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Syria Crisis Deepens

Aired February 17, 2014 - 18:28   ET



ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, bloody stalemate in Syria. And outright defiance from its allies.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Russia needs to be a part of the solution.

ANNOUNCER: Are President Obama and his team shaping world events or putting the U.S. at risk?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: America's friends worry we've lost our way.

ANNOUNCER: On the left, Van Jones. On the right, S.E. Cupp. In the CROSSFIRE, Tommy Vietor, who worked for the president, and Danielle Pletka, an Obama critic. Is the U.S. weaker on the global stage or staying strong and out of war? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.


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

S.E. CUPP, CO-HOST: I'm S.E. Cupp on the right.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight guests with starkly different views of President Obama's Syria policy.

The Syria peace talks have just broken down. Now, people like Senator John McCain are calling for U.S. military action again. We just saw Secretary of State John Kerry today calling for help from the Russians again. No wonder Syria is a mess.

President Obama drew red lines, then abandoned them. He called for Bashar al-Assad's ouster, then abandoned that. He called for military intervention, then abandoned that, too. Abandoning our imperatives is about the only thing that's been consistent.

Now al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have splintered and radicalized the rebels. The power vacuum left by our confused inaction threatens our security both at home and abroad.

JONES: Wow. OK. So you tell us how you really feel. Look --

CUPP: This is serious stuff, Van.

JONES: Serious stuff, but --

CUPP: And two years in the making now.

JONES: I disagree with you on just about everything. First of all, I know people like you would love for the president to have just rushed us into another big war. If he had done that, he would have been going against the U.N., the U.K., Congress and the Republicans. So I think we have a lot to sort out here tonight, and I'm glad we got some help.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, we've got Tommy Vietor, a former spokesperson for the Obama National Security Council. We also have Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute.

Welcome to the show. Now listen, everybody saying that we should be dropping bombs over there. We should be arming rebels. We should be getting ourselves all embroiled over there. Are you in favor of passing out weapons to people we can't even vet over there? What is your response to this crisis? What do you think we should be doing over there?

DANIELLE PLETKA, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: I've said for a long time I think we need to arm the rebels. Absolutely. We need to --

JONES: How do you vet them? How do you do that?

PLETKA: Well, we have been vetting them on the ground in Jordan. I think the fallacy in this discussion is that -- is that somehow if we hand out arms to the rebels, then arms will end up in the wrong hands. That -- that ship has already sailed. There are arms in all the wrong hands already.

We've got Hezbollah, which is the most sophisticated, most armed militia in the world today. We've got the Iranians arming. We've got the Russians arming. We've got --

JONES: So you're actually making my point, which is that adding more weapons to weapons --


JONES: Dumping more military hardware into a situation like this is likely to backfire. We've already done this before. Aren't you afraid of blowback and backlash? We already have done this before with the -- with the -- in Afghanistan with the Russians before.

PLETKA: Saying we've done this before doesn't make it a bad idea. Arming the people who don't have weapons, arming the people who we vet who are the better guys on the ground will enable us to at least see the balanced attempt. We need to see better guys take the sides against al Qaeda. We need to see Assad out of power.

I'm less worried about arms in the wrong hands than I am about terrorists flowing throughout the Middle East and coming here.

JONES: You agree with this? TOMMY VIETOR, FORMER SPOKESMAN FOR NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Well, I think -- you know, I don't have personal knowledge of this, but judging from what I've read, I think it's pretty clear we are arming the opposition already. And I think what we need to be clear about is what arming means, you know. Small arms are obviously going in. And a lot of our partners in the region are doing the same.

If you're talking about MANPADs, a rocket that could take down an Israeli plane landing in Jerusalem, that's a huge problem. And you've heard people like Marty Dempsey come out and say he's opposed to those large sorts of large weapons. So it's a matter of degree.

I agree with you that more needs to be done. And I think the president has signaled his frustration. I think the question I've always asked in my time in government and my time since is what exactly is this sort of panacea solution that people see out there for those who say to the president, "Just leave. Just do more." What specific --

CUPP: Look, it's not a panacea. There are a number of prescriptions that the president seems to have denied in favor of splitting the baby in Syria, in favor of talking tough but not really committing us to a lot of action. And those kinds of decisions have consequences.

