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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Crisis in Syria: Decision Point

Aired September 12, 2013 - 23:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAKE TAPPER, HOST OF CNN'S "THE LEAD" PROGRAM: Tonight, a special hour of CNN.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: This is not a game.

TAPPER: Last chance. If Syria does not want American missiles falling on it from the sky, this might be it. And the U.S. has to trust the Russians to make it happen. But is the U.S. getting played?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It is clear that President Putin has invested his credibility.

TAPPER: Has he? What international credibility does Russian's president actually have? Would he care if he lost it?

BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: We got a lot more stuff to do here in this government.

TAPPER: President Obama -- ready move on? He lets his proxies respond after Putin antagonizes the U.S. with unsolicited advice on Syria. Just who is calling the shots here? This is "Crisis in Syria, Decision Point."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Good evening everyone, I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to this special hour of CNN "Crisis in Syria, Decision Point." It's already morning in Geneva, Switzerland where Secretary of State John Kerry is waking up for a second day of negotiations with his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. They will have a matter of hours to nail down the framework for an agreement requiring Syria to give up its chemical weapons as the U.S. keeps waving the big stick of potential military strikes over Syria's head.

United Nations says its Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, has now signed the international treaty banning chemical weapons in his country. But he does want something in return.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I want to clearly express to everyone that these mechanisms will not be carried out unilaterally. This does not mean that Syria will sign these documents, carry out the conditions and that's it. Despite lateral processes based, first of all, on the United States stopping its policy of threatening Syria, also, to the degree that the Russian proposal is accepted.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That's what the Russians want too, for the U.S. to remove the threat of force, but the goal posts for American and Russian leaders seems very far apart. They don't even agree on who fired poison gas on whom. Russian president Vladimir Putin claims it was the rebels, not the regime and he said so in an op-ed for the New York Times. He also challenged the idea of American exceptional-ism, essentially telling everyone in the United States to stop thinking we're so special. The Times titled it "A Plea for Caution from Russia," but it actually reads like Machiavellian political poking hidden inside some put downs, tucked inside a scolding, wrapped in the illusion of a plea. Truly the Russian nesting doll of op-eds. All day U.S. lawmakers have been trying to top themselves for most visceral reaction to it.

But beyond the political reactions, a ticking clock. There's not much time to get a workable solution down. The second and final scheduled day of the Summit is already underway in Geneva. Our own chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is standing by live in Geneva for us right know. Jim, how do things stand after the first day of negotiations there?

JIM SCIUTTO, CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT FOR CNN: Well, Jake, U.S. officials told us as they were coming in here that they're coming in with a healthy dose of skepticism and you can see why, because those disagreements coming out very clearly and publicly on the first day of negotiations -- one of them over the use of force. Secretary Kerry saying from the beginning the U.S. is going to reserve its right to use force and that that's the very reason that the Syrians have been brought to the table. The Russians saying force cannot be a part of this. Also a disagreement on the timeline. How much time to give the Syrians to fess up all of the information if necessary about their chemical weapons stockpiles. President Assad saying in his interview that he believes he has 30 days. That would be standard. Secretary Kerry saying there's nothing standard about these talks because President Assad has in fact already used these weapons against his people repeatedly.

And that's why the focus in these talks yesterday and today are really on the nuts and bolts, on achievable goals. They're focusing on how they can catalog Syria's weapons, collect them and then destroy them. And really some of the most important work going on is between the Russian and American experts on chemical weapons on defense. They're the ones who are trying to figure out where these sites are and how to get these chemical weapons out of the country and under international control.

Now, one of the key tests the Americans said they have of whether the Syrians are sincere about all this is how quickly they fess up, how forthcoming they are with all this information about where these chemical sites are. Of course we've had some reports today that undermine that confidence. Wall Street Journal reporting that there's a special unit of the Syrian armed forces that are distributing the sites -- these weapons to more than 50 sites. Of course the Syrian opposition saying that they believe some of these weapons have been taken out of the country already. That denied by the Iraqi government. But still you have those charges here undermining that confidence. One thing to note -- the hotel where these talks are taking place is the same hotel where Secretary Clinton gave Foreign Minister Lavrov that famous 'reset button.' I remember coming here a couple of years before that for some failed talks on Iran's nuclear program. I think people convened here are hoping this is not the hotel where diplomatic efforts go to die. We're going to know over the next 24 hours whether there's some real progress here. Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto in Geneva at a 'haunted' hotel of sorts. As we continue to argue over whether the U.S. should get involved in Syria, enemies are still testing American security elsewhere overseas. The State Department says that unidentified forces attacked the U.S. Consulate in Herat, Afghanistan. They reportedly drove to the front gate and opened fire but we're told that the attack is over and that no Americans were killed. More details to come on that developing story.

But turning back to Syria, of course the big question -- is this Russian plan for real? How long should President Obama give Syrians to comply with it? And given the close relations between the Russians and the Syrians, could the U.S. be getting played here? We're hashing it all out for the rest of the hour with the help of chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash, chief political analyst Gloria Borger and chief domestic affairs correspondent Jessica Yellin. Also joining us is Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. He's one of the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who did not vote for the resolution authorizing U.S. force against Syria.

