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Syria Crisis; John McCain, Lindsey Graham Hold Press Conference

Aired September 02, 2013 - 15:00   ET


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: There are apparently still no specific targets for this proposed limited strike.

Right now, President Obama is sitting down behind closed doors with two men who have called on him to do more militarily, not less, Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain. Senator McCain also thinks leaving it to Congress -- this whole thing up to Congress is a bit risky.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I want to talk to the president. I want to find out whether there is a plan and a strategy.

I want to find out whether this is just a pinprick, that somehow Bashar al-Assad can trumpet that he defeated the United States of America. But I will say that if Congress overrules a decision of the president of the United States on an issue of national security, that could set a catastrophic precedent in the future. It would be a very dangerous precedent to be set.


BALDWIN: We are waiting to hear from Senator McCain and Senator Graham as soon as they finish that meeting in front of the White House and what happens when everyone convenes on Monday, the fact that the president has to convince Congress, the Senate, the House to get on board with this plan for that authorization.

But a busy schedule has left the president with a very small window to work with. Look at this. Before Congress votes, that is next Monday, the president leaves the U.S. for Sweden tomorrow. Then he's off Thursday and Friday of this week. He will be in Russia, good friend of Syria's, for the G20 summit. The president then returns home to the U.S. on Friday night.

And then at the start of next week, Congress reconvenes Monday.

CNN's Athena Jones is at the White House for us at this hour. And as we are learning, before he hops on the plane to Sweden, and in addition to the meeting that's happening in the building behind you, there is another meeting that is scheduled for tomorrow. Tell me about that.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Brooke, lots and lots of meetings going on with the president himself and with other senior administration officials.

Tomorrow's meeting will be with the House speaker, John Boehner, and with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. This, of course, is all part of this effort to get members of Congress on both -- on both sides of the aisle on board. And as you know, there are questions on both sides of the aisle about just what the goal here of the military strike is in Syria.

And I should mention that not -- it's not just Boehner and Pelosi the president will be meeting with tomorrow. He's also going to meet with the chairs and ranking members of National Security Committees in the House and Senate, again, part of an effort to get this resolution through. The White House has said that the president doesn't necessarily -- doesn't have to have congressional approval to act militarily in Syria.

But now that this is on the table, now that the president has said he's seeking this approval, you can bet that both he and other members of his administration are going to be doing all they can, working day and night, to try to get members of both sides on board -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Athena Jones, thank you.

And we know several members of the administration were on this call. We're getting some reporting now on that call between those top officials and House Democrats.

Our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, dug up some scoop for us on this Monday, on this holiday. She joins us live from Capitol Hill.

Dana, tell me about this call.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was just one of several calls that have been going on and will continue to go on as the White House continues to, in their words, flood the zone, an effort to get the votes to pass these authorization measures.

And I should tell you that one source who was on the call told me if anyone tells you...


BALDWIN: Let me interrupt, Dana Bash.

We have got, here we go, Senators McCain and Graham.

MCCAIN: Good afternoon.

Senator Graham and I just had a -- I think a very good and productive discussion with the president about the issue of Syria and the use of chemical weapons. We emphasized to the president that now it's been over a year since the president said it would be a game changer if chemical weapons were used.

It's been two years since the president said Bashar al-Assad must leave. And we emphasized the importance we place to actions that would degrade Bashar Assad's capabilities, upgrade the opposition, and to see the change to momentum on the ground in order that the Free Syrian Army can prevail over time.

That does not mean that any of us support having American boots on the ground. But right now, it's an unfair fight with thousands of Hezbollah fighters, weapons coming in from Russia and from Iran, and Iran basically being the sponsor of Bashar Assad.

So we had, I think, a very productive conversation. Both Senator Graham and I are in agreement that now that a resolution is going to be before the Congress of the United States, we want to work to make that resolution something that the majority of members of both houses can support.

A rejection of that, a vote against that resolution by Congress, I think would be catastrophic, because it would undermine the credibility of the United States of America and the president of the United States. None of us want that. But we do want an articulation of a goal that over time will degrade Bashar Assad's capabilities, increase and upgrade the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army and the free Syrian government, so that they can reverse the momentum on the battlefield that is presently not in their favor because they have not received the assistance that they need, while Bashar Assad has received an abundance of capabilities from his sponsors, Russia and Iran.

Finally, this is a regional conflict. This is not a conflict that's confined to just Syria. Lebanon is destabilized. Jordan is badly destabilized. Iraq has turned into a breeding place for al Qaeda and Islamic extremists.

