GWEN IFILL: With thousands killed and hundreds more poisoned allegedly by chemical weapons, the Obama administration makes the case for action in Syria, tonight on “Washington Week.”
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: (From tape.) There is no doubt who is responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria: the Syrian regime.
MS. IFILL: Tip-toe timing.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) I have not made a decision. I have gotten options from our military, had extensive discussions with my national security team.
MS. IFILL: And today, a fierce appeal to the American people.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: (From tape.) As previous storms in history have gathered, when unspeakable crimes were within our power to stop them, we have been warned against the temptations of looking the other way.
MS. IFILL: The crisis over Syria heats to a boiling point. Britain bows out and the U.S. Congress begins to weigh in.
REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING (R-NY): (From tape.) We have to act. Once that red line has been crossed, once chemical weapons have been used, I believe the president has to take action.
SENATOR TIM KAINE (D-VA): (From tape.) I definitely believe that there needs to be a vote.
MS. IFILL: And Syria prepares.
BASHAR JAAFARI [Syrian U.N. Envoy]: (From tape.) We are in a state of war right now, preparing ourselves for the worst scenario.
MS. IFILL: Is the U.S. on the verge of limited but certain war? Covering the week: Peter Baker of the New York Times; John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times; and Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. People say August is a slow news month. Well, tell that to the secretary of state, or the prime minister of Great Britain, or the president of Syria, or the president of the Unites States, who is now making the case that it is time for the U.S. to act. In an interview at the White House this week, Judy Woodruff and I asked President Obama why.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) If we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying, stop doing this, that can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term and may have a positive impact in the sense that chemical weapons are not used again on innocent civilians.
MS. IFILL: Shot across the bow. If you listen carefully there, you see the president beginning to make his case to the American people for yet another Middle East intervention. Secretary of State John Kerry followed up with some force today.
SEC. KERRY: (From tape.) The United States government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children. This is the indiscriminant, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people.
MS. IFILL: This afternoon, the president called Syria a challenge to the world. The trouble is Americans are not crazy about intervention. A new NBC News poll shows half of us do not want the U.S. to step in and 80 percent said that at least there should be congressional approval first.
But if Americans are of two minds, Britons are even more reluctant, rebuffing their own prime minister when he appealed for action.
DAVID CAMERON [British Prime Minister]: (From tape.) I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons. But I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons. It is very clear tonight that while the house has not passed a motion, it is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.
MS. IFILL: The president says he has not yet decided when to act, but it sounds like he has decided to act, Peter.
PETER BAKER: It’s hard to imagine he can’t act given the comments that were made today about the Syrian government’s culpability as the intelligence agencies have concluded. Secretary of State John Kerry basically said inaction was not an option. So the real question is timing and the extent of the military strike, how much do they actually try to take out. Is it a one-day? Is it a two-day? And what’s the impact? Does it actually accomplish what they want it to accomplish?
MS. IFILL: Today at the State Department, John Kerry not only made this forceful case, but they also released a map in an unclassified document showing where the missiles were launched and where they landed that carried, they said, these chemical weapons. How strong is the case?
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Well, I think it’s interesting because in this declassified intelligence report, which was only a few pages long, they basically laid out the base case they could make publicly.
Now, they claim, and the administration has been saying since the beginning of the week, when Secretary Kerry first came out and spoke to us very emotionally about this, both times talking about the agony of seeing dead children. He did say we have certain evidence that we can’t share because it would be going to sources and methods so we can’t share that.
What I think is really interesting is we do have -- some of my Bloomberg colleagues have reported on intelligence sources who’ve told them that there is no clear chain of command. So as you saw in that declassified report, they never say – they never point the finger directly at Assad himself having ordered that chemical weapon strike. So that’s significant to some people that how do we know he was in charge of it, although the administration has tried to say –
MS. IFILL: Aren’t these intercepts so they’re supposed to – the communications they’re supposed to have intercepted, isn’t the assumption that that’s whose they’re listening to?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Actually, in fact, we do have intelligence sources telling us that they don’t have the direct chain of command up to Assad himself but that the administration is considering him culpable and responsible because, in fact, he is still the president and he is the leader of that regime. So they feel they have the ability to hold him responsible.
MS. IFILL: The president talked to us and he’s talked a lot about international norms. What is he talking about? What is it about chemical weapons that are so much more a line crosser than the conventional weapons we’ve seen, which have killed many more people?