Even if you thought that diplomacy with people like Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad was possible, it hasn't worked. So what now? What of the -- no one's asking for a panacea.


CUPP: What are the kind of tough decisions the president's willing to make now to change the course in Syria?

VIETOR: I think, well, first of all, the president has to make the tough decisions that we will never have to decide between. This is a tragic situation. The reports of the humanitarian situation, children being killed, they're horrific. And they break your heart and they break his heart.

But he also has to look at the moms and dads of service members who go into war and are killed there. So he makes the real call. We don't get to. We get to pontificate.

So the things I think he's already doing are arming the opposition, increasing humanitarian assistance to those who are affected. I think they're up to 1.7 billion. Increase the diplomatic pressure on recalcitrant parties like the Russians and others.

Clearly, the U.S. wants to do more; we need to do more. We need to remember that meaningful action is being blocked by Russia, by China, by the Security Council, and that's the reality of the situation.

CUPP: But what happens with these mixed messages? When you call for Bashar al Assad's ouster, you say he must go, but then we don't do anything when he actually processes the chemical weapons redline. PLETKA: Well, I mean, that's another question. The president laid out -- the president laid out a red line. We've beaten that all to death. We all know the president didn't really mean it when he laid down a red line. OK, fine. They got a deal for the Syrians to give up their chemical weapons. Now the Syrians will stop giving up their chemical weapons.

What have we done? We've expressed disappointment.

By the way, arming the rebels, we are doing nothing effective. Getting aid, the president's heartache, what does that do? You know, those are all just expressions and emotives.

VIETOR: What do you want done specifically?

PLETKA: First of all, we need to have -- we need to have a security corridor. We need to have a safe corridor.

VIETOR: You want boots on the ground?

PLETKA: No, absolutely nobody --

VIETOR: A security corridor in the middle of the country?


VIETOR: Absolutely.

PLETKA: Bill Clinton's national security adviser had a piece in "The Washington Post" this Sunday in which he called for, if necessary, intervention from the air in order to create safe corridors. We didn't have boots on the ground in central Europe. We don't need boots on the ground in Syria.

But we need to be helping these people escape from a brutal murderer. Otherwise, all these expressions of compassion from the president are nothing more than a hallmark card on Valentine's Day.

JONES: Hold on a second. First of all, you're talking about Syria, in isolation from everything else. Is it your view that we can go in there and start bombing, shooting down planes without disrupting everything else? What about the impact on their relationship with Iran?

In other words, this is a regional conflict. If we go in there and we say that things are so important to us in Syria that we're willing to drop bombs, do everything we can, it shatters the coalition around Iran. It makes the Russians have to play a harder game, a tougher game. They're not going to sit back and let us start shooting down their helicopters that they're giving to the -- to the regime.

PLETKA: Two things. First of all, you know, I would be obviously desperately unhappy if this -- if this destabilized our really successful talks with the Iranians about the nuclearizing, but --

CUPP: I sense some sarcasm. PLETKA: But let's set that aside. You know, you're exactly right. We should not forget that this is a regional conflict. What we're seeing now in Syria is destabilizing the country of Lebanon. It is spilling over into Israel. It is going to destabilize, if not topple, the government, our allied government in Jordan. It is already affecting Turkey. And it has brought al Qaeda back to Iraq.

All of our gains, all of the sacrifices that those men and women the president care about so much made are being reversed in Iraq because of our inaction. Ours and allied inaction in Syria.

JONES: And in your view is that, if we were to start dropping bombs over there, it would all be better, is that right?

VIETOR: No, it's a ridiculous shorthand oversimplified solution. What happens the day after we start blowing up targets, which we have no legal authorization to do? Will Sunnis and Shiites stop killing each other?

PLETKA: So we should just be allowed to --

VIETOR: Will they pick up the pieces and do something further, to take this to a political solution? Absolutely not.

When we sit back and cook up these solutions, we get to another Iraq war. We get these, you know, entry plans without an exit. Without any --

CUPP: Well, first, there's another problem here. And Danielle referenced it; I referenced it earlier on, too. And that is the fact that Syria is now al-Qaedastan.