And so we have to understand that, not only is there the threat of this conflict spreading, but the Iranian issue is one and their pursuit of nuclear weapons that will be directly affected by our actions in Syria. I want to thank -- again, we appreciate the president meeting with us. We had a candid exchange of views. And we -- I think we have found some areas that we can work together. But we have a long way to go.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I guess the way I would term the conversation is, is, there's a consensus being formed that we need to degrade Assad's capabilities and upgrade the opposition, vetted opposition.

The first thing I suggested to the president is to give the opposition a chance to speak directly to the American people. John and I and the president all believe that Syrians by nature are not al Qaeda sympathizers. They're not trying to replace one dictator, Assad, who has been brutal, his whole family has been brutal for generations, to only have al Qaeda run Syria.

That makes no sense. But it's time for the Syrian opposition to step forward. I want a statement from the Syrian opposition that if we get in charge of Syria with your help, we're going to renounce chemical weapons. In the new Syria, there will be no chemical weapons because we're going to turn them over to the international community.

As toward the -- as to the limited military strike, John and I both would like to see a more sustained military effort. But we understand where the president is at on that issue. But it is my hope that even a limited military strike can degrade Assad's ability to project force, particularly using chemical weapons.

But there seems to be emerging from this administration a pretty solid plan to upgrade the opposition, to get the regional players more involved. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, a lot of the Gulf Arab states have been helping quietly. Now is the time to get out front and be more overt.

When it comes to financing these operations, the people in the region need to carry the lion's share of the financial cost. So what can I sell to people in South Carolina? I can't sell another Iraq or Afghanistan, because I don't want to. I can sell to the people of South Carolina that if we don't get Syria right, Iran is surely going to take the signals that we don't care about the nuclear program.

And it weighs on the president's mind strongly about the signals we send. So if we lost a vote in the Congress dealing with the chemical weapons being used in Syria, what effect would that have on Iran in terms of their nuclear program? Most South Carolinians get that point.

So I am hopeful that over the coming days, we will learn more about this strategy of degrading and upgrading and that when the vote comes, we can go on the floor of the Senate and say, the administration has a plan, apart from a limited military action, that will allow us to get where we need to go as a nation, which is to deter Iran from a nuclear weapons march and to stabilize the region before it's too late.

QUESTION: Do you believe that the opposition, if we were to strike relatively soon, that the opposition is in any kind of position to take advantage of that?

MCCAIN: Clearly, they could take advantage of it. But the question is, is how much.

And the fact is that we have not given the arms and equipment to the resistance, which has been shameful, while huge amounts of arms have flown in from Russia and Iran and now thousands of Hezbollah on the ground from Lebanon. So -- but if we have a plan to give them the arms that they need, which I believe is part of upgrade that we could orchestrate and this government could do, then it would matter.

QUESTION: Can we that quickly I guess is the question.

MCCAIN: We need to do it -- frankly, it's shameful that we haven't.

GRAHAM: Two years ago.

MCCAIN: But we should have done it two years ago.

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: It sounds like you're more on board with a limited strike than you might have been when you walked into this meeting. Is that a fair assessment?


MCCAIN: I think it's a fair assessment to say that we still have significant concerns.

But we believe that there is in formulation a strategy to upgrade the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army and to degrade the capabilities of Bashar Assad. Before this meeting, we had not had that indication. Now it's a question whether that will be put into a concrete strategy that we can sell to our colleagues and that we could agree with.


QUESTION: We have heard a lot of Republicans and Democrats coming out of these, especially yesterday's briefing, very skeptical about this. How hard is the president going to have to work to get this resolution passed?

MCCAIN: I think they're going to have to work very hard. Americans are skeptical.

We have gone for two-and-a-half years without helping these people. Obviously, people are weary after Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans have to be assured that no plan will entail American boots on the ground. And we totally are in agreement with that. So, they have a selling job to do. But at the same time, I believe that if we can formulate this strategy that I just articulated, degrading his -- Bashar Assad's capability, upgrading the resistance in the long term, then I think that we have a chance of succeeding in the vote.


QUESTION: ... if Congress were to reject this?

MCCAIN: If the Congress were to reject a resolution like this after the president of the United States has already committed to action, the consequences would be catastrophic, in that the credibility of this country with friends and enemy -- and adversaries alike would be shredded. And it would be not only implications for this presidency, but for our future presidencies as well.

GRAHAM: The president really has no one to blame in many ways but himself about the lack of public understanding of what's at stake in Syria.

