GWEN IFILL: High-wire diplomacy, low-tech politics, and the international standoff over Syria, tonight on “Washington Week.”
A whiplash week. Monday, Syrian President Assad issues a dire warning.
CHARLIE ROSE [Host, “Charlie Rose”]: (From tape.) Will there be attacks against American bases in the Middle East if there’s an airstrike?
BASHAR AL-ASSAD [President of Syria]: (From tape.) You should expect everything. You should expect everything.
MS. IFILL: While President Obama says the path to diplomacy may run through Russia.
MS. IFILL: (From tape.) Is that something that you’ve had any conversations at all with President Putin about when you were in St. Petersburg last week?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) I did have those conversations. And this is a continuation of conversations I’ve had with President Putin for quite some time.
MS. IFILL: Tuesday, the president makes his case to the nation.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) When, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and, thereby, make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.
MS. IFILL: Wednesday, Congress reacts.
MIKE ROGERS [Senator]: (From tape.) They got exactly what they wanted on day one, which was time. They needed Assad to have more time.
MS. IFILL: By the end of the week, Secretary of State Kerry is meeting with his Russian counterpart in Geneva.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: (From tape.) We are working hard to find the common ground to be able to make that happen.
MS. IFILL: With the threat of war delayed at least for now, there still remain more questions than answers about what will happen next.
We tackle those tonight with Peter Baker of the New York Times; James Kitfield of National Journal; Martha Raddatz of ABC News; and Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post.
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. It was a good week to be in the news business. We like to question. It was not so good a week to be a diplomat or a warrior. They like getting to answers. When it comes to the still bubbling crisis in Syria, those were in short supply.
Secretary of State John Kerry managed to bookend the week with statements that seemed entirely opposite.
WOMAN [Reporter]: (From tape.) Is there anything at this point that his government could do or offer that would stop an attack?
SEC. KERRY: (From tape.) Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week – turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that, but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done, obviously.
This is not a game. And I said that to my friend, Sergey, when we talked about it initially. It has to be real. It has to be comprehensive. It has to be verifiable. It has to be credible. It has to be timely and implemented in a timely fashion.
MS. IFILL: What a difference four days made. Meanwhile, the president was making the case for war and peace in interviews.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) As I said to you the last time we spoke, this chemical weapons ban matters to us, to the United States.
My intention throughout this process has been to ensure that the blatant use of chemical weapons that we saw doesn’t happen again. If, in fact, there’s a way to accomplish that diplomatically, that is overwhelmingly my preference.
MS. IFILL: And in a primetime address.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Many of you have asked, won’t this put us on a slippery slope to another war? My answer is simple. I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capabilities.
MS. IFILL: OK. After a week like this, you have to take – step back and think to yourself, there all these unanswered questions. What’s your biggest unanswered question tonight, Peter?
PETER BAKER: It’s a long list, right? He didn’t answer a lot of them in that speech. But I think, for me, the biggest unanswered question is: what happens if it doesn’t work? What’s plan B? If the Russian initiative doesn’t produce the results that the president wants – and there’s a lot of skepticism in Washington, both inside the White House and in Congress – what does the president do then? Does he go back to Congress? Does he go ahead and strike anyway? He didn’t have the votes, we thought, to win a congressional vote last time. What about next time?
MS. IFILL: Martha, what do you think?
MARTHA RADDATZ: Well, I certainly would agree with that. That’s the biggest question out there. But I also think going forward, what do you do about the civil war? It’s almost like we haven’t talked about that at all. We’ve talked about this horrendous chemical attack. Diplomacy, a week ago or two weeks ago, was really talking about what do you do about the civil war? What do you do about all the deaths? What do you about getting Assad out of the way? And now, we’re –
MS. IFILL: What do you do about the conventional weapons?
MS. RADDATZ: What do you do about conventional weapons? And that’s almost – it almost seems like that has gone away entirely.
MS. IFILL: What do you think, Karen?
KAREN TUMULTY: Well, I wonder whether through this we have learned something about President Obama and his decision making and his willingness to take risks. We’ve seen him in high-stakes situations before in showdowns with Congress but they’re always against this kind of partisan backdrop. And we’ve also seen him in very risky situations going after Osama bin Laden. But in that situation, there was a good outcome and there was a bad outcome. Here, in Syria, we saw him juggling, you know, two outcomes where you couldn’t tell which one he wanted.
MS. IFILL: James?