JOHN HARWOOD: Well, ever since we saw mustard gas, chlorine gas used in World War I, there’s been worldwide revulsion against the use of these weapons and an attempt by the international community to make sure that didn’t happen again.
In 1993, when Bill Clinton was president, there was a chemical weapons convention that was adopted. And what the administration did, facing pressure last year over the possibility of the United States participating, intervening in the war in Syria, was said, well, that may not be in our national interest, but if that red line is crossed, that’s something that the United States could not ignore. And that’s the norm that the president was talking about.
And I have to say, in your interview with Judy, that was the least convincing “I have not made a decision” that I’ve heard in a long time. And we saw certainly from the emotion of John Kerry at the beginning of the week and at the end of the week that they intend to do something.
MS. IFILL: Let’s listen a little bit more to John Kerry from today. We heard him at the State Department, in which he made a very extensive and, as you point out, very emotional case.
SEC. KERRY: (From tape.) We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.
MS. IFILL: Now, after that, we saw the president come into the briefing room – actually, the Cabinet Room, to meet with some foreign leaders. And his tone was so much more different than Kerry’s tone. Let’s listen to that and then talk.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) We’re not considering any open-ended commitment. We’re not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach. What we will do is consider options that meet the narrow concern around chemical weapons, understanding that there’s not going to be a solely military solution to the underlying conflict and tragedy that’s taking place in Syria.
MS. IFILL: The president’s talking narrow, limited, no boots on the ground. He said it twice. There’s a very different sense of tone between the State Department and the White House. Why is that?
MR. BAKER: Very different. Well, first of all, of course, is the nature of this president’s personality. He’s a more restrained figure. It’s not in his nature to be bellicose.
Having said that, the other line he said, which is, I think, very important, is he says, everybody knows something needs to be done but nobody wants to do it. And you felt at that moment he was talking a little bit about himself. This is something he did not come into office to do. He came into office to get us out of the Middle East in terms of these military engagements, not to have a new one. He feels the pressure of his office and his responsibility to do it, but he’s not excited about it. John Kerry, you heard, brimming with indignation, filled with outrage over the events that we witnessed in Syria, but you don’t hear that from the president at this point.
MS. IFILL: I have a – I have a theory, but go ahead, John.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, I was going to say, I do think they had different missions in their speeches. John Kerry was trying to galvanize world opinion, American opinion to some degree and make the case. But President Obama, who, after all, is the one who was elected nationally – John Kerry was not elected president, wanted to be – he was –
MS. IFILL: He looked kind of presidential today though.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, he did, but President Obama was the one who needed to reassure people who had voted for him that he was going to do this in a very limited way and very reluctantly, because when you look at public opinion – and we headed this NBC News poll that you referred to earlier – people are not eager to get into this conflict. And he’s trying to say, don’t worry. It’s not going to be another Iraq.
MS. IFILL: That is exactly my theory, that the two men were speaking to different audiences, that John Kerry was speaking to the wavering international support, especially after what happened yesterday in London, and that the president was speaking to wavering or “never was there” domestic support. Indira, is that your theory or do you have another one?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: I totally agree.
MS. IFILL: You do?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: I think that the president, as Peter referred to, it’s also his personality to be kind of, I don’t want to use the word “cold,” but certainly to be sober –
MS. IFILL: Cool.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: – cool, and to say, I’m the decision maker here and I have to think it through and grapple with these really tough issues. And this is not the first time he’s put his secretary of state out to be the emotional one. Remember Benghazi? It was Hillary Clinton who was out there with tears streaming down her eyes when the caskets came back to Andrews Air Force Base. And it was Obama who was very sort of stiff and serious and feeling the weight of everything. So I feel like I saw echoes of that, allowing your secretary of state to be the one showing the emotion for the nation, for the world, and making this humanitarian case.
I want to go back to something you said about legality, with John. Now, under international law, under established international law, it is not actually legal to strike Syria, even for this chemical weapons violation, unless there’s a U.N. authorization or it’s in self-defense. Now, the U.N. authorization –
MS. IFILL: Which is taking its sweet time.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Well, it’s not going to come because Russia is going to block it.
MS. IFILL: Russia will veto it.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: And the self-defense, we can’t argue self-defense because there were no Americans attacked and there is nothing under international law that allows collective self-defense for a different people who were attacked by their own government. So there are people who say, we need to change international law to allow for this responsibility to protect, but it doesn’t exist yet.