And we talk about the past, the present and the future. Two years ago, we had an opportunity to get Assad out when there were dozens of al Qaeda only in Syria. Now there's thousands. A year from now, there are going to be tens of thousands. Two years ago, there were not 600,000 refugees in Jordan compromising the king of Jordan. Time is not on our side. So we urge the president to up his game and inform the American people, what does it mean if Assad wins and the opposition loses?

What does it mean if Assad with the backing of the Iranians and the Russians win after we say Assad's got to go? The Russians and the Iranians are all in. I finally see an effort by this administration to counter. At the end of the day, this is a Syrian fight. But the outcome does not limit itself to Syria.

If we don't get Syria right, good luck convincing the Iranians on changing their behavior. So we let it be known to the president that we don't want endless war. John and I -- John knows better than anybody, war is a terrible thing. We want sustainable security. And Syria is a cancer that's growing in the region.

And for two years, the president has allowed this to become, quite frankly, a debacle. And when it comes to selling the American people what we should do in Syria, given the indifference and quite frankly contradictions, it is going to be a tough sell. But it is not too late.

So, Mr. President, clear the air. Be decisive. Be firm about why it matters to us as a nation to get Syria right. I'm going to go back home to South Carolina and, one, listen to the people, but give them what happens if we do nothing, what happens if we have a weak response, and what happens if we get Syria right.


MCCAIN: And a weak response is almost as bad as doing nothing.

QUESTION: So, bottom line, Senator McCain, is what you heard today from the president sufficient for you and Senator Graham to go out and try to gain support for the president's plan with other members of the Senate and Congress?

MCCAIN: I think it's encouraging.

But we have to have concrete plans. We have to have concrete details. And we have to be assured that this is a dramatic difference from the last two years of a policy of neglect, which has led to the deaths of 100,000 people, a million refugees -- excuse me -- a million children of refugees and a spreading of this conflict to the region.

QUESTION: Are you satisfied that the timeline is of no consequence?


MCCAIN: I am not satisfied the timeline is of no consequence.

And I'm astounded when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says it doesn't matter. Anybody who understands warfare knows that Bashar Assad is moving his assets, military assets into civilian populations and civilians into military areas. It's much harder now than it would have if we'd have acted initially.

QUESTION: Did you discuss the hardening aspect with the president and the potential of a really penetrating blow that could be struck? (OFF-MIKE) Is there confidence that you have at this point?

MCCAIN: Those are some of the details that, very frankly, they have not shared with us and probably shouldn't. But we have been given some reason to believe that very serious strikes may take place, as opposed to cosmetic.

And I say that, may, because we now need to see a lot of the details.

GRAHAM: For the first time, I have got an understanding of what happens the day after the smoke clears.

The Israelis don't announce their attacks ahead of time for a reason. You read about it when it's over because that's the best way to effect the outcome militarily. This is pretty bizarre to give the enemy weeks to reconfigure their force. But we are where we are.

And a degrading strike, limited in scope to degrade his chemical weapons delivery systems, could have a beneficial effect to the battlefield momentum. There will never be a political settlement in Syria as long as Assad's winning.

I told the president, how do you expect anybody to go to the negotiating table as long as Assad's winning? And if you believe the Syrians will not accept him as part of the new Syria, then he has to go.

QUESTION: Senator, you said that President Obama needs to do a better job of selling this. What do you mean? What does he need to do specifically?

MCCAIN: Well, again, articulate a strategy and a plan, which so far has not been here. Simply, the statement was that they were going to have some strikes, and specifically categorizing that as not intended to achieve regime change.

I strongly disagree with that. And I believe that if we can degrade, as I mentioned, and upgrade, then I think we have a chance. But we need to see that plan. We need to see that strategy articulated. We also have to make it clear that a vote against this would be catastrophic in its consequences, not only as far as this issue is concerned, but in the future.

QUESTION: But the president speaks about bringing change to Washington and galvanizing supporters to get Congress to act. Is this a situation where that's not as effective as it might be on other issues?

MCCAIN: Well, it's a very tough sell whenever you commit American forces even to limited military involvement.

And, frankly, there is a credibility gap because of the last two years where nothing has happened, while people have been massacred by the thousands, as much as more than 100,000. So there's a credibility gap with some of us who believe that we could have ended this war two years ago when now there's possibly a change in strategy that could bring successful conclusion to this conflict. QUESTION: Did the president say when, if or how he (INAUDIBLE) articulating this strategy to the American people?

MCCAIN: We can't talk about that. We can't talk about that.


QUESTION: ... it would be catastrophic? Do you feel like your colleagues in Congress agree with you two that it would be catastrophic to...