Senator Murphy, I want to start with you. You heard Jim allude to it and I'm sure you saw the report itself about the Syrians trying to move weapons -- these chemical weapons -- around and get them out of the way of any potential inspectors. Does that sound -- well, first of all, do you know anything about that beyond what we've read in The Wall Street Journal? And second of all, that doesn't really sound like a government that is ready to acquiesce to the world's demands.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY, D-CONNECTICUT: Yes, I mean, first, what we know is that Syria's been moving weapons around for a number of days anticipating attack. What we also know is that we have a pretty good read on where they've been moving these weapons. It's hard to move them without U.S. surveillance being able to track them. Second, we also know Syria doesn't want to give up these weapons.

TAPPER: Right.

MURPHY: They're only going to do so if Russia tells them they have to. Right, the only way that Assad continues in power in Syria is with the permission of Vladimir Putin and the Russian government. So ultimately, he's going to do everything he can to try to subterfuge this deal. It's going to be Putin that's going to bring him to the table. Also -- GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Do you think Putin would do that?

MURPHY: Well, listen, I think Putin has two good reasons here. Clearly, the threat of force has made a difference here, but Putin wants to be a regional player. Russia's been off of the radar screen in terms of international influence for a long time and Putin believes that he alone can bring them back into the sphere that they once were. If he is seen as an international pariah by standing by a guy that basically gasses his people, then he has no credibility. And a lot of the sort of former satellite nations and former republics of Russia will start to retreat to other zones of power and walk away from Putin. So I think he's got a lot of reasons why he needs to deliver on the promise that he and Lavrov have made.

TAPPER: I just want to underscore this point, though -- Syrians are moving chemical weapons around in Syria in anticipation of either strikes or now a possible inspectors, and you don't think that Assad would have ordered that without Putin knowing about it?

MURPHY: I can't certainly say that Putin knew about it. What I know is that the Russians have a good sense of where these weapons are. Between U.S. intelligence and Russian intelligence, we can find these weapons no matter where Assad moves them. What we know is that they used to be spread out all over the country. They have been consolidated to a certain degree so they're easier to find than they have been before.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, you know, after 11 o'clock at night eastern you can tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

TAPPER: Right, nobody's watching.

BASH: Because (inaudible) I mean really --

TAPPER: Just tell us.

BASH: -- it's just us kids. The -- everybody in the Obama administration says the only reason why this diplomatic process is going forward is because of the credible threat of force. You as somebody who voted -- one of the few Democrats, I think one of two Democrats -- who voted against using forcing in committee last week. Would you agree that it was because it passed? Even though you voted against it -- this diplomatic process that's going forward?

MURPHY: No, I certainly can't deny that that's an element of the reason that the Russians have come to the table here.

BASH: Do you regret your vote?

MURPHY: So, no, because I wasn't being asked to vote on the threat of force. I mean, we were up to the point where we were being asked to actually vote on striking Syria. And I still to this day believe that that would not be in the U.S. national interest to strike Syria, even if these talks break down. For the United States to do that unilaterally I think compromises us internationally -- makes us look like the bully that we are not. Ultimately I think it would make the situation worse on the ground for the Syrian people due to the strikes that Assad may then take against his own people even with conventional weapons. And I just think it's hard to unwind the U.S. commitment there in a matter of months. I think we're probably dedicated to the commitment for years.

But, again, I think that the threat of force certainly is an element to why Putin came to the table here, but I think he had plenty of other reasons in terms of trying to establish and maintain international credibility to try to find a way out of this.

BASH: When you voted no, you said that part of the reason you voted against that resolution was because -- you objected to it but you were still moved by it. And you said the President's -- the look on his face -- reminded me of the look in his eyes when he came to New Town shortly after the shooting. You're from Connecticut. And I know that he's moved here. I wonder what it says to you about the president's leadership style that these are the two issues on which you've seen him most moved and he actually could not get action on either of them.

MURPHY: Well, it's yet to be seen what the resolution of this is going to be, so it may be that ultimately we get those weapons out of Syria and that is good news for the rest of the children who are still alive in Syria today. Yes, I've watched him talk about these kids and I really have been struck by a president who is just deeply, deeply concerned about the plight of children in this country and across the world.

I just, again, worry that in an effort to try to protect from future chemical attacks in Syria we end up -- we may end up getting more people killed there (inaudible).

BORGER: Can I --

MURPHY: With all due respect to the president's emotion, and I recognize -- I'm not doubting the sincerity of it. One hundred thousand people have been killed in Syria before -- the number we've been given by the government is 1,400, who knows what the actually number is. Certainly as scores of children were killed, perhaps even 400. Many of the 100,000 -- that 100,000 could be parsed and some of them are regime forces and some of them are rebels. A lot of them are innocent civilians and a lot of them are kids. Of the 100,000 already killed, I think that they're -- I understand the argument that chemical weapons are just beyond the pale. But why? Why if you are moved to help kids is the original 100,000 -- I think this is a question that a lot of Americans don't fully understand. What makes dying sarin gas worse than dying from a bullet to the head if you're a five year old?

TAPPER: And I think that also speaks to how this conflict plays out, right. I think we've made it very clear that if Assad was to use chemical weapons a second time that we would strike a second time. But if Assad was to turn around and take out a massive conventional weapons attack basically in return for the U.S. strike against his own people, then we likely wouldn't attack again. MURPHY: Right.

