CNN "State of the Union with Candy Crowley" - Transcript - Syria

Interview

By:  John Kerry
Date: Sept. 1, 2013
Location: Unknown

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JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons.

BORGER: The secretary of state, John Kerry, joins us. And then CNN's Christiane Amanpour and Fareed Zakaria weigh in.

Today the state of the Obama presidency on this special edition of "State of the Union."

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BORGER (on camera): Good morning and welcome to Washington. I'm Gloria Borger in for Candy Crowley.

This morning there is growing urgency and apprehension over President Obama's surprise request for congressional approval of military action against Syria. This morning Secretary of State John Kerry told me the U.S. now has evidence that Syrian forces used sarin in the August 21st chemical attack that killed 1,400 people. Members of Congress will get a classified briefing on that in a couple of hours. And also this morning, U.N. officials promised an impartial and credible investigation, but did not say when their results would be announced.

Earlier today, I spoke with Secretary of State John Kerry.

Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for being with us this morning. I have to say that it was a surprise yesterday when the president announced that he was going to seek congressional approval for military action in Syria. Can you tell us now whether this administration is prepared to act even if Congress votes no?

KERRY: Well, we don't contemplate that the Congress is going to vote no, Gloria. I believe this case is powerful and grows more you powerful by the day. I can share with you today that blood and hair samples that have come to us through an appropriate chain of custody from East Damascus, from first responders, it has tested positive for signatures of sarin.

So each day that goes by, this case is even stronger. We know that the regime ordered this attack; we know they prepared for it; we know where the rockets came from; we know where they landed; we know the damage that was done afterwards; we've seen the horrific scenes all over the social media. And we have evidence of it in other ways. And we know that the regime tried to cover up afterwards.

So the case is really an overwhelming case, but the president really felt very strongly that the Congress of the United States weighing in makes our nation stronger in whatever action we take.

BORGER: But -- but doesn't it worry you that you have put this heavy responsibility on a Congress that is notoriously paralyzed and divided?

KERRY: We have confidence. There are good people in the Congress of the United States. I know they have been -- politically, it's been difficult, but this is a matter of national security; it's a matter of the credibility of the United States of America. It's a matter of upholding the interests of our allies and friends in the region, Jordan, which is threatened by what is happening, Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, all of which, as I said the other day, are just a stiff breeze away from chemical weapons being used.

I mean, there are huge interests here. And in the long term, Gloria, what we may or may not have to do if we cannot find a peaceful resolution with Iran, or what we need to do with North Korea -- all of these things are part of a continuum of decision-making that is made in foreign policy, and we believe the Congress of the United States will recognize that responsibility and do what is right.

BORGER: But, Mr. Secretary, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, says that in fact President Obama has gone -- these are his words -- "from leading from behind to not leading" by going to Congress. He says that it "raises doubts about the United States' reliability and determination." Can I get your response on that?

KERRY: Absolutely, of course you can. The fact is that the president of the United States is leading and he's leading very powerfully and he's leading in the right way. If he didn't do this, I can hear all of the critics saying, "Why didn't the president go to Congress? Why didn't the president -- he could have asked. He had time to ask. It didn't make a difference. I mean, all of those arguments...

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: But then they could ask "Why didn't he go sooner?"

KERRY: The president made his decision first. And he announced his decision. His decision is that he believes the United States of America should take military action to deter Assad from using these weapons and to degrade his capacity from doing so. Now, that's the president's decision. But he wants the Congress of the United States...

BORGER: No matter what Congress does? No matter what Congress does, the president...

KERRY: He has the right to do that no matter what Congress does. That is his right and he asserted that in his comments yesterday. But the president believes and I hope we will prove to the world that we are stronger as a nation, our democracy is stronger, when we respect the rights of the Congress to also weigh in on this.

And since it is not an emergency overnight as we saw in a place like Libya where people were about to be slaughtered; since we have the right to strike at any time if Assad is foolish enough to engage in yet another attack, we believe that it is important before this takes place to have the full investment of the American people and of the Congress.

BORGER: Well, what are you telling the Syrian opposition now, who was -- they are clearly counting on military action sooner rather than later, and now it's been delayed?

KERRY: Well, sometimes the wheels of democracy require us to take an extra day or two to provide the legitimacy that our founding fathers contemplated in actions that we take. And I talked yesterday with the president of the Syrian opposition. I believe he understands that America intends to act, that we are going to continue to support the opposition, that we may even, as a result of this, be able to provide greater support to the opposition and do a better job of helping the opposition to be able to continue to fight against the Assad regime.

I think that they will be stronger, we will be stronger in the end. And it's amazing to me to see people suddenly standing up and taking such affront at the notion that Congress ought to weigh in. I mean, I can hear the complaints that would have taken place if the president proceeded unilaterally and people said, "Well, why didn't he take the Congress..."

BORGER: But, Mr. Secretary, it seems that -- I think the questions are being raised because it seems that, from the onset of this over the last couple of weeks, it seems that the president was poised to take action sooner rather than later. You came out and said it matters if nothing is done.

KERRY: It does matter, Gloria. None of that has changed.

BORGER: So -- so people are raising -- why didn't he decide to go to Congress immediately if it was so constitutionally important?

KERRY: Because the president needed to gather the evidence and have -- ask me and others to make judgments and ultimately to make the case to the American people.