MR. BAKER: That’s why you heard him say, John Kerry say today that he’s a threat to Israel, Turkey, Jordan and that is an attempt to make the case that, in fact, he is a threat –
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Exactly. Our allies. An attempt.
MR. BAKER: – beyond his own borders, not just to his own people.
MS. IFILL: And, actually, the president has said twice that it could be a threat to us, could be.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Could be. Loose chemical weapons.
MR. HARWOOD: And that’s a critical element. I believe he made this point in the interview with you and Judy as also today. He’s trying to tell the American people, yes, this is bad. This is a humanitarian crisis, but I’m not doing it just for that. I’m doing it for you. I’m doing it for us as a country. And that is a critical distinction. He’s got to drive that home.
MS. IFILL: Because he doesn’t think there’s a moral case to be made that’s persuasive?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: No. He knows there’s a moral case that’s persuasive. And John Kerry has been getting out there and persuading everyone about it. But that’s not law.
And let’s remember, in 1999, in Kosovo – and this is privately, in the back quarters, administration officials have all week been pushing this Kosovo parallel on us. Well, guess what? I went back and looked it up. I remembered and I thought, they didn’t actually assert a legal case in 1999. No, they did not assert a legal case. They asserted a moral humanitarian case, but they didn’t want to set a legal precedent.
And I think that’s what we’re going to see again here. They’re going to do this because they think they need to. And he drew a red line. And what happens when you draw a red line? You paint yourself into a corner. He has to act.
MR. BAKER: The other question about his tone I think at this point, and remember, he will come out and speak if and when he does, and we might hear a different tone. But the tone he’s offered so far has drawn criticism that he is sending a really bad message to Assad, saying, look, it’s not going to be that big a deal. This could be a one-day if not – this will hurt me more than it hurts you. And the question that people are raising is, how effective, therefore, is that going to be if we seem so reluctant and so restrained in our response?
MS. IFILL: Well, you hint about something which I’m curious about. What are they talking about? Are they talking about cruise missiles sent from offshore? Are they talking about drones? Are they talking about very hands-off, one-day, two-day, three-day action? What’s on the table?
MR. BAKER: I think what we’re looking at mostly likely is a one-day strike with cruise missiles, no airplanes that cross into Syrian airspace that might crash or be shot down, no boots on the ground, as he said repeatedly. You know, we’ve seen this kind of action before under Clinton, under Reagan, under – you know, we’ve seen the kind of very limited, one-day kind of approach. And I think they’ll after a day stop and take a look and see, did they achieve what they wanted to? And it’s possible they could resume it again, but that’s what we’re looking at.
MR. HARWOOD: But I also think because of the sensitivity that you mentioned, what are we really doing? It’s going to hurt me more than it hurts you. I think it is likely that that one day will be a pretty intense one day. And they will make sure that it doesn’t look simply like a slap or a pinprick kind of attack. It’s going to be fairly heavy duty.
MR. BAKER: That’s going to be the challenge I think. Yeah.
MS. IFILL: So why is Britain not on board and why is France on board? That’s upside down.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: This is – this is funny. Tomorrow morning’s headline of the Sun, one of the great British tabloids is: “Death Notice: End of the Special Relationship.” And, you know –
MS. IFILL: As Kerry came out and said, France is our oldest friend.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Yeah. Our oldest friend. They suddenly got top billing. And, you know, people have been joking today about, well, we can now call French fries French again, but English muffins are going to have to become freedom muffins. So this is the first time –
MS. IFILL: But the president and the secretary of state did talk to their British counterparts.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: They did talk to their British counterparts and there was obviously an effort to say, we get it. We understand the political pressure you’re under. But the political pressure that Cameron is under is incredible because it’s been more than 150 years since a British prime minister lost this kind of a parliamentary motion for authorizing the use of military force. So it’s a big defeat for him. But I think that’s partly because the specter of Iraq is still hanging over all of this thing about evidence, people wanting evidence.
MR. HARWOOD: And the specter among the British public of a country having been led by the United States into something –
MS. LAKSHMANAN: That’s right.
MS. IFILL: War weary.
MR. HARWOOD: – that casts a little bit of a different coloration over – and even than – that’s right.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Whereas the French did not get carried in on Iraq. That’s right.