TAPPER: And so I think these are some of the very difficult questions that we have to ask, that there are some very terrible things that Assad could do after our strike that we might not actually step in and try to stop.

BORGER: Can I ask you about, Sir, the operational theory here of the administration. It may or may not be, but what I've heard is that -- for example, say this -- these negotiations turn to garbage, doesn't work. He goes then back to Congress. Would you be more likely to vote for the authorization of force if all of this fails?

MURPHY: Probably not. Because my objection was not the -- simply the lack of international consensus or international effort. I really don't believe that this is in the U.S. national security interest to do regardless of whether we have six player internationally helping us or whether we have 20.

BORGER: So you -- do you think that there are lots of people in the Senate who are like you? In other words, if the president were to go back to the Senate now -- I mean, let's forget the House -- that's a whole different story, much more difficult. But so, do you think how this plays out would really not have an impact for? . . .

MURPHY: No, I think it could. I think there are a handful of members whose reluctance to sign onto this was simply due to the fact that --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're just not one of them.

MURPHY: -- yes, I'm not one of them that had -- the president had not done his due diligence internationally. But I think there are plenty of members -- I think the majority -- that are skeptical right know, who are skeptical not because of the lack of international consensus, but just because ultimately we worry that a strike could end up tying America up -- our military, our treasure , for a matter of years if not a decade. And that really has nothing to do with whether we do it alone or with other countries.

TAPPER: Senator Murphy and our panel, please stay with us. Coming up, we take a closer look at President Obama's role as negotiations plug out with Russia over Syria's strikes and how his actions will play into some of the tough policy battles he faces here at home that don't have anything to do with foreign policy. That's next on this special edition of "Crisis in Syria, Decision Point." Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to our special coverage, "Crisis in Syria, Decision Point." Russian president Vladimir Putin has pulled off the seeming impossible. He actually got Democrats and Republicans in Congress to agree on something -- their mutual disdain for his New York Times op-ed. In the article, Putin took a direct shot at President Obama's speech on Syria, writing quote, "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people" -- meaning the American people -- "to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation." Now while plenty of members of the House and Senate have come out swinging at Putin, President Obama decided not to respond directly to that op-ed. He let his press secretary, Jay Carney, to do the dirty work.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARNEY: Unlike Russia, the United States stands up for Democratic values and human rights in our own country and around the world. And we believe that our global security is advanced when children cannot be gassed to death by a dictator. It is also worth noting that Russia is isolated and alone in blaming the opposition for the chemical weapons attack on August 21st.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Jay Carney who as a journalist spent some years in the former Soviet Union. Let's bring back our panel, Dana Bash, Jessica Yellin, Gloria Borger and of course Democratic Senator Chris Murphy. Senator, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I don't know if that allows you a special insight into the mind of Vladimir Putin, but why do you think he took this shot at American exceptional-ism. Do you think it was just so the likes of us would be discussing it right now? I mean, why go after in an op-ed reportedly to win over the American people would he take a shot at us?

MURPHY: Yes, I think most of Russia's foreign policy over the last couple of years has been dedicated to the single foundational premise that they want to stick a finger in the eye of the American president. I mean, that is sort of the guiding principle here, which is why some people are skeptical that this deal is going to get done. Because in the end, it's just really good politics for him at home to beat up on the Americans. And so I think that's the reason why that op-ed ends that way, because it's in part speaking much more to the Russian people than it is . . .

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They are also sticking --

MURPHY: -- to the Americans.

(CROSS TALK)

BASH: (Inaudible) sticking a finger in the eye of the president personally?

Female: Yes, sure, this is about public opinion, right?

BASH: Well also because he is sort of known as somebody who doesn't think American exceptional-ism is really all that great --

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF DOMESTIC AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Right.

BASH: -- and he had the --

YELLIN: (Inaudible) Right.

BASH: -- He had the famous quote about the fact that you know we think we're great, the Brits think they're great and the Greeks think they're great.

BORGER: But by the way --

BASH: He's trying to say, you know, you're just like George Bush.

BORGER: The Republicans say that President Obama doesn't believe in American exceptional-ism.

BASH: Right.

BORGER: Remember that during the campaign?

BASH: Exactly, that's the point, yes.

BORGER: And suddenly the president's talking about American exceptional-ism and you're smiling and laughing about that.

MURPHY: I just, you know, I think one of the things Carney said today is that compared to Russia, there's no doubt that we're exceptional and so --

BORGER: You're an exceptional member of the --

MURPHY: So to the extent that we're comparing ourselves on the way that they've conducted themselves around the world, it's pretty easy to make the case that we're exceptional. So, listen, I just think ultimately this is about Putin beating his chest about essentially sending a message to his own people.

BORGER: Shirt off or shirt on?

YELLIN: Would you dispute that Putin's driving the agenda on the Syria crisis?

MURPHY: Well, we need him. I mean, we've always said from the very beginning that you couldn't get anything done in Syria without Russia, so --

YELLIN: (Inaudible) will not need him, but --

MURPHY: -- he has the cards there in some -- at some level.

YELLIN: He has the cards.