MCCAIN: I think that many of my colleagues in Congress have yet to be convinced either way. They need to have the hearings that we're going to have starting tomorrow in the Foreign Relations Committee.

And they need to be briefed. And they need to understand, and I'm sure they do, the seriousness of this issue.

GRAHAM: Yes. Can I just -- from my point of view, from the Republican point of view, there's a libertarian wing of our party that I very much respect that's not going to get -- fortress America, I just don't think, will work.

But, having said that, it is not a mystery to me that most member of Congress are reluctant to engage when it comes to Syria because they don't know what's going to happen. They don't have any idea how this military strike so limited in focus and nature is going to change things.

What are they going to tell people back home? We shot some missiles and then what? For the first time, I see the development of a strategy that will upgrade the opposition as well as degrade Assad that I think, if it becomes a reality, we will know in the next couple of days, that I can believe in my heart will work.

And to my colleagues, if you think the outcome in Syria doesn't matter to the United States, then you must really believe the king of Jordan is just somebody else in the Mideast. And if you can't see the connection between Syria and Iran, you're blind at a time when history needs for you to have good eyesight.

The connection between Syria and Iran, you're blind at a time when history needs for you to have good eyesight. The connection between Syria and Iran is clear as a bell. To disconnect these two would be a huge foreign policy, national security mistake. And I hope the president, above all else, will make that connection.


QUESTION: ... president on how he would, and Senator Graham said, upgrade the opposition?

MCCAIN: Well, I mean, you use military means to upgrade the opposition.

QUESTION: You said that it would be a catastrophe if there's a no- vote. Doesn't that mean you have really got to vote for the motion?

GRAHAM: A weak response is just as bad.

MCCAIN: A weak response is something that would give us a serious dilemma, because that would be also catastrophic.

QUESTION: The White House has made it clear that the president doesn't need this authorization to go through with this.


QUESTION: Do you think that he really would go ahead with an attack on Syria if Congress rejects...


MCCAIN: I think it would be much harder for him to go ahead with any military operation if Congress has already rejected it. He had ample precedent in previous presidents, Republican and Democrat, for acting without the approval of Congress.


QUESTION: Why do you think that this about-face...

MCCAIN: You will have ask to ask the president.

But I think that he found that with the British going the way they did, and obviously without United Nations approval, as long as the Russians and Chinese are there, that -- that perhaps that a resolution of Congress would give him some more sustainability.

And, by the way, again, these attacks have to be sustainable, sustainable to degrade Bashar's capability and to upgrade the Free Syrian Army's capability to bring this conflict to an end and Bashar Assad gone. He will only leave when the tide of battle turns against him.

QUESTION: How long is sustainable, Senator?


MCCAIN: It depends on the -- well, it's harder and harder now, because with this delay, Bashar Assad is moving his forces around and making it much more difficult to target them, despite what the chairman of the Joint Chiefs might say. Anyone who knows the military and actions, like Lindsey said, the Israelis and others don't telegraph their intention days, even weeks ahead of time.

GRAHAM: If the goal is to have a military strike to degrade the capability of the Assad regime to deliver chemical weapons in the future, that means delivery systems have to be affected.

It means the ability to -- and deliver has to be affected. If that is done in a robust manner, keeping it to the chemical weapons delivery systems, that will have a substantial effect degrading the overall ability of the Assad regime. Simultaneously, you're upgrading the military capability of the opposition, you're upgrading their political cohesion, and you're getting a regional force behind the opposition.

These three things together would work. But if the goal of this is to put it in my lap, I welcome a discussion about what we should do. I have been telling you for two years what I think. So I welcome the discussion with the president and my colleagues.

To those who say in the Congress, Syria's not our business, then you really honest to God don't understand the world in which we live in. To the president, if you don't understand that the American people are not going to follow an uncertain trumpet, now is the time for you to reshape public opinion and world opinion.

Take advantage of it. Tell us without any hesitation, Mr. President, what does it matter to us a nation if this war goes on and Assad wins? I believe the president's capable of doing that, has not yet done it. But he's ready to do it. And if he's ready to do that part, I'm ready to go to my colleagues in the Congress and say now is the time for us to come together before it's too late.


QUESTION: ... upgrading the opposition doesn't mean supporting groups with links to al Qaeda?


MCCAIN: I am totally, completely, 100 percent confident that we know who the Free Syrian Army is. We know what they need. They are the preponderant force still fighting against Bashar al-Assad, while Al- Nusra and some of these other and al Qaeda groups are spending their time trying to impose Sharia law.