MR. BAKER: It’s a generation since we went to war without Britain if we asked them to. They didn’t go with us in Vietnam, obviously, but every other instance where we asked them for help, it’s hard to image them saying no.
MS. IFILL: Where is the United Nations in this? Because that’s usually where we punt it to, that they’re going to figure – as we sit here tonight, after 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, the U.N. inspectors are supposed to be withdrawing on Saturday morning, at which time we presume something will happen. But then what is the timeline for the U.N. inspectors?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: So just before we went to air, we were told that Russia is calling for a special meeting of the Security Council this weekend. So Russia has already public denounced any kind of prospective military action. They’re trying to do whatever they can to block it from happening. They’re trying to keep the U.N. Security Council process alive as a way to try to forestall action. We already know, the administration has basically made it clear that they can go without the U.N. Security Council. They feel they don’t need the U.N. They don’t need Britain.
MR. HARWOOD: Which is a useful stance when you know you’re not going to get the U.N. Security Council.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Exactly. Precisely. But so, you know, we know that Russia is going to be trying to buy time and trying to make the argument. And they do have certain people behind them who are important people, the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to Syria have both said, please, no military action.
And I find it interesting that the administration keeps talking about, after this limited strike, we really think the most important thing is to get back to peace -- peace process. Really? Do we really think that after a limited military strike, no matter what it is, that suddenly Assad is going to say, OK, uncle. I’m suing for peace?
MS. IFILL: Let’s just think for a moment. The U.S. does have some supporters in the region. That’s Turkey, certainly, and Saudi Arabia. And so how important is it, or how much does it counterbalance the argument that he has some Arab support? Especially Jordan. I mean, you’re thinking about – you’re thinking – I’m sorry. You’re thinking about refugees and the potential of leakage, of spillover over the border.
MR. BAKER: They have every interest in containing Assad and, especially, in keeping Iran from basically winning what is a proxy war in Syria. So they have – having said that though, I think there’s this inevitable contrast is going to be made, as it has been throughout this whole thing with Iraq, right? When George Bush went in, it was unilateral. He didn’t have a coalition behind him and you can argue, well, now, Obama seems to have less of a coalition in some ways than Bush did. Bush didn’t get the U.N. authorization to use force, but he did get a U.N. resolution saying that Saddam Hussein was out of compliance with U.N. mandates and, therefore, Bush argued that he, therefore, had some right to go in. He also got permission from Congress with John Kerry voting for him, as a matter of fact, and Hillary Clinton. And it doesn’t look like Barack Obama is going to be waiting for Congress.
MR. HARWOOD: But I do think this is a case where the administration seems to have decided this is going to be on us and we’re willing to do it not only for the region itself and our allies in the region, but also for the case of Iran, which is one where the credibility of the United States, which has said Iran will not be permitted to have a nuclear weapon, the administration is very conscious of the idea that if we don’t act, the president having elevated that red line, they’re going to conclude – (inaudible).
MS. IFILL: And that word, “credibility” – that word, “credibility,” runs through this whole thing, which is we have to do what we say or no one will believe us the next time.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Right. Kerry brought that up explicitly.
MS. IFILL: And also Kerry talked a little bit about the American public’s exhaustion with this. Let’s listen a little bit more of what he had to say today about that.
SEC. KERRY: (From tape.) We know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war. Believe me, I am too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about.
MS. IFILL: How fatigued are Americans, John?
MR. HARWOOD: Very fatigued. And if you look at our NBC poll this morning, we asked people, is it in the United States’ national interest to take military action against Syria? Twenty-one percent said yes. Would military action against Syria improve the lot of civilians in Syria? Twenty-seven percent said yes. Now, when you include the phrase “chemical weapons” in the question and say, should we hit them in response to their use of chemical weapons, you had 42 percent saying yes, but still 50 percent saying no. And, finally, if you condition it one other way by saying, the response would be missiles launched from ships, not boots on the ground, then you get support coming up to 50 percent.
But it is plain that the American people have a pretty high bar in this case for understanding that it’s in the national interest and wanting to know that there is a way that we can limit our role.
MR. BAKER: And that’s such a difference from recent history. Since Vietnam – I went back and looked – every military action we’ve taken, with the exception of Bosnia, had majority and, in fact, very strong American support at least in the initial days afterwards, right? Now, we haven’t seen what the response will be once assuming he does, President Obama launches an attack, it may be there’s a rally-around-the-flag effect on the polls – (inaudible) – goes up.