JAMES KITFIELD: Putin. I think Putin is the wild card in this thing because if he’s serious – and I think that there’s a chance that our interests and his may align here. He has no interest at all in another, you know, precedent setting, unilateral military strike by the United States on an ally. He doesn’t want Syria to implode and those chemical weapons fall into the hands of Islamic extremists who are on his southern border. He wants to get back in the game in the Middle East. And here’s a chance for him to actually play an important role. For all those reasons, I think there’s a chance this is serious. And if he puts his sort of political capital behind it, there’s a chance it will be successful, but remains to be seen.
MS. IFILL: Well, we’re going to talk about all those things. But here, my big questions are, assuming for a moment there’s a deal to be had, how do you disarm and how do you enforce the disarmament? Any thoughts?
MS. RADDATZ: Well, I think, first of all, you have to establish where all those weapons are. And they’ve been moved around during this period, moved around when the threat of war first happened, moved around before that. I think the United States has a very good idea where those stockpiles are. And once you do that, you can either build a facility in Syria, which would be probably hard to do, or try to transport them into Iraq or someplace like that.
But you also have to remember you’re in the middle of a raging war. Basically, what you do with those weapons, if they’re weaponized or if it’s just the chemicals, is you incinerate them. You put them in a building that is essentially a giant oven and get rid of them.
But I do think – and most people I talk to say that could take two years; that could take four years. It depends on what kind of protection you’d have for the chemical teams coming in. And that’s much more difficult.
MS. TUMULTY: But doesn’t that suggest, though, that for this – any kind of inspections regime to work, you have to get – you have to come up with some way of resolving this civil war. So is it going to lead, in fact, to some sort of, you know, negotiated solution to what’s going on on the ground there too?
MS. RADDATZ: I wouldn’t count on that.
MR. KITFIELD: You know, I think they’re hoping for that. I think that’s the only hope they have left really is to – you know, if there’s a process towards an imperfect deal, you still have to get lots of U.N. inspectors on the ground. You have to have all the parties negotiating. You have to have the United States and Russia on the same page. And you basically have to have a ceasefire.
All those things are very, very desirable if you really want to go from this to Geneva and talk about a peace deal, so there’s a chance here. It may be slim but it’s the best chance I’ve seen in two and a half years in this conflict.
MS. IFILL: Peter, there has been much conversation out of the president’s own mouth about the bad choices that existed here. What would it have been a good choice of either the rollout of how to act or what to do here?
MR. BAKER: That’s a good question. What you hear from a lot of people in Washington, even people in his own party, was if he was going to do a military strike, it probably, at least as a matter of politics, would have been better just to do it right away, get it done, and then move on. And then you could in fact try to revive a Geneva peace process perhaps.
Instead, what he did was he elongated it. He asked Congress to involve itself. He gave time for the Russians to kind of get involved. And this became a much messier process as a matter of politics. As a matter of outcomes, what the White House would argue is, OK. It didn’t look good. It hasn’t been a clean process. But if, in the end, Assad actually does give up, you know, 1,000, 1,400 tons of chemical weapons, the world is a better place.
MS. RADDATZ: And where would we be? I keep thinking – I’ve been thinking, if they’d just gotten it over with, if they’d just done a limited military strike, where would we be today? I think Congress might have forgotten about it by now, but those weapons would still be there.
MS. IFILL: And the president acknowledged that it was not necessarily going to be so easy for him to convince the American people about any of this. Let’s listen for a moment.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) I don’t think that I’m going to convince, you know, the overwhelming majority of the American people to take any kind of military action. But I believe I can make a very strong case to Congress as well as the American people about why we can’t leave our children a world in which other children are being subjected to nerve gas, and that it is in our interest, if we can take a limited step that makes a meaningful difference, it’s worth it for us to do that.
MS. IFILL: So there’s the moral argument; there is the muscular argument; and there’s also the kind of the geopolitical argument – we have to act because what’s going to happen in all these other countries.
So let’s talk about the geopolitical for a moment. Israel – Israel has a role in that. As a matter of fact, we heard today John Kerry is on his way to talk to Netanyahu.
MR. KITFIELD: And I talked to some senior Israeli security officials this week. And, you know, before this deal with Russia was floated, you know, the line was if you do nothing about this red line in Syria, you’re going to force us to act unilaterally against Iran because we will not believe anything you’ve said about keeping them from getting a nuclear weapon. You know, this has thrown a sort of monkey wrench in that. And I’m not exactly sure what their recalculation is.
But Israel, obviously, looks at this as a precursor to the showdown with Iran over its nuclear weapons. And, you know, so that is very much in play here, what they will do.
MS. TUMULTY: I was really surprised, by the way, that the president didn’t make that argument more strongly in his speech because, from the outset, people in Congress were saying, you know, his best hope is to frame this as an argument not so much about chemical weapons in Syria but about being about nuclear weapons in Iran.