BORGER: But doesn't this all in a way legitimize Assad here? Because suddenly after saying 'we don't need Assad -- we'd like him gone', now he's there and we in a way -- through the Russians, of course -- not directly -- but we now have to have them there.

MURPHY: Yes, let's just remember -- Assad is there not because of Assad's strength. Assad is there because there are enormous proxy interests that are dedicated to the idea that he stays in power. The Russians are not the only ones. The Iranians have to have Assad as well. And so it's just another reminder about how complicated this country is and why we should be cautious about how we engage because it's not Assad that has legitimacy here. Assad is essentially there only because of the nations that support him. That's who we're really talking to here. We're talking to those nations, not necessarily Assad.

BASH: I have a personal question to ask you. Don't worry, don't worry, it's OK. It's G-rated.

MURPHY: This was not part of the deal.

BASH: No, it's OK, it's OK.

YELLIN: I want to hear that.

BORGER: The deal's up.

BASH: You were the only senate candidate in 2012 President Obama cut an ad for. The only one. Much to the chagrin of many other candidates. It was because he really wanted you to win.

MURPHY: Yes.

BASH: You got a phone call from him on Labor Day weekend saying 'I need your help.' You know, payback time. And you said no. How hard was that?

MURPHY: Yes, it's really hard. In part because I do inherently trust this guy. I've been with him on almost every major issue that's come before the Congress. And I do believe that he has been about as nimble as possible at negotiating the last two or three years in the Middle East at an unbelievably turbulent time. But there are these rare moments in your career in Congress when you get to vote on war and peace. And ultimately that can't be because somebody's asked you to do it. It has to be because in your heart, you believe that you're doing the right thing.

And so for this one, as I told him from the very beginning I've been consistent in my skepticism about military action there. I would like to be with the president but these are rare, unique votes.

Female: Did you tell him --

TAPPER: What did you say to him? Because obviously -- he is -- we can see how torn President Obama is.

MURPHY: Yes.

TAPPER: He doesn't want to do this.

MURPHY: Yes.

TAPPER: He believes, or at least he argues he believes, that the use of chemical weapons is so beyond the pale --

MURPHY: Yes.

TAPPER: -- and gassing your own people is so horrific and he stayed out of that conflict as long as he could, even as bodies piled up. But, the United States needs to take a stand against the use of chemical weapons, because if we don't do it, no one will. We saw the British vote against it in Parliament. That's not a bad argument.

MURPHY: No, it's not. And I hope he's right in the sense that I hope that the costs of inaction are not more than the costs of action. And it is a close call. You just have to weigh whether you really believe that the strike would be a true deterrent effect, and whether you really believe that the potential spillover effects in the region don't counteract that. And for a lot of us, we just believe that it's a close call, but ultimately it would hurt us more than --

Female: (Inaudible),

YELLIN: So why do you think he went to Congress? If he believes this so strongly, why do you think he insisted on getting other people to back it up?

BORGER: Because Congress would talk him out of it maybe?

MURPHY: No, no, listen, I think that when there is not an imminent threat to U.S. national security interests, he may not have the Constitutional authority to do this. I've said that he could have, but I think it is a close Constitutional call. And I think this is a -- this is a guy who came into the presidency, I mean, with full knowledge of the risks of an executive overreaching with respect to his -- to foreign policy powers, and so I think he wanted to be careful here. Appropriately.

BORGER: So, you voted against the use of force. Do you think, as the president does, that there still has to be the threat of the use of force in order for this to succeed? So, how do you square that?

MURPHY: Yes, I don't ultimately think there has to be the threat of force, but I will acknowledge that it certainly helps to have it. And, again, as I said before, if I was being asked to vote on the threat of force, it's different than actually voting to put planes in the air, but ultimately, again, I think -- I think Putin has other reasons to do this rather than just trying to protect Syria from military strikes.

TAPPER: So Assad said that one of the other conditions for him acquiescing to this deal is that the United States stop arming what he calls 'the terrorists' -- the Syrian rebels. Do you think that that's worth going along with?

MURPHY: Listen, I think that's a good idea exclusive of the fact that --

(CROSS TALK)

BASH: You co-authored a -- an amendment with Rand Paul.

MURPHY: Yes.

BASH: Did you think you were going to do that (inaudible)? MURPHY: Yes, I think that that is one of the rare moments that Rand Paul and I are sitting on the same page. But here's the trouble with that, and you guys have talked about this. If this was just the good guys against the bad guys, this would be a lot easier call for many of us. But it is not. This is essentially Al Qaeda -- not an affiliate of Al Qaeda -- actual Al Qaeda operatives, who are imbedded with the free Syrian army. They're coordinating it.

TAPPER: How big a terrorist presence -- extremist presence -- is with these rebels, do you think?

MURPHY: Well, I think it's in the thousands. Probably not in the tens of thousands, but it's pretty clear that the Sunni insurgency around the globe is converging upon Syria because that is the next wave in the fight to . . .

BORGER: So --

TAPPER: I'm afraid I have to end it there. I'm being told that we have to go to a commercial break. Senator Murphy, you were fantastic. Thanks for coming in.

MURPHY: Thanks, Jake.

(CROSS TALK)

TAPPER: (Inaudible) having this conversation. Dana, Jessica --

Female: The youngest senator by the way.

