this founding reality that was ugly. It had slavery in it, but we had a founding dream that was about equality. And as a country, year after year, decade after decade, we've been closing the gap between that founding reality and that founding dream. No country in the world can say that. And I just think it's sad that we even have to defend that we're a special place. We are a special place.

GINGRICH: Well, and I think one of the great things I worry about in our schools and our whole system of education is that we've dropped away from reminding people that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, all these guys who wrote the Declaration of Independence, wrote the Constitution and led the early country, they had a vision, a dream, as you say. A dream that Dr. King reminded us of when he came 50 years ago to this city.

And I think that, you know, if I were a Russian leader with a history of czars and serfs and secret police and totalitarianism, and I was in a country that still had huge problems with authoritarianism, locking up successful people, locking up a girl band. You look at some of the stuff. To be lectured by Putin on exceptionalism is an honor that I'm happy to bear on behalf of the United States.

JONES: Fair enough.

Listen, we'd like to hear your opinion on this. If you go to Facebook or Twitter, you can weigh in on our "Fireback" question. I'll let Newt take it away.

GINGRICH: "Is America the most exceptional nation?" Right now, 34 of you -- 34 percent of you say yes; 66 percent say no.

JONES: So the debate needs to continue online at CNN.com/Crossfire, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

From the left, I'm Van Jones.

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

ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT starts right now.