MR. BAKER: Well, his argument is – the problem for him, his arguments are internally inconsistent, or at least seem that way, right? It’s a very hard argument to make that 1,000 people have died and, therefore, we should intervene after 100,000 people died and we didn’t intervene, right? People don’t necessarily understand he’s talking about chemical weapons. That’s why it’s important. He also says this is going to be an important –
MS. IFILL: He just stopped using the term “international norms.”
MR. BAKER: He did.
MS. IFILL: It really wasn’t resonating. Yeah.
MR. BAKER: He said this is going to be a powerful deterrent. At the same time, the secretary of state said it’s going to be unbelievably small. They’re trying to reassure Americans that it’s not going to be that big a deal. At the same time, they’re saying it’s important and powerful.
He says, at the beginning of his speech, that we have a national interest in this. It’s in our national interest to stop this sort of thing because Syria poses a threat to our interest. And then later in the speech, he says, but Syria can’t do anything against us. Don’t worry. They can’t retaliate against us. So all of these arguments are really hard to reconcile at times and that’s been a challenge for him.
MS. RADDATZ: You know, someone said to me right after the president said he wanted to take it to Congress, he said – and, at the time, we thought it might be in nine days that Congress would take a look at this. And he said, in nine days, the American public will forget about those pictures. They will forget about those images.
So you can imagine, if this diplomatic deal fell apart, how far out of the minds of Americans this would be. I cannot imagine that Congress would ever take this up again and do anything.
MR. BAKER: Well, and as he made his –
MS. IFILL: The argument would have been to strike first and ask later then.
MR. BAKER: Right. As he made his arguments – the more he made his arguments, the more public opinion turned against him. He did not convince the American public, as he acknowledged in your interview. And it was – the numbers will be worse and worse.
MS. RADDATZ: And they weren’t even convinced that there wouldn’t be boots on the ground. They were not even convinced that people would not – that U.S. troops were not going in there.
MS. IFILL: So let’s look at what they’re talking about now, tonight, in Geneva. Is the idea to get Syria to give up their chemical weapons in the way that Libya did? Libya surprised everybody in saying, OK, we renounce all of this, and now, everything is fine, and we’re now a member of the world community again. Is that the ultimate, you know, pie in the sky goal?
MS. RADDATZ: I think the ultimate goal is to get them to give up their chemical weapons. That is what we want. And if you look back, anyone who signed on to the Chemical Weapons Convention has never used their chemical weapons again, although I do think they found that Gadhafi had a little secret stash of chemical weapons someplace. And, frankly, it’s quite easy, I believe, to reconstitute your weapons. It’s not like building a nuclear bomb.
But I find that so encouraging if you look. I mean, he’s not going to do – he’s not going to launch any chemical attacks while the U.N. and others are trying to get in to put all those weapons there. It’s just not going to happen.
MR. BAKER: That’s the initial argument. The White House and the administration are making the argument that a long, protracted, annoying, difficult negotiation is actually good because, during that, at least there’s a deterrent effect, perhaps – (inaudible). Yeah.
MS. RADDATZ: Yeah. It doesn’t matter how long it takes.
MS. TUMULTY: But, at the same time, that guarantees that, you know, Assad stays in power and as the person that they are negotiating.
MS. RADDATZ: That’s the big question.
MS. IFILL: Delays is its own – is its own thing. Assad is an interesting character in all of this, isn’t he, James? You wrote a really interesting profile of him.
MR. KITFIELD: He is. I mean, he is someone who has been underestimated. You know, since he came into power in 2000, he – you know, he puts on the sort of Western suits and he has that mournful mortician’s gaze. And people just think he’s – you know, he can be had. And he keeps surprising people. And he’s really, you know, a master propagandist. He’s very, very shrewd. And he’s utterly cynical about this process. I mean, he’s – I pored through a lot of his interviews. And he says things like, you know, we play a game with the U.N. but we don’t take it seriously.
MS. IFILL: Let’s listen really briefly to something he said to Charlie Rose, just a bit of that interview from this week.
PRES. ASSAD: (From tape.) When you have a doctor who cut the leg to prevent the patient from the gangrene, if you have to, you don’t call him a butcher; you call him a doctor. And you thank him for saving the lives. When you have terrorism, you have a war.
MS. IFILL: So his idea is they’re terrorists. That’s what we’re doing. That’s who we’re killing. That’s who we’re gassing.