TAPPER: -- Gloria. The youngest senator. You know I don't like being around senators younger than me.

MURPHY: Sorry. Nothing I can do about it.

(CROSS TALK)

TAPPER: (Inaudible) denies Syria's regime is responsible for using chemical weapons to attack innocent civilians, so why, why is Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly so dedicated to disarming Syria of the stockpile he helped to build? The possible motivation you did not read about in his op-ed. That's coming up. Nice work. Thank you so much.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to CNN special coverage -- "Crisis in Syria, Decision Point." Vladimir Putin is a busy man, what with all the shirtless horseback riding, tiger hunting, hang gliding, running a country that is the chief provider of chemical weapons to Bashar al- Assad's government. The guy has a pretty full schedule. So where does he find the time to write an op-ed in The New York Times? And more importantly, what's his angle? To talk about the motivations of the Russian president in Syria? We're joined now by Julia Ioffe, senior editor for the New Republic. She was a Moscow-based reporter for multiple news outlets and is an expert we rely upon a lot on "The Lead." Thanks for joining us.

So give us some insight into what Vladimir Putin actually believed in the op-ed he wrote and in this proposal he's kind of pushing versus what is just mischief?

JULIA IOFFE, SENIOR EDITOR FOR THE NEW REPUBLIC: So, this is a classic Russian tactic. You muddy the waters, make the water turn a little bit and you know it hides the fact that for example, it doesn't really make sense that if you -- even in the op-ed -- deny that Assad used chemical weapons on his people, but suddenly we're interested in having him give up his chemicals -- why are we doing that?

TAPPER: Right, exactly.

IOFFE: But I think what he believes, and he's believed it the whole time, a cornerstone of his presidency has been to, as he calls it, raise Russia up off its knees. He believes Russia was humiliated in the '90s at the end of the Cold War, humiliated by America.

And this is Russia standing up to America. He's also obsessed with not having a unipolar world. Not having America call all the shots across the globe. And that he -- I mean, he's taken the steering wheel on this. Obama hasn't been able to do it. He just took the steering wheel and said look, I'm going to come in here and I'm going to fix this in a way that you can't.

Americans just want to bomb things but I'm -- you know, I'm the purveyor of peace.

YELLIN: You're suggesting he wants to show the president up. So how do you see this playing out?

IOFFE: Well, look, he -- I don't agree with Jay Carney when he said that Putin is putting his prestige and his credibility at stake. That's not true.

(CROSSTALK)

YELLIN: Even spin?

(LAUGHTER)

IOFFE: No, I think, look, what's happening is --

BASH: Prestige where?

TAPPER: Go on, Julie.

IOFFE: Yes, but -- if the proposal fails, it's no skin off Putin's back because he can say look, I tried something. I tried a real diplomatic solution. I was able to bring both sides to the table. You know, if they couldn't come -- if they couldn't close the deal, I mean, he'll likely blame it on the Americans and say, you know, I tried. The Americans just want to bomb things. Americans are always the aggressor. I mean, the '98 intervention in Kosovo is still a sore subject in Russia as is Iraq and Afghanistan. And this is the troupe, that America is the aggressor and Russia is the one who is the mature adult in the room that tries for diplomacy.

BORGER: So it seemed like an amazingly American political move to kind of write the op-ed. We've all seen presidential candidates do this on big issues, you know. My op-ed, this is what I believe, because they don't have to be interviewed by people like us, right? So you just write it, you get it out there. And that he understood that public opinion is with him on this in this country, not about Assad, but about any kind of intervention.

And that he seemed to be kind of sly about that. Maybe it was his P.R. handlers in America. But what's your sense of how --

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I'm actually told that he wrote it.

BORGER: -- he understands American politics?

TAPPER: I was told -- you don't believe that?

BORGER: Come on.

IOFFE: What P.R. -- I'm sorry, what P.R. agent is going to say you know what, we wrote it for him?

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: No, I agree.

IOFFE: Or the president wrote this speech, right?

TAPPER: I'm not saying that I believe it. I'm just saying I was told that he wrote it.

IOFFE: So if he said the (INAUDIBLE) Bridge is under --

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: But listen, it's -- it is incredibly savvy because, as you know, going through paragraph by paragraph, he's just constantly poking his finger at the American people.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: Is he smart that way about American politics?

IOFFE: He's very smart. He's a very smart. Very clever guy.

TAPPER: That's all I meant. That he's savvy about stuff.

IOFFE: OK. Yes. Yes. Let me tell you about the P.R. angle. This is one of my favorite bits of trivia in all this is this was planted by Ketchum.

TAPPER: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right.

IOFFE: In the "New York Times." Ketchum has been working for Vladimir Putin for a long time, even when he was technically the prime minister and was in a different building across town Moscow. The people who worked at Ketchum for him here in New York and in D.C. were so frustrated because they would, you know, spend time putting together plans, they would make a recommendation and the Russians would be like -- and would do whatever the hell they wanted anyway.

BORGER: Right.

IOFFE: And one guy who I knew who was working -- handling the Ketchum account for Putin was so frustrated with this that he decided to take it easy and work for the health insurance industry in 2010.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: But you don't --

IOFFE: It was that frustrating.