BORGER: Did he conclude that he didn't have enough political support in the country to go to it alone this...

KERRY: Absolutely not. The president of the United States asserted yesterday, you know, that he has the right and I believe he has that right. But the president made, I think, a very courageous decision. Just because he disappointed some people who thought -- who thought, without any basis, that he was setting up to go take a strike doesn't mean that he didn't reserve the right to make the judgment that he made.

No decision is made by a president until the decision is made. And this president did not make the decision until he finally came to the conclusion that he wanted to take this to Congress in order to have the greater strength of the American people speaking as a whole.

I think it's a very -- I personally believe, at a time when the institutions of governance are being doubted by many people, I think this is a very courageous decision. I think it is a big presidential decision, and no one should misinterpret it, particularly Assad or the opposition.

BORGER: But it's also risky, Mr. Secretary, isn't it?

I mean, the risk is, if Congress were, and I know you don't expect this, but if Congress were to vote no and then the president were to strike, wouldn't that set up a constitutional crisis?

KERRY: The president has the right and he has asserted that right that he could do what's necessary to protect the national security of the United States at any point in time.

The president believes that we are stronger as a nation when we act together, the branches of government that are designated with powers with respect to foreign policy. And so the president has made his decision.

And he courageously went out yesterday and announced his decision to the nation and the world. He believes that this -- this outrageous attack by Assad merits the United States joining with others to stand up and defend the international norm with respect to the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons.

The president announced that decision and now he has asked the Congress of the United States representing the American people to join in with him in that decision.

BORGER: Mr. Secretary...

KERRY: And we are stronger as a nation when that happens.

BORGER: Let me ask you about our coalition. When you were running for president in 2004, you said that in Iraq we should not have relied on what you called "a coalition of the few." Isn't that what we have here right now?

KERRY: Well, I think we have a coalition of more than a few. But this is a situation that is going to go grow as the evidence comes out.

And it's another reason why the president believes there is a value in going through this process. I've talked with a number of nations who have offered to be helpful. No decisions have been made about what shape that will take. But I believe that there are many -- the Arab League has already spoken out, voices as far away as Japan, New Zealand, Australia; other places have spoken out.

I think the world takes enormous affront at this incredible abuse of power, this -- this attack on decency and incredible crime against humanity. I think voices will grow over the next days as people see the evidence.

BORGER: And -- and...

KERRY: And that evidence is becoming more powerful every day. As I've mentioned to you, we now have the additional evidence of the signatures of sarin gas from the first responders.

BORGER: Is this from the United Nations? Is this from the United Nations?

KERRY: No, this is independent. This came to the United States. It's independent.

(CROSSTALK)

KERRY: But it is confirmation of the signatures of sarin. And so the case gets stronger by the day. And I believe the case for action will grow stronger by the day.

BORGER: And, Mr. Secretary, let me ask you, in speaking with members of Congress this week, it seems to me that some of the -- a lot of the disagreement with the administration is not so much based on the evidence of the use of chemical weapons, but I think the questions are largely about whether your plan for a so-called surgical attack will actually deter Assad.

So it seems to be more substantive. And my question to you is how can you be sure that a surgical attack will not just be a slap on the wrist, as John McCain might say, but will actually deter him from the use of these chemical weapons?

KERRY: I think, Gloria, there are a number of ways that there are messages that could be sent in an attack, without going into any details, that would make it very clear that, if he were to attempt to do it again, things could be considerably worse, number one.

But, number two, let me return that question around on anybody who asks it. How can you -- what happens if you don't do it? You can be absolutely certain, 100 percent, that you will have sent a message that he can do this with impunity, that it doesn't matter.

I'd far rather be where the president of the United States is ready to show him that he can deter and degrade his capacity to do this with the obvious threat that more could be done if necessary as opposed to sending him a message that the chemical weapons convention that has been in place since 1925 as a result of World War I no longer means anything, that the world is going to look the other way and that Iran and North Korea and Hezbollah and others will look at the United States and say nothing means anything.

That's what's at stake here. And the president has made his decision. This is squarely now in the hands of Congress. And I have confidence that my colleagues -- my former colleagues in the United States Senate and my friends in the House, they will do what is right because they understand the stakes.

BORGER: And, Mr. Secretary, is the president's legacy also on the line here?

KERRY: You know, this is not a time for legacy and all of that discussion. This is a time to recognize that here in this country we have a very important decision to make about the United States and its credibility, our values, our interests, the interests of our friends.

I ask any American just to think what will Iran think with respect to America's efforts to not have it have a nuclear weapon if we are not prepared to enforce the chemical weapons convention with respect to Assad? What will North Korea think? What will any group in the world think if the United States is unprepared to follow through?

The president has made it clear he is prepared. But he wants our nation to speak with one voice. He wants our nation to be united through the elected representatives of the people who now have an opportunity to exercise their prerogatives with respect to American foreign policy.

I think it's a courageous decision by the president. I think he ought to be congratulated for respecting and not exercising the power of the imperial presidency, where he just goes off and does what he thinks is right without regard to that. The president knows he has the power to do this, but he is empowering the Congress to empower the nation through the decision that we make together.

BORGER: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary, for being with us this morning.

KERRY: Thank you.

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