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Is U.S. Taking Right Action on Ukraine?

Aired March 4, 2014 - 18:28   ET


VAN JONES, CO-HOST: Well, President Obama's work is paying off. He says that Vladimir Putin has hit the pause button, which is a good thing.

S.E. CUPP, CO-HOST: Which means about as much as when Russia hit the reset button. The debate starts right now.


ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, under pressure from President Obama, is Vladimir Putin backing down?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There have been some reports that President Putin is pausing for a moment.

ANNOUNCER: Is he proving his Republican critics wrong?

On the left, Van Jones. On the right, S.E. Cupp. In the CROSSFIRE, Howard Dean, former presidential candidate, and Paul Wolfowitz, a former deputy defense secretary. Is the Obama doctrine working? And are some Republicans undermining the president abroad? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.


CUPP: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. We're continuing CNN's breaking news coverage of the crisis in Ukraine. I'm S.E. Cupp on the right.

JONES: And I'm Van Jones on the right.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, we have a former presidential candidate and a former Pentagon official.

Today we saw some big hints that President Obama's tough diplomacy with Russia might be working. Secretary of State Kerry personally delivered a billion-dollar aid package to Kiev. And behind the scenes, the Obama administration has put together a crippling set of proposed economic sanctions.

Now, while the president is busy actually doing his job, his Republican critics just keep on trying to undermine him. In a just- published op-ed, freshman senator and self-appointed foreign policy expert Ted Cruz writes under the headline "Language of Fools," Vladimir Putin running rampant in the Ukraine, showcased how the Obama administration's abdication of global leadership is making the world a more dangerous place. Thank you very much for that help in a crisis, Ted Cruz.

Ted Cruz is taking cheap shots. Meanwhile, his Republican friends are actually trying to raise money on this crisis, instead of actually trying to solve it. I just think that's terrible, S.E.

CUPP: Yes. Democrats would never take cheap shots. Cheap shots at a president or try to raise money over a crisis. Let's Shall we?

Here on CROSSFIRE tonight, former governor, presidential candidate and Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean; and former U.S. ambassador and deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Welcome, both of you.

Governor Dean, let me start with you. Clearly, clearly President Obama has underestimated Vladimir Putin. Russia is stalling on Syria. Russia is undermining our negotiations in Iran, and now Russia is invading Ukraine. I'm not suggesting that Obama has made Putin a bad actor. Russia has been a bad actor for quite some time, but can't you agree that Putin has been emboldened by our weakness in that region?

HOWARD DEAN, FORMER CHAIRMAN, DNC: No, I don't agree with that. First of all, I think it is true that Putin has not kept his word on Syria. And I also think what Putin's actions are against international law.

I think the president is doing exactly the right thing. He's ratcheting up the heat, and he's doing it slowly enough so that Putin has a chance to back off. One problem with Vladimir Putin is not only has he broken the law, but he now has to back down and save face at the same time. He needs the opportunity to do that. So the president needs to titan the vise, keep squeezing gently, carefully, and not making it so public. And I think he's doing exactly that.

CUPP: I've heard a lot about exit ramps. Some of the rhetoric is great, especially what Secretary Kerry has said, and the fact that he's taken the Ukrainian foreign minister with him to Brussels is a good thing.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ, FORMER DEPUTY DEFENSE SECRETARY: But you know, there is an issue of the rhetoric that is good, but the actions aren't following up with it, and you can talk about tightening gradually, but there's not much evidence of tightening, other than somebody privately whispering, "We're looking at economic sanctions."

I think we're long past the point where some really firm action should be taken. And let me be clear: the firm action that will really make a difference is to begin to scare the 100 or 200 richest people in Russia who are the prop of Putin's regime and who have their money illegitimately. But that money is at risk. That's what needs to be done and needs to be done quickly.

DEAN: Here's the problem with that. The Brits are usually our strongest ally in every way -- are putting the kibosh on that. David Cameron in a leaked piece of paper, out of his inner council, said -- it was leaked today, said yesterday, that he wasn't interested in any kind of thing that might take Russian money out of the city of London. It's hard to deal --

WOLFOWITZ: Talk about a message of weakness. Putin is the problem here, not Ted Cruz and not -- I have some criticism of Obama's behavior up to this point. And I would say, for example, on this question of rhetoric and action, you know, Putin looks at the red line in Syria. He looks at the chemical weapons thing in Syria. I'm sorry. He does.