There's a definite geographic division between them. We know who they are. If they had a safe area, we would know exactly how to get these weapons to them. The Saudis have provided weapons. They have gotten to the right people. And those who say that we don't know who the opposition are, they're either not telling the truth and they know the truth or they're badly mistaken.


MCCAIN: I think starting tomorrow we're going to have hearings in -- a hearing in the Foreign Relations Committee.

QUESTION: But you personally?

MCCAIN: Oh, I'm already talking to a lot of my colleagues.

But before I can persuade them to support this, I have to be persuaded. And I'm saying that the president, I think, made sense in a lot of things he had to say. But we're a long way from achieving what I think would be a most effective strategy. Finally, for who say we don't care about Syria and it doesn't matter to us, I guess Czechoslovakia didn't matter in the '30s and the Sudetenland didn't matter and Abyssinia didn't matter and China didn't matter. Well, acts of atrocity and massacre took place in those countries.

And we paid a horrible price for not paying attention to what happened in those countries. And we paid a heavy price in World War II. We have to pay attention to this region. And we have to bring Bashar Assad down.

QUESTION: I'm not a military expert. But isn't what it is being contemplated about as risk-free as it gets anyway? And isn't that a key selling point?

MCCAIN: Absolutely.

And the key selling point that must be told to the American people over and over is no American boots on the ground. They are tired and weary of it. And we have got to tell them no American boots on the ground. But you also have to show them a way forward. And that, so far, has not been articulated to the Congress or the American people.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) In the past, you said it needed to degrade command-and-control, destroy ballistic...


QUESTION: Do you still believe that?


MCCAIN: I absolutely believe it.

QUESTION: ... at destroying the chemical weapons delivery system (OFF-MIKE)

MCCAIN: Well, they're one and the same.

What Senator Graham is saying, what I'm saying, the delivery systems are the same. They're the Scud missiles that deliver conventional weapons, as well as chemical weapons. So, degrading his capability for chemical weapons would degrade his capability.

The great asset and advantage that Bashar Assad has today is air. He uses it to move his logistics around. It's air that moves in the supplies and arms from Iran and Russia. It is what he uses to launch air attacks against the Free Syrian Army, which -- predominance in the area is a deciding factor on the battlefield.

You take out his air, he is at a distinct disadvantage. OK? Thanks very much.

BALDWIN: All right. So, you heard it from both Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain for the last 20 minutes speaking on the president's own driveway, still critical of the administration when it comes to Syria, but very specific.

I heard one word from Senator McCain four different times. Catastrophic. It would be catastrophic if the U.S. Congress rejects this proposal that will be set before them when they reconvene beginning on Monday when it comes to the limited strikes on Syria.

Jake Tapper, let me bring you in, our chief Washington correspondent, host of "THE LEAD," and Dana Bash, our chief congressional correspondent.

A couple of things. Jake, let me begin with you. First, the catastrophic if there was a no-vote. Two, it seems despite the fact that perhaps they want a change in momentum in Syria, that they would now more support the limited strikes. And, three, this isn't just about Syria. This is about Iran.


I think that's one of the points Senator McCain has been making for a couple years now, which is that this has to do not only with Syria but it has to do with the security of Israel. It has to do with the stability of Jordan and Lebanon and that, also, of course, Syria and Iran are very closely allied and that if Syria is able to continue to take these actions against their own people, against its own people, especially when it comes to chemical weapons, what signal does that say to Iran when it comes to potentially nuclear weapons?

That at least is Senator McCain's message today in addition to saying that he is not yet convinced. But one thing I thought was very interesting,you hear Senator McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina today outside the White House basically saying not only did they need to hear more from President Obama in terms of making the case to the public and to other members of the Congress, but that they want to hear more about other military actions against Syria, not boots on the ground, but what comes after this strike.

They want greater steps taken. They think that the president is not outlining enough that needs to be done. Many members of Congress have the opposite concern. They are already concerned that this is too much. So in order to assuage people like Senators McCain and Graham, President Obama risks alienating people who don't want any action at all or at the very least want very -- or at the very want just a teeny bit of military action.

It is quite a conundrum for a White House that finds itself really fighting against the tide when it comes to getting support for this use of force authorization, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Conundrum, quagmire, whatever you want to call it, they're going to have a lot on their plate I know come Monday when everyone reconvenes.

Also, I thought it was interesting. I jotted down two quotes from specifically Senator Graham, because, again, as I say, on the president's own driveway, one, he said, "Syria is a cancer that's growing in the region, and the president allowed this to become a debacle." And, two, "The president has no one to blame but himself on why the public hasn't been informed and by how nothing has been done."

What do you make of that tone?