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Obama Secures Key Support, but Still Faces Fight Over Military Strike in Syria

September 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama continues to court Congress on the issue of a U.S. military strike in Syria. Judy Woodruff reports on what Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, plus response from lawmakers. Gwen Ifill speaks with Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., about supporting the authorization of force.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama won key support today as he stepped up his courting of Congress to back military action against Syria. He and his top lieutenants lobbied for punishing the Damascus regime over the use of chemical weapons.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want to thank the leaders of both parties for being here today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president called in House and Senate leaders this morning, plus key committee chairs, in part to reassure them that he has no intention of overreaching in Syria.

BARACK OBAMA: I want to emphasize to the American people, the military plan that has been developed by the Joint Chiefs and that I believe is appropriate is proportional. It is limited. It doesn’t involve boots on the ground. This is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Moreover, Mr. Obama said, he is willing to work with Congress to adjust the resolution’s language authorizing the use of force.

BARACK OBAMA: So long as we are accomplishing what needs to be accomplished, which is to send a clear message to Assad, degrading his abilities to use chemical weapons, I’m confident that we’re going to be able to come up with something that hits that mark.

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Afterward, it appeared the president had hit his mark with the lawmakers. House Speaker John Boehner backed the call for military strikes on Syria.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: This is something that the United States as a country needs to do. I’m going to support the president’s call for action. I believe my colleagues should support this call for action.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif.: Good morning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi agreed. But she also said the administration does need to win over the public.

REP. NANCY PELOSI: I am hopeful, as the American people are persuaded that this action happened, that Assad did it, that hundreds — hundreds of children were killed. This is the behavior outside of the circle of civilized human behavior. And we must respond.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Later, Secretary of state John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took the administration’s pitch directly to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: I will tell you there are some people hoping that the United States Congress doesn’t vote for this very limited request the president has put before you. Iran is hoping you look the other way.

Our inaction would surely give them a permission slip for them to at least misinterpret our intention, if not to put it to the test.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hagel suggested a U.S. failure to act would also embolden the Syrian government.

DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: The Assad regime, under increasing pressure by the Syrian opposition, could feel empowered to carry out even more devastating chemical weapons attacks without a response.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Both men played down fears of a wider war. Kerry agreed the language of the resolution could rule out any use of U.S. ground troops.

At one point, the proceedings were interrupted by anti-war protesters. And Kerry reached back to his early years opposing the war in Vietnam.

JOHN KERRY: You know, the first time I testified before this committee when I was 27 years old, I had feelings very similar to that protester.

And I would just say that is exactly why it is so important that we are all here having this debate, talking about these things before the country, and that the Congress itself will act representing the American people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kerry and Hagel, both former senators, generally got a supportive reception. But Idaho Republican James Risch made clear it wasn’t unanimous.

SEN. JAMES RISCH, R-Idaho: Are we really going to be giving them credibility if we go in with a limited strike, and the day after or the week after or the month after, Assad crawls out of his rat hole and says, look, I stood up to the strongest power on the face of this earth and I won, and so now it’s business as usual here?

JOHN KERRY: There is no question that whatever choices are made by the president, that he and his military effort will not be better off, number one, and the opposition will know that and the people in Syria will know that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the end of the day, the president still faced a fight, with a number of conservative Republicans and some liberal Democrats opposing any action in Syria. And a new Washington Post/ABC News poll found broad public opposition as well.

Meanwhile, the United Nations’ secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, warned against any American attack without the approval of the U.N. Security Council.

Also today, Russia criticized the deployment of U.S. warships near Syria, complaining it’s only aggravating tensions. And illustrating those tensions, a U.S.-Israeli joint missile exercise in the Mediterranean sparked a brief overnight flurry of alarm in the region.

GWEN IFILL: As the Syria debate unfolds in Congress, we will be talking to lawmakers from both parties as they decide what comes next.

Tonight, we get the view from one senator who supports the president, but believes the U.S. should be doing even more. Michigan Democrat Carl Levin is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

I spoke with him a short time ago.

Senator Levin, thank you for joining us.

First of all, I want to ask you, where do you stand tonight on the president’s authorization request?

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich.: I think we should authorize the use of force. And in order for it to be most effective, that means that we have got to do a couple of things besides authorize it.

We have got to help the Syrian people who are resisting Assad to have the weapons to fight for themselves. So far, certain weapons which would be very helpful in that respect have not been provided for them, and particularly in response to a chemical attack. If they had anti-tank weapons to go against the tanks which protected the launchers which launch the chemical weapons, for instance, that would show that this is not just an American fight, that this is a fight that the Syrian Free Army is right in the middle of and is willing to fight, but they need the weapons.

We ought to help get those weapons to them. And, secondly, it seems to me it’s important that, when we do strike, that we have other countries with us for it to be effective, and that includes a number of Arab countries. We were assured today there will be a number of company — countries that would join with us. And that’s very important for the effectiveness of any action on our part.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about one thing at a time.