CUPP: Of course.

WOLFOWITZ: He doesn't take us -- but the way to make him take us seriously is to do something now. And if Cameron doesn't like it, tell the British people that Cameron is enabling Russians' theft of money that is corrupting the British system.

JONES: Well, when we talk about signals of weakness. And one of the things that I don't think we talk about enough --

WOLFOWITZ: I didn't say weakness. I said rhetoric and reality.

JONES: Rhetoric and reality. Duly corrected. I hear a lot of people saying this is about Obama weakness. He's so feckless or whatever. Isn't the reality that the Bush administration, which you served, they faced the same situation when Putin ran into Georgia, and we did nothing?

WOLFOWITZ: Didn't do much better.

JONES: Didn't do much better.

WOLFOWITZ: Excuse me. Two wrongs don't make a right where I come from. And this is much more serious than Georgia. And look, let's be clear --

JONES: It was a bloodbath in Georgia. There has been no loss of life.

WOLFOWITZ: We should say something about American values and interests that are at stake here. And this is a question of democratic people protesting for freedom and being shot by snipers. And it is taking place in a very unstable part of Europe, where practically every country in Central and Eastern Europe has a large minority living inside it.

JONES: What would you have done differently this week? If you were advising this president -- you advised President Bush -- what would you have told him to do differently than he did this week?

WOLFOWITZ: Well, I'd go back a little bit further. I would say don't talk reset with a man who has declared his goal in life is to restore the Soviet Union. OK? I would not have whispered to Medvedev in an open mike that -- I wouldn't open mike or not open mike, "I'll have more flexibility after the election."

JONES: And you probably wouldn't have said you looked into his soul and saw good. WOLFOWITZ: Absolutely not. That was --


WOLFOWITZ: -- fair enough.

JONES: What would you have done this week differently?

WOLFOWITZ: Well, you start with evaluating Putin realistically, OK? And that means, I think -- I mean, why aren't we already saying we're not going to this G-8 meeting? If the Germans want to go on their own, let them answer to their people. That's an action that could be taken right now, instead of "We're studying it, we're studying it." What do you think Putin thinks of our study? He responds --

DEAN: I really have no use for the Russians at all, and I haven't for a long time.

WOLFOWITZ: I like the Russians. I don't like Putin.

DEAN: Well, that -- the history of Russia in the last -- since the revolution has not been a pretty one in terms of their --

WOLFOWITZ: Can I correct you on that for a minute?

DEAN: Yes.

WOLFOWITZ: In 1994, a different Russian president named Boris Yeltsin agreed with Ukrainian independence. The Ukrainians in return gave up their nuclear weapons and allowed the Russians to have this naval base in Crimea. Putin is not a typical Russian. He's a typical KGB Cold Warrior, sorry.

DEAN: He reminds me somewhat of Stalin.

CUPP: Well, Governor --

DEAN: Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is I do want to say that I think that, if I'm behind the scenes, I want to squeeze the Russians carefully and slowly. I don't want to provoke them to do something stupider.

I think the Ukrainians have actually handled this incredibly well, given what they've just gone through. They've just kicked out an incredibly corrupt president who really had no standing anymore. And they have an unstable government, because they're trying to put this thing together.

And I think for them not to fire a shot in defense of their homeland was very, very smart. Because they would have actually ended up where the Georgians did.

Now, this is very tough stuff. I don't have to tell you. You've been in this seat. I think -- it's not a matter of saying, "Oh, we've got to support the president." I think we probably should. It's a matter of saying we need to give this president time to get to the result he needs to get to. And I think running -- going too fast and too hard is probably a mistake.

CUPP: Well, do you agree with the ambassador that we should cancel our appearance at the G-8?

DEAN: Eventually yes, but let's work up to that carefully. I assume that somebody is telling Vladimir Putin, quietly behind the scenes, "This is what you can expect in the next few days." And if you don't do something to. Show you're..

CUPP: I think people tell Vladimir Putin what Vladimir Putin wants to hear. I don't think he gets a lot of -- DEAN: There's always a back channel in these things. There's always a way that somebody is talking to somebody in the Kremlin. And I presume they're saying, "This is what really is going to happen. This is what the president's going to do."