MR. KITFIELD: This is his brilliant, shrewd, circular logic. It started out as a youthful protest again, you know, decades of authoritarian rule by his family. He knows that the way to him to hang on to power is to sort of put this as a sectarian war, that if his minority Alawites and the Christians and the Druze lose, they’ll be slaughtered. So he lets the jihadists out of his own prison. He sends these thugs into Sunni areas to rape and pillage and then puts it on YouTube, inviting jihadists in, and then he gets a sectarian civil war. So this is how shrewd he is.
MS. RADDATZ: The word “terrorist” is all over the Middle East now. In Egypt, they’re calling the Muslim Brotherhood the terrorists. Everywhere you go, that’s the new – (inaudible).
MS. IFILL: He even invokes 9/11 in making that case.
MR. BAKER: Well, that’s Vladimir Putin’s argument too. Vladimir Putin looks at this and says, you’re on the wrong side. You’re helping, in effect, al Qaeda against a stable, even if you don’t like him, authoritarian government. And it’s a parallel to what he sees at home in Russia, where he has fought an independence movement in Chechnya that sort of morphed into a cause celeb for jihadists around the world.
MS. TUMULTY: And that, by the way, it opens up another question that this week brought to us, which is – you know, the Russians now have a sphere of influence in the Middle East that they have not had since when? Since Assad – I mean, since Sadat kicked them out. So how is Putin going to use this? And, of course, we saw that astounding op-ed in the New York Times.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. Well, that’s one of the ways that he plans to use it. Let’s look at a little bit of it. It was really interesting. This was his final point that he was making after arguing, among other things, that the U.S. is on the wrong side.
He said, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ too. We all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
MR. BAKER: Well, I hate to say it. I spent four years in Moscow covering Vladimir Putin. It’s fascinating to hear him say this, of course, listening to him for the last decade talking about Russian greatness. I mean, he does not think Russia is equal to Holland or Portugal or, you know, Zambia, or what have you. So for him to lecture America about exceptionalism is kind of funny. But –
MS. IFILL: It didn’t go over well.
MR. BAKER: It did not go over well. And it’s one thing that Vladimir Putin has accomplished in Washington that President Obama did not. He has united the Democrats and Republicans against him. The reaction was very strong.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk – well, go ahead.
MS. TUMULTY: It was sort of funny, ironic to hear American exceptionalism pop up again because what we’ve heard of – mostly, it’s come into our political debate in the last few years with the right accusing President Obama of being insufficiently committed to American exceptionalism. And now you have Vladimir Putin saying, this guy is going overboard with American exceptionalism.
MR. KITFIELD: But anyone – Russia is a declining major power that has a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. So any idea that we are exceptional in a way that allows us to use military force without going to the Security Council is obviously going to be rejected by – I mean, China could have said the same thing and probably France and Britain too. I mean, they are very jealous of this – you know, major powers have a veto on the Security Council. And for us to sort of suggest, with our exceptionalism, that we’re above that, it drives them crazy.
MS. RADDATZ: What’s exceptional is where we’ve come in the last week with Vladimir Putin. Who would have thought that Vladimir Putin is the man who is bailing out Barack Obama in this giant mess?
MS. IFILL: We’ve been so busy – we’ve been so busy watching their body language at international meetings that who knew that they were talking on the side?
Let’s talk about the domestic politics here because there’s something very revealing about the way this week has played out.
At the beginning of the week when the president asked the House, the Republican speaker of the House and the Republican majority leader to come out and endorse this, they said, yes. And even the peacenik Democratic majority leader in the House, Nancy Pelosi, said, yes. We’re for military strikes. Now, they were languishing on a limb before they came out with this Putin gambit.
So where does this leave the president in terms of the way he is viewed, in terms of his leverage, and in terms of whether this week is either a grand plan, as the White House says, or just a series of fatal stumbles?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, I am wondering – I mean, this whole decision to go to Congress was just essentially, you know, calling their bluff, saying something catastrophic is happening here. I’m putting it in your laps.
And I do wonder if there is suddenly this kind of call-their-bluff attitude, whether the president is going to also be bringing that to the domestic showdowns we see coming over, you know, the debt ceiling, over the end of the fiscal year, over the – you know, the next CR, continuing resolution, to keep the government operating because a big – you know, John Boehner has got a real problem here because a third of his caucus wants to shut the government down over defunding “Obamacare.”
MS. IFILL: Well, is the president at a disadvantage or is he – in that case, the Republicans are fighting among themselves, but does the president get – does he find himself at a disadvantage when he looks like he’s buying time and doesn’t have a plan?
MR. BAKER: I think that’s right. I think the consensus in Washington is he didn’t come across as, you know, decisive, and has thought through step ahead as he ought to have. The decision to go to Congress was made sort of spur of the moment during a 45-minute walk with Denis McDonough around the White House lawn. John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, his secretaries –
MS. IFILL: You think it was spur of the moment?