Al Qaeda has, as it always does -- it did it in Libya; it did it, as you mentioned, in Iraq; it's done it in Mali and the Maghreb -- exploits these areas of conflict where there's a power vacuum, where there's no leadership. And they're there now, building infrastructure, opening schools, opening power plants, hiring people, recruiting. We would all agree that is a terrible, frightening scenario. What do we do about it?

VIETOR: We are very good at listing problems at this table. I haven't heard anyone list a solution yet. I don't have a great answer for you.

CUPP: I'm asking you, our guest, for a solution.

VIETOR: Happy to tell now --

CUPP: You work closely with the president. What are the solutions for that big problem?

VIETOR: There's going to be a need for a decades-long development, governance and capacity-building approach across the region.

This president has dealt with unrest like no other president before. The Arab Spring swept the region. I agree with you, yes, there are greater security challenges there now than there were before. I don't think that means we should automatically say let's drop some ordnance on this country.

PLETKA: Automatically? It's been two years. And 120,000 plus people dead. I remember what the president said. I was looking it up before we came in. What the president said before we went into Libya. You must have been in the White House then. When he listed the very prospect of Gadhafi taking to the air and mowing down his own people as a -- as a reason for the United States to intervene.

VIETOR: Yes. You heard the response, though. That was a very different situation.


CUPP: Past military intervention in Syria.

VIETOR: There was international support. There was a clear objective.

CUPP: At one time the president thought military intervention was a good idea.

JONES: And luckily, we have a president who can actually reconsider.

CUPP: Change his mind, yes.

JONES: Everybody around the tables remembers when we jumped on George W. Bush, because he went to war with too small a coalition, without a U.N. Mandate and with no plan to win the war. Now people are saying we should go in with no coalition, no mandate.

PLETKA: First of all, no one is saying we should be going in -- no, don't build up a straw man and knock it down.

JONES: When we come back, you can knock the straw man down if you want to. But I want you to take a look at this picture, first. I'm going to explain to you why there are some real answers and why helping this little boy could actually help us get to a reset on Syria and at the same time deflate the Russians. When we get back.


JONES: Welcome back. We are debating the trouble now in Syria. The peace talks just broke down.

Fortunately, President Obama knows how to fix foreign policy messes. He got us out of Iraq. He's getting us out of Afghanistan. He forced Iran to the bargaining table. He's bringing the Israelis and the Palestinians together -- .

CUPP: Wow.

JONES: -- to get them closer to peace. And by the way, he did take out Osama bin Laden, in case you forgot.

CUPP: I remember.

JONES: Now it is time for Obama to reset on Syria. Now, Bashar al- Assad is starving millions of his own people on purpose. It's part of his strategy. And the Russians are helping him to do it.

The president actually needs to step up and start helping kids like this one who wandered into a Syrian refugee camp looking for some help today. But the president's got to be smart. Don't bomb Assad and turn a dictator into a victim that Russia has to rescue.

Here's the way out of this: lead the world community, pour in enough aid to shatter Assad's starvation strategy and dare the Russians to block us. You start with bread, not bombs.

Now, that's my view.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, we've got Tommy Vietor, he worked for President Obama. We've also got Danielle Pletka who worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Glad to have you both here. Now, you have to admit, you just love seeing this president doing everything right. I just listed off a bunch of stuff he is doing right. Can you give him some credit tonight for that before we move on?

PLETKA: I think you're a very sweet man.


PLETKA: I cannot believe the list of accomplishments that you touted out for President Obama. Oh, my God, Iraq is blowing up because we abandoned it.

JONES: Iraq was blowing up because we went in there with no plan and caused a big mess. We tried to clean up that mess now.

PLETKA: OK, we can relitigate Iraq after the show.


PLETKA: How about that?

Afghanistan we're about to bail out and give up on all the gains we've made the last few years.

On Iran, we're helping them move toward a nuclear weapon. I'm very sorry about that.

Are we set with Russia? What has it gained us? It's even hot in Sochi. I'm sorry.