TAPPER: The op-ed thing, I don't think an American P.R. firm would have recommended that that be the op-ed that he puts in the "New York Times."

IOFFE: I think he has his own people write it.

TAPPER: Right.

IOFFE: And this is -- this is Putin tactic when he ran for president in 2012.

TAPPER: I enjoyed the articles, thank you.

IOFFE: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Sponsored by Amnesty International.

IOFFE: So he -- his presidential campaign was just a series of editorials, one in each Russian newspaper that was --

BORGER: We get that, too, by the way. OK.

IOFFE: But that -- he didn't do anything else. He skipped debates. He sent a graduate student --

BASH: It's a good thing, writing editorials. This is his M.O. You know. IOFFE: Really. But this one was a good one for him. Usually they're really, really boring and dry and really long this. This one was good.

BASH: You know what really strikes me is obviously as you said a big part of this, what drives him, is to return Russia to the days of glory and so forth and just covering George W. Bush --

(CROSSTALK)

IOFFE: And to -- and to make him an equal partner, that people have to come to him.

BASH: Exactly.

IOFFE: People have to reckon with him.

BASH: Exactly. What I was just going to say is that I know -- I mean, Obama is not the only one to deal with this. Bush did. I know he used to read books to try to -- about the czars, to understand him better, and then of course sort of the machismo thing. I mean, that's a big part of it. You showed the picture of the -- of the shirtless Putin.

BORGER: Show it again.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: No -- but no, isn't that a big part of it as well?

IOFFE: Well, that's for -- that's for domestic consumption. So when the Russians say, for example, that they're going to send their own parliamentary delegation to our Congress to lobby Congress not to strike Syria, that's not -- I mean they knew they were going to -- that Congress was going to say no. That was for domestic consumption so that people see again Russia -- Russia being a big boy sitting at the big boy's table.

BORGER: And the --

IOFFE: That people have to -- that people have to reckon with them.

BORGER: And the conversation becomes about the post-American world.

IOFFE: That's right.

BORGER: More air quotes.

TAPPER: But here's the question. Does he actually want there to be a solution to this problem? Or is he just muddying the waters?

IOFFE: I don't think he really cares.

TAPPER: He doesn't care.

IOFFE: I mean, I think -- TAPPER: So if Lavrov and Kerry come up with something, fine, but it doesn't matter he's brought them to the table. He's not actually trying to get a Nobel Peace Prize.

(CROSSTALK)

IOFFE: No, he's not. And he's not going to get one. But he's also -- he's bought Assad.

TAPPER: America.

IOFFE: He's bought Assad a ton of time. And now he's gotten Obama to put aside what was -- one of the goals of military strikes was to get Assad from power. Now we've given up on that now.

TAPPER: Yes.

IOFFE: And now we're just talking about this one detail of chemical weapons.

BASH: For now. The change is like -- I don't know. Yes.

YELLIN: And does he actually think that those photos are macho?

(LAUGHTER)

IOFFE: Yes. Yes.

YELLIN: He thinks that makes him look good?

IOFFE: That's right. And most people in Russia, if you look at his electorate, it's women over 50. Do we do air quotes? His electorate. His electorate, but they're actually women over -- chubby women over 50 and they think it's very --

(CROSSTALK)

YELLIN: Can we let the American public know that's not a good look for men?

(LAUGHTER)

Jake? FYI?

(CROSSTALK)

IOFFE: And he doesn't have to wax.

TAPPER: Actually a lovely moment to end the conversation.

BASH: No man escaping. No man escaping.

(CROSSTALK)

IOFFE: That's right.

TAPPER: Thank you so much. Wonderful for you to comment.

Straight ahead, we have Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, checks and balances, wonder bread, and "Breaking Bad." But Vladimir Putin says we're not that special. What the panel thinks about his reality check for America coming up next.

Thank you. Great work.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to CNN's special coverage CRISIS IN SYRIA: DECISION POINT.

On his first trip overseas as president in 2009 President Obama was asked during a news conference whether he subscribed to the notion of American exceptionalism. Here was his response back then.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Greek exceptionalism. That answer didn't win the newly- elected president any applause from his opponents on the right. It was also a striking contrast to his forceful endorsement of the idea this Tuesday in his address to the nation. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Terrible things happen across the globe. And it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now that political shift was not lost on Vladimir Putin or whoever wrote the op-ed bearing his name in the "New York Times." He wrote, quote, "I would rather disagree with the case he made on American exceptionalism. It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional whatever the motivation."

Joining our panel to talk about it is Jeffrey Goldberg, columnist for "Bloomberg View." And also he writes for the "Atlantic." So why take on this American exceptionalism thing? I got to believe it's because he knew it would bother not just President Obama but us, the people.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG, COLUMNIST, BLOOMBERG VIEW: Look, I mean, the -- it's not fair to say that his only policy is to put his finger in our eye all the time. He has some deeper strategic -- but yes. I mean, look --

TAPPER: It's a policy.

GOLDBERG: Look, look -- Russia's weak. Russia lost. I mean, Russia is the successor state to the Soviet Union which lost. I mean, they -- their policy is in many ways a resentment-based policy. And so, you know, if Obama embraces exceptionalism he's going to attack -- if Obama denied exceptionalism, maybe he'd do the opposite. I mean, it's -- you cannot underestimate the role of resentment and humiliation in this relationship.