MR. BAKER: Well, I mean, obviously, he – it would have been in his head, but they had not – I mean, if you ask (Gates ?), they had not discussed this as an option in a serious way.
MS. RADDATZ: And listen to Kerry the day before, right? He clearly didn’t –
MS. TUMULTY: They had not informed the secretary of state.
MR. BAKER: If you listen to Kerry – and he didn’t talk to John Kerry, Chuck Hagel until after he made his decision. So, I mean, these are his secretaries of state and defense, and a very un-Obama-like process. Obama is the master of process, the un-Bush, right? I’m going to have a long and thoughtful and deliberative process. Here he made a relatively spontaneous decision that hadn’t worked out as well as he might have wanted.
MS. RADDATZ: They were ready to launch those strikes. We were ready to go. My guess is by that Monday, those strikes probably would have happened already.
MR. KITFIELD: But, you know, it’s a very good point because it’s very worrisome when a president doesn’t use the national security system process to vet the idea, to go to the deputies, and then go to the principals, and talk to the principals, here are the arguments for and again, even – you know, whip the count so you have an idea if they’re going to win this thing before you send it to Congress. None of that seemed to happen. That was, to me, very reckless because now he knows that Congress would oppose him. And so if this thing falls –
MS. IFILL: Was it because, though, he thought he had a diplomatic plan in his hip pocket? Would that be too much to hope for?
MR. BAKER: That seems to suggest a greater –
MS. RADDATZ: There was a little planning going. I mean, he had talked to Putin, but I –
MR. BAKER: Yeah. He had talked with Putin. Yes.
MS. IFILL: And Kerry had been talking to Lavrov.
MR. BAKER: Yes, but it hadn’t developed as far as that.
MS. TUMULTY: Except that Kerry’s comment – yeah. Kerry’s comment ends with, yeah, unless they turn them over in the next week, but that will never happen.
MS. RADDATZ: And that’s not going to happen.
MS. IFILL: That wasn’t a good idea. Here’s the other question. We had another – we had a big East Room national primetime address this week after the president had decided to seek a diplomatic solution. So on one hand, he said, you know, these are the reasons why we should strike. But I am the president of a constitutional democracy; this is the reason why we should seek diplomacy. You wonder why people are confused about what our plan is.
MS. RADDATZ: I think he just had to do that speech. There was no way out of that speech after he had already –
MS. IFILL: He couldn’t delay it and do it another day?
MS. RADDATZ: I just don’t know how he dropped that speech after saying he was going to do it on that Tuesday night because I think it gave too much to the diplomatic plan. If he dropped that speech, it would say, I’m confident this will work. So he ends up giving this speech about going after them militarily, but wait a minute, maybe not now.
MR. KITFIELD: And I will say – you know, two people who seemed to take him seriously on the military threat were Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad because they – I mean, Assad’s gone from denying he has chemical weapons to admitting he has chemical weapons, to asking to join the Chemical Weapons Convention in a week.
MS. IFILL: Which is pretty big.
MR. KITFIELD: I mean, that is really something.
MS. IFILL: When Charlie Rose asked Assad about his chemical weapons on Monday, he said, what chemical weapons? I cannot confirm we have them. Tonight, he has.
MR. KITFIELD: Right. Right. Now, he’s admitted. And he’s also asked to join the Chemical Weapons Convention.
MR. BAKER: And it may – and it may be in a month or two months if we actually have a real agreement and there’s real enforcement and it is verifiable and we go through a process like Libya in 2003. You know, we won’t remember this messy buildup.
MS. IFILL: We’ll remember it, but it won’t be quite – he won’t – he won’t look quite as bad as he looks –
MR. BAKER: The outcome will determine a lot.
MR. KITFIELD: He looked like Doug Flutie throwing that Hail Mary – (laughter).
MS. RADDATZ: And everyone will always go back to the day he said the red line, the day he talked about that red line. He didn’t ask Congress about that red line that day or making that threat. And the day he said that is the day he put himself in a box.
MS. IFILL: Well, it’s going to be very interesting. I think the arguments, instead of coming to ahead, as we thought maybe this time last week, are going to be playing out for a long time. And that may be part of the plan as well.
Thank you all very much. As usual, we have more to talk about than we have the time to talk about it. But the conversation does have to end here. It will continue, as always, on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” That will stream live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time and all weekend long at pbs.org/washingtonweek.
You can now also keep up with breaking news on PBS “Newshour Weekend” with Hari Sreenivasan and, of course, all next week with Judy Woodruff and me.
We’ll see you next week around the table, on “Washington Week.” Good night.