MS. IFILL: But also, could it be that Americans have been here before?
MR. BAKER: Right.
MS. IFILL: And now we’re on the tail end of America’s longest war.
MR. BAKER: Right.
MS. IFILL: And that changes people’s appetite about what can be done with a single surgical strike they used to call – they used to sound so appealing and we discovered they didn’t exactly exist.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: And I found it striking how they way that the question was worded made such a difference to the answer. And that to me plays into this whole messaging campaign, because I really do think that what we’ve seen over the last week has been an unprecedented messaging campaign on the part of the Obama administration. It’s not like they just came out one night and said, we’re going to bomb. I mean, they have been building up and building up with the State Department sort of at the front of this messaging system, but really trying to send a signal about legitimacy, about justification, about how they think they have support from the Arab League, like we were talking about, about the danger.
I wanted to make one point that Peter made about Iran. Although it’s true that we don’t want to allow Iran to win, since they have been supporting the Syrian regime, Iran has not been thrilled about the use of chemical weapons, because, remember, Iran had chemical weapons used against them in the Iran-Iraq war. So they’ve been a bit quiet on this issue.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about Congress for a moment. They’ve been out of town and they don’t get back for a minute. But John Boehner, the House speaker, said – wrote a letter to the president saying there should be meaningful consultation. Now, everyone’s interpreting what that means. Does that mean a war powers resolution? Does that mean briefing senior members of Congress, which is what the White House is clearly taking it to mean? What does it mean?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, I thought John Boehner was leaving the door open for the president to act without a vote. He did not say this needs to be authorized by the Congress. He said consultation.
And the timing considerations here are really interesting and tricky for the administration. You talked about the inspectors leave Saturday; we’re presuming something would happen. I think that’s a pretty good presumption. On the other hand, the president goes to Russia next week for a G-20 meeting. Congress comes back on the 9th. And Ban Ki-moon said today that we won’t know the results of some of the inspection samples that were taken for two weeks. So how does the administration navigate all that?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: OK. Secretary Hagel gets home from his trip tonight. He’s home now. So now, presumably with the secretary of defense in town, you can do something. Obama has to leave for Russia on Tuesday. I think the window is basically open.
MS. IFILL: That’s the window.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: I think the window – once those U.N. inspectors leave, I think the window is open. And most people think it’s going to close before Obama goes to Russia.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. I think it’s very hard to imagine the president going to the Saint Petersburg summit without having this happen, the idea of opening up that conversation and just (torturing through ?) – (inaudible).
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Particularly in Russia.
MS. IFILL: And one final thought. Partisan divide – not as partisan as you’d expect this debate.
MR. HARWOOD: No, not at all because you – remember, a lot of the people pushing the president into action against Syria have been conservative Republicans. Then, of course, the president is the leader of the Democratic Party and so a lot of Democrats rally around him. So we did not see, as we do so often, on the approval of the president or policy issues, you don’t see a stark shift.
MS. IFILL: In fact, I saw a lot of liberal Democrats asking for a vote and being very resistant –
MR. BAKER: Tim Kaine, one of Obama’s best friends, so he says, in the Democratic Party, former Democratic national chairman, first governor to support Barack Obama for president, says he has to have a vote first.
MS. IFILL: And you have to think that if it were Senator Obama and not President Obama –
MS. LAKSHMANAN: He would be calling for it.
MS. IFILL: He would be calling for it.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: He would be calling for it, although, again, legality under the War Powers Act in the Constitution, he doesn’t have to consult if this is a short, limited operation.
MS. IFILL: It’s fascinating. And we’re probably going to see things unfolding even as we speak this weekend.
Thank you all so much. This was so interesting. And we’re going to be on our pins and needles all week. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
We’re going to continue to talk about this all on our – we’re going to continue the conversation on our “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” where we’ll also talk a bit about this week’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. That streams live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern. And it’s available all weekend long, because you’ve got nothing else to do, at pbs.org/washingtonweek. We’ll make it worth your time.
While you’re there, you can also read my “Behind the Scenes” blog about our “NewsHour” interview this week with the president. And join me for my monthly web chat next Thursday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time. Keep up with daily events all week on the “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you again, right here, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.