TAPPER: Are we exceptional?

GOLDBERG: Yes, we're exceptional.

BASH: You are.

GOLDBERG: We're great.

TAPPER: The truth of the matter is that I was --

GOLDBERG: I mean, we defeated fascism and communism in a single century. That's pretty exceptional.

TAPPER: Pew actually polls on this. The American people is the greatest country in the world or one of the greatest countries in the world or nothing. And it's under 50 percent who say the greatest country in the world. It's like 48 percent, 42 percent say one of the greatest countries in the world. It's actually not as widespread a belief as I thought that we are this shining beacon on a hill.

BORGER: And it's probably the poll numbers have probably gone down.

BASH: The number is down. Yes.

BORGER: But don't you think this is about the president himself? I mean, that whole point about exceptionalism -- and we've all parsed this op-ed -- came after a point where he said, you know, I really -- the president and I have developed a relationship of trust.

TAPPER: A developed -- I think it was present tense. Developing.

GOLDBERG: Developing.

BORGER: Developing. OK.

GOLDBERG: Developing. And now I will ruin it by sticking my fingers --

BORGER: And now I'm going to say that he thinks you're so exceptional but by the way you're not and he's not. I mean the -- you know, the implication is don't give me this. You're better than we are, President Obama, and don't ever say that.

GOLDBERG: Right. Look, again, again, don't forget. Let me step back in history. They lost. He was a KGB agent who was trained his whole life to fight America. He was raised to believe that his system was superior. It turned out not to be superior. That's what Syria is. Syria is a proxy for this in some ways.

I mean, what Syria is, is -- Syria was in the Soviet sphere of influence for a long time. Russia believed that it inherited Syria as part of its diminished sphere of influence. Having America attack Syria would be a humiliating -- a humiliating event for Russia. Because it can't defend its client state. Its client state of many decades. There's some serious currents of resentment and feelings of weakness and this lashing out --

BASH: Sort of the -- I mean, many, many, many, many Cold War mentality. It's -- the proxy is, that's what that was all about.

GOLDBERG: We're in the '80s in some ways.

YELLIN: But if the U.S. is this divided over Syria, what lesson do you think Russia draws about how we'd react with Iran?

GOLDBERG: Well, what Russia thinks? You know, this is the thing. I mean, to say this, in President Obama's credit, the only reason Vladimir Putin came up with this possibly fake solution to a real problem is because he must have had enough of a sense that Obama might be from his perspective crazy enough to go do this. And so I mean, we are here.

BASH: Crazy or --

(CROSSTALK)

GOLDBERG: Well, I mean -- no, crazy, bold, strong, whatever he -- whatever he --

TAPPER: Perspective, yes.

GOLDBERG: Yes. I mean, I mean, look, obviously, these things have developed because President Obama thought and suggested to the world that I'm going to go use force.

YELLIN: You've spent time with President Obama. I mean, you know him. You have a sense? I mean, he studied history. He knows that Bush said, I looked into Putin's eyes and saw his soul and then was proven wrong.

GOLDBERG: Yes, yes.

YELLIN: So --

BORGER: And Obama saw the bored kid in the back of the classroom, right? Or whatever it was.

TAPPER: Right.

YELLIN: Obama -- the president knows that Putin can pull the wool over his eyes and doesn't want to be fooled. What do you think is going on here in his head?

GOLDBERG: I think the president would much rather not deal with any of this at all. That's what --

YELLIN: Who said that?

GOLDBERG: That's what I think. I think we're here where we are in part because the president -- not for wrong or terrible reasons, the president spent the last two years avoiding this subject hoping that Syria would just -- look, he's a domestic policy president anyway. And then he looks at impossible problems in the Middle East. The Middle East which is where hope goes to die, and says, I can't get involved in this.

That inattention over the last two years have brought us to this place. But on the Iran piece it's very interesting. And this is -- I think people should be cautious about this. Not you. You're very cautious and responsible.

(LAUGHTER)

YELLIN: Thank you.

GOLDBERG: No, no, no.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I'm with you, Gloria.

GOLDBERG: The president -- the president has said very, very clearly, there are only two issues that matter for him from a national security perspective in the Middle East. Their first tier problems. Right? One is the defeat of al Qaeda and the second is prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, from gaining a nuclear weapon.

Syria is a second tier problem for him. It's now a humanitarian problem, a chemical weapons problem.

BORGER: But it's become a big proxy problem right now.

(CROSSTALK)

GOLDBERG: It's been a proxy problem, but I don't think it's -- I don't think it's correct, and this -- this is something that I think the Israelis and the Arabs both misunderstand. I don't think it's correct to say well, because he's hesitating on this, because he's allowing Putin or it seems he's allowing Putin to get the better of him on this Syria question means that Iran is going to turn out to be the same thing. Because he's made it very clear for years now that that is a -- core national security interest for the United States.

BASH: Twitter war with senior administration officials?

GOLDBERG: I wouldn't call it a Twitter war.

TAPPER: What happened?

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: A proxy -- a proxy war?

GOLDBERG: But instead of Twitter it was a love affair.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: But it was written about. It was noticed because you have regard -- people have regard for you, rather, and your view. You were tweeting about the president's speech.