The first part, with is arming the rebels, which you have been arguing on behalf of for the better part of this year, is that something which you understand will become part of the authorization request as redrafted in Congress?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: I would like to see it as part of the authorization of Congress.

But whether it’s part of the authorization or not, if the administration does move in that direction — and I am more confident now than I was before the meeting this morning that there will be that kind of an effort — then it has the same effect.

So, one way or another, it seems to me, we have got the Syrian people who hate this dictator. We have got a Free Syrian Army which is willing to take him on every day, take him on, but right now they don’t have the kind of weapons that would allow them to respond to a chemical attack inside of a city. For that, they need, for instance, to go after the tanks and the artillery which are protecting the rocket launchers which are the ones that launched those chemical attacks.

GWEN IFILL: And the second part, point you made was that you had been assured this morning that there would be support from Arab nations in this enterprise. What kind of assurance did you get?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Well, we got assurance that there will be at least some nations that are willing to speak out. I think almost all of the Arab nations want us to do it, but there will be a few, we will be assured, and they weren’t named, and that is appropriate.

But, nonetheless, we were assured that there would be some Arab nations that would actually participate with us, and a number of additional nations, both Arab and non-Arab, that would be publicly supportive of this action. It’s important that this be viewed not as just an American effort to

keep a red line which the world has drawn against chemical weapons intact, but that in fact it is an international effort.

And not every other — not every country may join us. But providing there are a number of countries that do, it will send the same signal.

GWEN IFILL: Back to this issue of arming rebels, we have had this conversation before. In fact, last time we talked about red lines, I think the president said he would do it. If it hasn’t happened, why not? And what certainty do you have that it will happen this time?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Well, because I heard some things this morning that reassured me that it’s going to happen, that they now have a greater comfort level with certain parts of the opposition, so that we can make sure, to the extent that is humanly possible, that the weapons do not fall into the wrong hands, because there are parts of the opposition to Assad that are not people that we want to provide weapons to, because they could use them for the wrong purpose.

It’s a very complex situation. The Free Syrian Army is led by a person who we know is a moderate, that we know will, when they succeed, help the Syrian people and the Free Syrian Army move Syria in the right direction. But there are other elements such as al-Qaida. We surely do not want to do anything which could help them get the kind of weapons that they would use.

GWEN IFILL: And you are reassured that this plan, whatever plan that you have been briefed on, would assure that these weapons didn’t end up in the hands of jihadists, the Al-Nusra Front, and that there wouldn’t be a vacuum that followed as a result?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Well, there is greater assurance now than there was months ago that we have — that we can identify the groups that should have the weapons to take on Assad and that it can be done safely.

It’s not a perfect deal. There’s no guarantee that some of these weapons wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands, but there’s greater confidence level. Now, one other thing, particularly as it relates to the anti-tank weapons, these are tanks which are protecting Assad rocket launchers, for instance.

Those tanks are — can only be knocked off with anti-tank weapons. And those anti-tank weapons are useful only against Assad’s tanks because there are no other tanks in Syria beside Assad tanks. So those kind of weapons, it seems to me, can be safely provided to the vetted components of the Syrian opposition.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary Kerry said today there would absolutely, positively no way would be boots on the ground and that he would be open to this being included as part of the war authorization.

Do you think it’s a good idea to draw that line?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: I do.

GWEN IFILL: Why?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Because I think it’s important that the American people know we’re not going to get dragged into a civil war, that there are ways of taking action against the use of chemical weapons which needs to be taken, if countries such as Syria and Iran understand that the transfer, for instance, of weapons of mass destruction or the use of weapons of mass destruction will precipitate a response on our part, because if those are transferred, such as chemicals going to terrorist groups, they could end up attacking us.

This is in our interest. And Congress has voted that it’s in our interest that chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction not be used, and — because they are so readily transferred to terrorist groups which are targeting us. So I think it is very important that the steps be taken that I have outlined, but also that we not be dragged into a civil war.

We can act against the use of weapons of mass destruction and help others, like the Syrian Free Army, to act against the use of chemical weapons, without being dragged into a civil war ourselves.

GWEN IFILL: Senator, how do you reassure your constituents and others around the country who look at this and see echoes of the arguments which were made for Iraq or Afghanistan that this is not going to drag us into a wider war or that even these chemical weapons are the reason to act now?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Well, I don’t — I, first of all, distinguish Iraq from Afghanistan, for a lot of reasons.

But going back to Iraq itself, what has changed now is that there is a global terrorist network now which is much more threatening now to us than it was five or 10 or 15 years ago. And so the possibility that weapons would be transferred to a terrorist group now with a global reach is a very different and more threatening situation to us than it was before.

That doesn’t defend our failures before, particularly to the use of chemical weapons by Iraq, but I am saying that it is a much different situation now than it was 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, thank you very much.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: It’s good being with you, Gwen.