CUPP: Well, let me -- let me bring up some recent poll numbers that we have on President Obama. You know, he came into office in 2009 and said he wanted to restore our image around the world, but this poll asked if Americans think the president is respected abroad. And in the five years that he's been in office, it's dropped 26 percentage points. Isn't that an indictment of President Obama's foreign policy?

DEAN: Look, I think that's hard to say. The president -- almost every president, including his predecessor, is at their nadir at this time of their second term. So you know, I think if you said, "Do you think the president kicks his dog," he might get better numbers. But --

CUPP: But don't you think -- don't you think the president has made some very serious foreign policy mistakes? We don't need to color the entire administration, but you would admit that advancing a red line, not meeting it. I mean, he's made some mistakes.

DEAN: I this was a mistake. Putin bailed him out of that.

CUPP: Yes.

DEAN: Right now, the fact that the Syrians --

WOLFOWITZ: -- not observing.

CUPP: A farcical moment.

DEAN: But that's -- so that's on Putin. And we need to hold Putin accountable for that red line, not the Syrians. I think we need to do that. I do think we need to do that.

JONES: Well, let me ask you a question. You know, even looking at Russia, people say, oh, Obama has made all these mistakes. If you look at what Russia -- what Obama has been able to do, first of all, he didn't say he looked into the man's soul and saw good. What he said was we're going to do three pragmatic things, Obama. He says we're going to get air rights over Russia for Afghanistan. He got it done. Bush didn't get it done. He said we're going to get these nuclear weapons dismantled by the Russians. Got that done. He said he was going to get Iran to -- he was going to get Russia to the table on Iran.

He's actually gotten some things done here with regard to Russia, and now the E.U. really is the one started this fight. How is it all that Obama's fault at this stage?

WOLFOWITZ: Look, you talked about what American public opinion, judging what foreigners think about the United States. I care about one foreigner at this moment, and it's Vladimir Putin. And he kind of gave his opinion. Maybe he's changing his mind, hit the pause button. I hope all that's true. But his last public statement was a warning that what he's done in Crimea he's going to do elsewhere in Ukraine. And I think to say we're going to go slow until he does something worse is risky.

We're talking about how to manage risk here. No one wants this thing to blow up into a military confrontation, but Putin seems to think that he can keep pushing and pushing and no one's going to push back.

DEAN: We're going to find out. Because in the next few days, he's either going to stay where he is or he's going to advance into Eastern Ukraine. And if he does that, then I think you're going to see some major stuff going on.

CUPP: OK. Well, we've blamed Obama and we've blamed Bush, but there's one person who also bears some blame here. I'll ask Howard Dean about her, next.


CUPP: Welcome back to CNN's breaking news coverage of the crisis in the Ukraine.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, Howard Dean and Paul Wolfowitz.

Today, John Kerry was in Kiev trying to clean up the mess started business his predecessor. Remember Hillary Clinton's Russian reset. She had a prop and incorrectly translated slogan to go with it.


HILLARY CLINTON, THEN-SECRETARY OF STATE: We want to reset our relationship, and --


CLINTON: So we will do it together. OK?



CUPP: Well, as we all know, our Russians relationship was reset. We can thank Hillary Clinton for resetting it all the way back to the '80s, just as Republicans like Mitt Romney warned it would be. It turns out Hillary Clinton's defining moment as secretary of state could be this spectacular failure. Governor Dean, was Hillary Clinton naive then five years ago?

HOWARD DEAN, FORMER DNC CHAIRMAN: This is ridiculous conversation, S.E.

CUPP: It really isn't. This is going to haunt her for the next two years.

DEAN: Yes, this is GOP talking points. It's beneath your show to put out partisan talk --

CUPP: Absolutely not. You don't think Hillary Clinton's responsible for setting the tone of naivete with a clearly bad actor?

DEAN: Well, S.E., first of all, it was Joe Biden's idea. And second of all, it was the president's idea.

CUPP: Oh, (INAUDIBLE) for all of them in there.

DEAN: And that was before Hillary Clinton became or was even asked to be secretary of state, first of all.