GOLDBERG: Right.

TAPPER: And some members of the president's senior staff responded to your tweets taking issue with them to a degree.

GOLDBERG: Right. Well, no --

YELLIN: With high honor.

GOLDBERG: Well, I -- and I -- I happily accept it.

BASH: And by the way, they -- they didn't say that their Twitter accounts were hacked.

GOLDBERG: Right. Right. No, no. I mean, the substantive exchange -- I tweeted, I can't believe that I'm talking about a substantive Twitter exchange. But I --

BORGER: Me, neither.

GOLDBERG: Well, there you go.

BASH: She doesn't even tweet.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Anyway --

GOLDBERG: We'll work on that next. We'll work on that next. In the next hour. But what I tweeted was that over the last two years the American goal has shifted. It used to be to end the regime, to bring about the end of the regime.

BASH: There it is.

GOLDBERG: And now it is -- and there it is. We can read it. We just want to take away one of his weapon systems. You know, so our goals have diminished. And Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, guy who writes a lot of the president's speeches among other duties, said, you know, you know, it remains -- an orderly political transition remains a goal of the Obama administration.

TAPPER: Right. U.S. position remains Assad leaving power is part of the political process but we must also act to specifically remove chemical weapons threats.

GOLDBERG: Right. And what I said in response to that was it's fine that that's your goal. But it's only --

TAPPER: But it's not part of what their goal --

GOLDBERG: It's a rhetorical goal.

TAPPER: Right.

GOLDBERG: I guess, and we want -- and we want all children to have access to unicorn rides. But -- I'm not knocking it. And I'm trying not to knock it in a facetious way. But you know they're not working on that anymore. And the inadvertent problem here, the inadvertent problem that arises that when you start negotiating with the Assad regime about its CW problem, you're not talking to them about the larger problem which --

TAPPER: Which is ?

GOLDBERG: Admirably you keep bringing up, which his, wait, he's murdered 99,000 people without chemical weapons just with guns and bombs.

TAPPER: Stick with us, Jeffrey. We're going to take a very quick break. We're going to come back with our special coverage of the CRISIS IN SYRIA.

President Obama did six networks interviews and even gave a rare primetime address. But President Obama apparently doesn't feel he's done trying to sell us on his evolving plan. He's going to appear on the Sunday show "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," so just what else can we expect him to say when he faces the media again? Coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to CNN special coverage, CRISIS IN SYRIA: DECISION POINT. It's time for the turning point.

We barely heard from the president today on Syria. Just a verbal pat on the back to Secretary of State John Kerry while he tries to negotiate with the Russians. But he'll likely have to say a little bit more to George Stephanopoulos. He's booked on his Sunday show on ABC this weekend.

It's confusing to me because President Obama has done an unprecedented six interviews for networks on Monday, and then he did a presidential address to the nation on Tuesday. Apparently still has something to say.

Jeffrey Goldberg of "Bloomberg View," what do you want to hear him say? What is there left to say that has not been said?

GOLDBERG: Well, I mean, there have been some events over the couple of days that are worthy of comment.

TAPPER: Sure. GOLDBERG: And one of the things that he has to say is, I know that Vladimir Putin wants me to take the threat of military force off the table. I'm not going to do that. There is a -- there is a timeline here, and he should discuss as closely as he can with, you know, great detail, there's a timeline here and I'm not going to let Assad run the clock out on this for months and months and months. And I'm not going to take the threat of military force off the table because that's what's brought us to this point.

TAPPER: Dana Bash?

BASH: First of all, I don't think it's in anybody's interests, and when I say anybody, I mean us, to discourage the president from doing interviews. So let's -- just let him do them every day, right?

TAPPER: No, I --

BASH: Yes. I mean, right? Yes.

BORGER: We will.

TAPPER: Live and be well.

BASH: Exactly. I think that he is going to have to beat back the idea that he is uncomfortable as commander-in-chief which his friend Bob Corker told me yesterday. And he was voicing what other people have said if privately. And I think just on Vladimir Putin, he's going to have to reclaim control.

BORGER: Right.

TAPPER: Jessica, quickly?

YELLIN: I think he should underscore a point that is true which is that he does not view Syria as Iran and that if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon the response would be very different. He would see that as a direct national security threat to the United States.

BORGER: I think he has to narrow the timeline. Make it clearer the use of force nonnegotiable. Totally agree with you and say this cannot go on.

TAPPER: And of course, the Russians and Assad have said that that has to go be off the table. It has to be off, the threat of force.

BORGER: Right. So what he needs to say it's not off the table.

TAPPER: Well --

BORGER: He loses it.

GOLDBERG: Which is why this whole thing could fall apart.

BORGER: Right.

TAPPER: The negotiation needs to be, we'll take it off the table at this date if you have done X, Y and Z.

BORGER: Yes. That's why I think he has to make a -- he has to have a timeline here. I mean, he doesn't want to tie John Kerry's hands but he's got to have a timeline.

TAPPER: All right. Our thanks to Jeffrey, Dana, Jessica and Gloria for joining us.

And thank you for watching. I'm Jake Tapper. You can catch me on "THE LEAD," weekdays at 4:00 p.m. Eastern.

Up next "PIERS MORGAN LIVE." Thanks for watching.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)