You know, I look at one bit of foreign policy after another. I talk to our allies, I talk to our friends in Europe and the Middle East and they are in despair at an America that is turning its back on the world, not just those children in Syria. JONES: Well, first of all, this president had to clean up a mess we overextended last time. You have to admit that. We went in with no plan to win the peace, we overextended. There's no appetite in this country to do more. Unfortunately even our allies, the U.K., they don't want us to go in there with boots on the ground.

PLETKA: No one has said boots o the ground. Stop saying that, Van.

JONES: But you're saying you want military strikes. Here's my big fear, and you tell me why I'm wrong. We start dropping bombs over there or we start shooting planes out of the sky. You shatter the coalition around Iran. You don't think it's important. But for the first time, we actually do have them at the table, what happens the day after we shoot down that first plane with your security forces? What happens the first day?

PLETKA: Well, first of all, I don't think the Iranians will walk away from anything because they've got us exactly where they want us at that table. So I don't think the Iranians are likely to walk away. Otherwise, why wouldn't we walk away given everything they're doing in Syria to kill the men, and the women and children that are innocent and on the ground in Syria with the arms that they are providing, with the soldiers that are fighting for them, with the Hezbollah that they're arming?


PLETKA: That's not true.

CUPP: Let me bring us a little bit broader, Danielle and Van, talked a little bit about the Obama doctrine. I'd like to know what that is, because, as I see it, we've sent a lot of mixed messages here. We've stayed out of Syria, but we went into Libya, we even had boots on the ground in Uganda.

We trust people like Putin, and Assad and Rouhani to be good actors, yet we're spying on our allies. We withdraw troops but send in drones.

What is the Obama foreign policy that you're proud of and that you rightly criticize? What is it?

VIETOR: I think what everyone likes about this president is he's not taking a doctrinal report to foreign policy. He's evaluating things on the merits --

CUPP: Everybody likes to --


VIETOR: They should. Otherwise, you go to Iraq where no one in government knows the difference between a Sunni and a Shia, right? That's a problem. Let's actually step back and think about what's in the U.S. national security interests.

In a number of years, you should mention, keeping troops in Iraq, keeping troops in Afghanistan has put an enormous burden on those service members, on their family. And when you step back and look at Afghanistan today, when you look at Hamid Karzai who is doing everybody possible to destroy relations with the U.S., I cannot explain to anyone why we'd keep another U.S. service member in there and allow them to be threatened longer than is absolutely possible.

CUPP: Then let me ask you, why the tough talk? Why on Syria, for example, why the tough talk --

VIETOR: I'll tell you why. I was sitting there that day.

CUPP: If there's no military presence implied behind it --

VIETOR: There was intelligence --

CUPP: -- why not wash our hands completely of it and say, we're not touching Syria?

VIETOR: Sure. If you're speaking about the red line, it was to deter Assad from using it that day.

CUPP: It was "Assad must go."

VIETOR: Right. And that's still our position. That is the United States' position.

That doesn't mean we will drop bombs on you the minute we feel like it.

CUPP: What does it mean?

VIETOR: It means diplomatic, humanitarian support, diplomatic pressure, political pressure on Assad, efforts to arm the opposition, efforts to prop up the rebel forces.

Look, it's a messy process. Foreign policy is not easy.

JONES: Listen, I can tell you, I can tell you --


JONES: That's not (INAUDIBLE).

I can tell you what the Obama doctrine is. It's don't get sucked into civil wars that you can't win. That's the Obama doctrine.

PLETKA: Sarah Palin said it best really what the Obama doctrine is, which is eh, let Alah sort them out.

JONES: That's totally unfair --


PLETKA: It is the de facto policy of the president.

JONES: I disagree 100 percent. What are we leaning for over there of this past week doing the best we could?

But here's the thing -- I think that some Republicans feel we look weak when we don't wait until the wars. I think we look weak when we do. Nothing made us weaker than waiting in there and look and for spending 10 years in Iraq. Nothing made Iran stronger than when we went in there.

So, I think what you got to take responsibility for is that the last time we took the council of belligerent war hawk over-extenders. It shattered our public will in this country to be involved overseas. It broke the bank here. It also hurt us with our allies.