Second of all, it is irresponsible not to talk to a major global power and try to work stuff out with them. As Van earlier said, what about the disarmament agreement, which is still successful, which the president had to get through a hostile Senate, thanks to people like Dick Lugar, we prevailed, for doing the right thing.

So, this is just ridiculous Washington talk.

CUPP: Oh, I hope for Hillary's sake that you're right, because I have a feeling this might come back to haunt her.

DEAN: I'm sure it will, and people won't give a damn.

CUPP: People give a damn.

DEAN: This is a --


DEAN: This is the Ted Cruz talk of the world. Nobody is going to hear what the hell --


CUPP: It's also S.E. Cupp. People are talking about it.

DEAN: You don't want to be in the same seat with Ted Cruz.

CUPP: Oh, I don't mind.


JONES: As we get to you, actually talk does matter and some of the talk from the Republicans has been incredibly irresponsible. I want you to see this tweet from one of the great foreign policy leaders in Republican Party, Lindsey Graham.

He said it started with Benghazi, goes back to Benghazi, got to do that. When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression, #ukraine.

Here is Lindsey Graham, a foreign policy guru in your party, sending out mean tweets, blaming the president for this. Don't you think that's irresponsible?

WOLFOWITZ: Look, I think -- Lindsey Graham, he's got to speak for himself. I think it is a risky world when people begin to think -- forget Benghazi. People look at Syria, and they see the president of the United States says Assad must go. He says chemical weapons mustn't be used. Now they have agreed chemical weapons are used and we do nothing.

And, frankly, he was fighting the Magnitsky Act, which have labeled some of the Russian kleptocrats as the criminals that they are.

JONES: Well, listen, you just went through a very responsible list, people on both sides sw that. You didn't throw out, Benghazi, you just didn't just blame the president. Don't you think this kind of stuff --

WOLFOWITZ: Benghazi is a different kind of problem.

JONES: But don't you think this type of stuff, listen --

WOLFOWITZ: It's not like anything the Democrats ever did.

CUPP: I know! Where is this --

JONES: I've got one more indignant thing which I think is even worse, and I think even S.E. Cupp will have to admit, this is worse. This is from the head of the Republican Senate Campaign saying, "President Obama's leadership on the world stage has been marked by weakness, indecent and incompetent. Say you're committed to restoring real American leadership by contributing today."

They are actually raising money in the middle of a crisis.

CUPP: Are you really sure that Democrats have not done just that a million times? That feels a little hypocritical.

JONES: I want to hear from one of the great legends in American politics. Ambassador Wolfowitz, do you think this type of stuff is appropriate? Do you condone it?

WOLFOWITZ: No, I'm not here to condone or approve. That's not the way I talk, OK? And it's not the way I like people talking about us in the administration, but believe me, the Democrats in my experience do it three or four times more than Republicans. So, you know, it's the pot calling the kettle black.

JONES: Maybe so.

But honestly --

WOLFOWITZ: It's not the biggest issue of the time, either, by the way. Putin isn't judging his behavior by what Ted Cruz or Lindsey Graham says. He's judging his behavior based on what he thinks President Obama is going to do. And so far, he hasn't seen much.

JONES: I have not seen the Republicans support the president on anything in five years. You could name one thing that the Republicans have supported him on. We did support your administration when it came to immigration, your health care reform. We did try to stand with you on the wars.

You guys, unfortunately, the Republicans have not stood with the president on anything. Does that bother you, this level of hyperpartisanship?

WOLFOWITZ: The Republicans have supported the president in Afghanistan. I don't know -- I think better than Democrats. The Republicans supported the president on his Asia policy, particularly his breakthrough in Burma, which was a genuine success.

Look --

CUPP: And Democrats did not support the president on his Syria policy. They didn't vote for interregnum (ph) with Syria, either.

WOLFOWITZ: I know a lot of Democrats who are privately unhappy, as maybe Howard is privately, at what looks like -- sorry to say it -- weakness in the face of a villainous tyrant.

CUPP: Well, Governor, let's talk about what's going on in Ukraine just today. It's still teetering on the brink of disaster. Take a look at this video of an encounter between some Russian soldiers and Ukrainians.


CUPP: I mean, that's intense stuff. Today, the Russians moved forward with a preplanned intercontinental ballistic missile test, that have been scheduled. I don't know that he had to do it today, but he decided to.

