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CBS "Face the Nation" - Transcript: Syria

Interview

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GARRETT: Good morning, and welcome to Face the Nation. Secretary of State John Kerry joins us from the State Department. Mr. Secretary, good morning.

KERRY: Good morning, Major.

GARRETT: Now, Mr. Secretary, I know you believe the president's decision to seek congressional authorization is courageous, but isn't it bowing to a political reality that had been communicated to the president late this week that there would be significant congressional backlash if he didn't give congress a role, and that backlash, in part, reflected the inability of the administration to make its case this past week?

KERRY: Major, I disagree with that premise on all accounts. The fact is the president clearly had sufficient case presented to the American people that Assad had engaged in an outrageous crime against humanity and that it was vital to take steps. But I think the president realized in consultations with the congress that people wanted to weigh in, and he believed after thinking about it, that the United States of America is much stronger when we act in concert. Rather than have the debate after an attack be all about our constitutional process or did the president abuse his power or was it correct and have weeks of sort of being torn apart about that, the president felt it was much more important for us to act with unity of purpose and in a concerted way. I think this is not just a courageous decision, I think it's the right decision. Since when it is wrong for the president of the United States to ask the congress, the elected body that represents of people of America, to weigh in? I think it's important and I think we will be stronger for it.

GARRETT: But as you know, Secretary Kerry, at the White House all week there was this intense sense of urgency about a response, and about a punishment, about immediately upholding what was said over and over again is an international norm. Now that has been delayed for a couple of weeks at least. Are you in any way disappointed that your advocacy for a swift response was overridden?

KERRY: Wrong. I did not advocate that the response had to be swift. In fact, I often said we needed to take time to do certain things. I think that-- you know, I'm not going to go into the deliberative process and tell you what I said or someone said to the president of the United States. But I will tell you that there was an appropriate, deliberative process by which we made -- had a discussion as to whether or not there ought to be some kind of military action. The question of when and how is entirely the president of the United States. And until he makes that decision, no decision is made. So I didn't feel -- no, on the contrary, the president called me on a Friday evening -- or I can't remember, he called me in the evening, and went through his thinking. He looked for different points of view from people, and he made his decision. And I think it's the right decision. The president has decided to take military action. Now, he also decided that it would be much stronger for our country and have much greater impact and allow us much greater latitude going forward in terms of how we address Syria if we have the congress of the United States backing it. He also felt that that was a very important message, if you will, to Iran, to North Korea, and to others not only about our Democratic process but most importantly that we are prepared to uphold the norms of international behavior as a country, and that we are united behind that, and that that gives greater impact to whatever choices we might face in other places in the future.

GARRETT: From now until this vote is conducted, will this be your top priority? And will it be the president's top priority, to get this vote won in Congress?

KERRY: Well, of course it is critical that we go through the process of explaining to congress. But each day that goes by, Major, this case is getting stronger. I mean, today I'm at liberty to tell that you we now have samples back from first responders in east Damascus. Those samples of hair and blood have been tested, and they have reported positive for signatures of sarin. So we are now getting a stronger case each day, and I think that makes even more compelling that the congress of the United States be counted with the president in this effort so that Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, all of our friend and allies in the region, will know that the United States is acting in concert in a way that really sends a powerful message about our credibility, about our intentions to uphold international norms, and that will have an impact on other decisions down the road. And I'm very explicit about it with respect to Iran and North Korea or others. The credibility of the United States is on the line here. And I believe the congress will do the right thing.

GARRETT: Mr. Secretary, Elizabeth Palmer who is with us in Damascus, has talked to some in the Syrian opposition. And she talked to the spokesperson for the Syrian military council who told her yesterday, and I quote, "we no longer count on America or any other country. We only count on ourselves and our rebels. We now realize that the whole world is mocking us, mocking our feelings and mocking our blood." Is this delay a mocking of the Syrian opposition and the blood it shed to try to oust the Syrian regime?

KERRY: Of course not. This delay is a serious intent by the president of the United States to seek the strongest position possible for military action that was directed specifically at the Assad regime in order to deter and degrade the use of chemical weapons. It is also a period of time during which we can build a stronger approach with our allies. We can tweak and refocus some of our energies on support for the opposition. And I hope that kind of comment will -- will be digested carefully by the members of congress who will recognize that that will be the result if they don't support the president in the effort to uphold this international norm. So I believe that -- and I talked yesterday with the president of the opposition, with President Jarba. I hope he understands the seriousness of purpose here. We will do a better job, and in fact work with important voices like John McCain and Lindsey Graham and others who believe more should be done. I believe there is a way to support the opposition and, in effect, come up with a stronger approach and a stronger presentation of America's determination here.

GARRETT: Mr. Secretary, you're saying something, and I want to make sure I pin you down accurately on this. A couple of things, the opposition has also said they hope this debate will open the way for more direct, covert arming of the opposition which, as you know, still hasn't arrived. MREs and medical kits have, but weapons haven't. They want weapons to come with this authorization. And are you suggesting that if congress goes ahead and authorizes this, this will be a more forceful, memorable military strike than it would have been had the president acted alone?

KERRY: No, what I'm saying is -- what I'm saying is, Major, is that -- first of all, I can't -- and I'm not going to discuss what may or may not be happening in terms of any kind of convert program. But I will assure you the president has made the commitment, he's announced it publicly, that he intends to provide additional support to the opposition. The president has drawn a clear line. He is not seeking to have America assume responsibility for Syria's civil war. He does not intend to put boots on the ground. He is not going to envelope the United States inside Syria's civil struggle. But he has committed to help the opposition, and he has stated unequivocally that Assad has lost all legitimacy and cannot conceivably continue to govern ultimately Syria. The president is committed, through the Geneva negotiation process and the implementation of the original Geneva communique, to have a transition government in Syria and to help support the effort to get there.

GARRETT: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for joining us on Face the Nation.

KERRY: Thank you.

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