Don't you think that the coalition that we have built up, whether you talk about Iran, if you don't like the Iranian coalition, you must like the efforts that we have with the Israelis and the Palestinians. Don't you think that the president deserves some credit for trying to move the ball forward and don't you agree he inherited the mess?

PLETKA: First of all, I don't agree the president inherited the mess. Do I agree that the president deserves credit for trying to move the ball forward? Absolutely.

I think the president deserves credit for all of the efforts that he's made in this regard, vis-a-vis the Iranians, vis-a-vis the Russians. I think anytime the president of the United States tries to resolve through diplomacy, tries to do the right thing, tries to get people to the table and uses American might to do it, he is doing absolutely the right thing. It's always the right option and I congratulate the president.

The problem is when you view that as a substitute for policy and when you view the outcome as indifferent. And that's our problem in Syria. That's our problem with Russia. That's our problem everywhere.

JONES: Do you think the idea I put forward to get the world to rally around humanitarian aid and call the Russians' bluff, you either for a good solution here or not, you think that's a good step forward or not?

PLETKA: I think that it's a very nice idea. The problem is that in reality, we have got the Russians -- those reset Russians, that successful foreign policy thing --

JONES: They got us the START treaty.

PLETKA: That's really great. They violated that -- oh, wait, separate topic. Let's not talk about that.

We did not get the Russians, in the Security Council, to have humanitarian corridors and deliver that food you want to deliver.

CUPP: And the Russians are already actively trying to come into the middle of that. Why would we entrust them to --

JONES: Not entrust them, challenge a bit.

CUPP: They've already been challenged.

All right. Stay right here. We want you at home to weigh in on today's "Fireback" question. Should the U.S. get more involved in resolving the Syrian conflict? Tweet yes or no using hashtag #crossfire. We'll have the results in a moment.

Also, our outrages of the day, including a new study revealing what religious people think about science. I'll bet it isn't what you expect.


CUPP: We're back with Tommy Vietor and Danielle Pletka.

Now, it's time for outrages of the day.

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. The words of Albert Einstein, I hear he is a pretty smart guy. I doubt he would know what to make of today's secular left, which insists religious Americans are anti-science.

Now, a new study by Rice University, hat tip to "The Blaze's" Billy Hallowell, finds that evangelicals are more than likely than general public to believe that science and faith can co-exist. That kind of optimism, intellectual humility and maturity is often met with derision, mockery and downright dismissal by folks like my friend Bill Maher who called religion a neurological disorder.

While a tiny pocket of atheists believe 95 percent of the world is crazy, most religious Americans believe in revolution, for example.

Can we all just get along?

JONES: I hope so. I am one of those religious people who believes in Evolution.

But here's my outrage -- once again, a Florida man shot an unarmed black teenager and a jury failed to convict the shooter of murder.

Now, as a father of two African-American boys, this stuff really hurts. But I've been thinking about it -- 90 percent of black people are killed by other black people, 85 percent of white people are killed by other white people. In other words, very few white vigilantes are going around shooting black people, and very few black gangsters are going around shooting white people. The real threat actually lies much closer to home. Statistically, perhaps we all are fearing the wrong people.

But one hopeful thing, the Twitter #dangerousblackkids, it exploded this weekend. I want you to look at these dangerous black kids. Are these the people that we should all be fearing?

Look, if you go on, check this out. I hope that the next time you see an African-American boy walking down the street, maybe they won't seem so dangerous. That's my outrage. CUPP: All right. Go to Facebook or Twitter to weigh in on our "Fireback" question, should the U.S. get more involved in resolving the Syria conflict.

Right now, 14 percent of you say yes, 86 percent say no.

Are you guys surprised? I mean, both of you agree we should be doing more in Syria.

JONES: We should be doing more.

VIETOR: We need to more diplomatically, more humanitarian support. The American people don't want another war. And I think that's --

CUPP: Danielle, are you surprised?

PLETKA: I'm not surprised. I think that the absence of leadership from the president of the United States is what fails to educate the American people about the challenge.

JONES: Thank you both for being here.

The debate is going to continue online at, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

From the left, I'm Van Jones.

CUPP: From the right, I'm S.E. Cupp.

Join us tomorrow for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.