Isn't Putin showing he's ready to go? And --

DEAN: We have to find that out. Look, we're not going to commit troops to this.

CUPP: No, of course not. Of course not.

DEAN: Right? OK. So that leaves one other possibility. That's some sort of diplomacy coupled with sanctions, which I hope is where the president is going.

And I, again, revert to what I said earlier. First of all, we don't know what's going on behind the scenes, but I'm sure something is going on behind the scenes, because it always does. Secondly, what the president should be doing, and I suspect he is, is tightening the noose slowly with plenty of advance notice.

I think he's trying to avoid any rhetoric that he doesn't have to get into. He needs to get Putin to stand down and Putin needs to be able to save face while he's doing it.

So far, there hasn't been a shot aimed at another soldier on either side. That's very important, because once that happens, it's almost impossible to put that the genie back in the bottle.

CUPP: Ambassador, are you confident we can talk Putin down?

WOLFOWITZ: Not at all. I think Putin has to see something tough in his face. Let's -- we're consumed with who in the United States is to blame for all this. The man who is to blame is Vladimir Putin.

CUPP: Right.

WOLFOWITZ: And the tragedy and I think we really should emphasize this more than we do is that, you know, Boris Yeltsin was comfortable Ukrainian independence. Things were going well until this thief became the tyrant of Russia. And he's taking Russia back into the 20th century.

DEAN: You had Shevardnadze as the president. You had the succession of crooks. Yanukovych being one of them, was the president. It wasn't until the Orange Revolution that Putin started to get nervous.

WOLFOWITZ: Shevardnadze was in Georgia, but --

DEAN: It was Kuchma, pardon me. Shevardnadze was indeed in Georgia.

JONES: Enough, enough, OK. Stop it.



JONES: Stay here.

(INAUDIBLE) to weigh in on today's "Fireback" question. Is President Obama underestimating Vladimir Putin? Tweet yes or no using #crossfire. We're going to give you those results after the break.

We also have the outrage of the day including how Republican indifference is now hurting more than 2 million Americans, when we get back.


JONES: Welcome back.

It's time for "The Outrage of the Day". I am outraged on behalf of 2.3 million of our fellow Americans. These are active job seekers to whom the Republicans refuse to give any help or support.

Now, you've got the job market that's still tough. Folks need more time to look for jobs. Plus, they need a little bit of gas money to get to job interviews. That's why Congress should have extended unemployment benefits just straight out.

Unfortunately, just before Christmas, Republicans said no way. That is unbelievable. They extended, these same Republicans extended unemployment five times under George W. Bush but under Obama, the GOP decided it wants to be the party of Scrooge all year long.

CUPP: I wish that extending unemployment benefits would actually get people back to work. I'm sorry to say.

JONES: Helps them find work.

CUPP: It doesn't.

JONES: Helps them find work.

CUPP: OK. My outrage -- this is a warning to parents out there. Please shield your children's eyes. I'm about to do something you don't want them to see. Ready? That there got a Columbus, Ohio fifth grader suspended from school for three days.

The charge? Exposing other students to a "level two lookalike firearm." Yes, those words exist. I'd sure hate to see what a level three looks like.

This is the kind of ridiculous childish progressive nonsense that makes it nearly impossible to have a real conversation about curbing gun crime because if you start with dumb ideas like this, how can anyone take you seriously? Let's also curb obesity and alcoholism by banning the hand gestures that accompany them.

This is ludicrous. Grow up, people.

JONES: Well, that may stop the conversation, or the NRA's gazillions of dollars they spend in politics --

CUPP: Oh, this is going to solve everything. You can't do this anymore.

All right. Let's check in our "Fireback" results. Is President Obama underestimating Vladimir Putin?

Right now, 56 percent of you say yes, 44 percent say no.

Ambassador, are you surprised by those results?

WOLFOWITZ: I think it's about what I'd expect. But, look, but the judgment is going to be a judgment of history which is going to come within 12 months. I think the president would be much better off if he would say -- you know, I was wrong about reset. We've got to take a different approach. That would send a very strong message.

JONES: I want to thank you for being here, Mr. Ambassador, and also, Howard Dean. 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.