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Crisis in Syria - Decision Point

Aired September 11, 2013 - 23:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST (voice-over): Tonight a special hour of CNN.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: He isn't about to do it. And it can't be done, obviously.

TAPPER (voice-over): Obviously, except that at this very moment Secretary of State John Kerry is on a plane to Geneva to negotiate with the Russians over the very plan he raised and then dismissed: to strip Syria of chemical weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Russians are part of the problem in Syria.

TAPPER (voice-over): Skepticism over the sincerity of Russia's plan. Vladimir Putin laying down an ultimatum for the U.S. But does he really want a peace deal?

DUSTIN HOFFMAN, ACTOR, " STANLEY MOTSS": You want me to produce your war?

TAPPER (voice-over): A classic case of the tail wagging the dog. A supposed expert on the Syrian rebels cited by Kerry and McCain and others in the case for military action, surprise, he's in the pocket of a group that has pushed the U.S. to back the rebels.



TAPPER: Good evening, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to the special hour of CNN CRISIS IN SYRIA: DECISION POINT.

Just minutes ago on this eve of an all-important powwow in Geneva between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart to talk over a plan for stripping Syria of chemical weapons, "The New York Times" published a stern and at times standoffish op-ed from their brand new contributor, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the op-ed he speaks directly to the American people and says, among many, many things, that there is, quote, "every reason to believe it was the rebels, not Syrian regime forces, who used poison gas."

And then there's this from his final paragraph referencing President Obama's speech on Syria last night, quote, "I would rather disagree with the case the president made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States policy is what makes America different. It's what makes us exceptional. "It is extremely dangerous," Putin writes, "to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."

Glasnost it ain't. His op-ed is titled, "A Plea for Caution from Russia," but it doesn't contain much pleading.

Was he taking lessons on diplomacy from Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV"?

And there's also the fact that Putin wants this in order to enact his plan for Syria.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): Of course, all this won't mean anything if the United States and other nations supporting it tell us that they're giving up their plan to use force against Syria. You can't really ask Syria or any other country to disarm unilaterally while military action against it is being contemplated.


TAPPER: Standing down is not something the U.S. is willing to do at this point. And while Secretary Kerry is on a plane over the Atlantic as we speak to see if there's a way out of this without U.S. airstrikes, CNN has confirmed that the CIA has started delivering weapons to the Syrian rebels in the last two weeks after months of delays.

I'm joined for this special hour of CNN by our panel chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash, chief political analyst Gloria Borger and chief domestic affairs correspondent Jessica Yellin.

Our first guest is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

Senator, thanks for joining us. First of all, just your response to this remarkable op-ed from Vladimir Putin that doesn't seem to be exactly on message with what I thought was being agreed to.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), N.J.: Well, Jake, I got an e-mail with what President Putin had to say. And I have to be honest with you -- at dinner and I almost wanted to vomit. The reality is, I worry when someone who came up to the KGB tells us what is in our national interests and what is not. And it really raises the questions of how serious this Russian proposal is.

TAPPER: And that's what I wonder is, at -- with this as a scene setter, I mean, it's not quite the message, the subtle message that Anthony Weiner gave to the members of the press on his last limo ride away from -- but it's pretty close, taking issue with American exceptionalism, saying it was the rebels, when he's already saying that he's going to help take CW away from the Assad regime.

It's kind of in your face. MENENDEZ: Well, it's very much in your face. And you know, when I see Putin's other comments that suggest, well, you, can't expect a country to unilaterally disarm. We're not talking about unilateral disarmament. We're talking about chemical weapons.

So if he believes that in the arsenal that Syria or any country should have is chemical weapons that they can use, my God, that's a real problem. That's not unilateral disarmament by any stretch of the imagination.

DANA BASH, SR. U.S. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Chairman, you just said that it raises questions about how serious the Russian proposal is.

John Kerry is on a plane right now going to try to talk to his counterpart from Russia.

Is he on a fool's errand?

MENENDEZ: No, look. I believe as someone who helped author the resolution that got a bipartisan support in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that it would be foolish to close -- slam the door on a potential diplomacy. We have to test it.

But all of the indicators from Russia beginning to back off of a Security Council resolution, which is the only confirming way that we'll know whether this is serious, to this latest op-ed piece, to the suggestion that unilateral disarmament means ability to use chemical weapons, that's a real serious consequence to the validity of this offer and the sincerity of it.

But look, we have to test it. And I think we have to test it both for at home and abroad.


JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: But doesn't the Security Council resolution -- can I nail you down on that -- a Security Council resolution is what you must agree to, because the Russians in the past have agreed to have Iran abandon their nuclear weapons and then backed off of that.

The Russians also agreed to a similar proposal to allow nuclear enrichment in their country for Iran and then backed off of that as well, wouldn't include teeth.

So if they agree to this and then Syria balks, what should Russia -- how should the rest of the world enforce it?

MENENDEZ: Well, that's why a Security Council resolution is critical in order to achieve what we hope can -- what we would hope could happen.

Look, a potential result of this could be far more positive. We were ready to strike, to stop Assad's abilities to have weapons that deliver chemical weapons. If you can eliminate the chemical weapons, that's a greater desirable result. But it has to be real.

And look, the only reason -- I believe that the only reason that the Russians are even maneuvering in this way and considering the possibility is because of the credible use of force. If that was not there we would neither hear Russia making any offer nor would we hear the Syrians contemplating some.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Senator, so what do you think is going on in the Kremlin? Here they are --

MENENDEZ: Your guess is as good as mine.

BORGER: Well, but your guess is probably better than mine.

So let me ask you, what's going on?

I mean, they have -- they get together and say, well, let's write this op-ed for "The New York Times" and play to public opinion, which is against President Obama, and divide America even more.

I mean, what's the thinking here?

MENENDEZ: No, Gloria, I think there are two things going on here.

First of all, I think the Russians did see the contemplated possibility of strikes against Assad, and that would have weakened him. Even though our purpose was to pursue the delivery mechanisms for chemical weapons, it would have degraded Assad significantly. It could have, by consequence, created a change on --


BORGER: But I mean with this op-ed.

MENENDEZ: -- on the battlefield. That's why I think they began to move in this direction.

He's trying to maximize his leverage. He's trying to get the American people to ultimately be further divided, and in doing so have a stronger leverage point through his foreign minister in these negotiations. But I think the American people when they read that will reject it wholeheartedly. He may have an opposite result as the result of his op-ed.

BORGER: Says he has the pope on his side.

MENENDEZ: Well, I am sure that the Holy Father has moved Putin at various other times.


TAPPER: I want to get your response to some of the things, some of the claims he makes, because you have information that we, as people who haven't seen the classified intelligence have and that the public as well doesn't have. Putin writes when talking about the poison gas and who's responsible, quote, "No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria but there is every reason to believe that it was used not by the Syrian army, but by opposition forces to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.

"Reports that militants are preparing another attack, this time against Israel, cannot be ignored."

Now, you've seen the classified intelligence.

Does he have any case to make there?

MENENDEZ: No. Look, only in Russia and Putin's parallel alternate universe could you believe that.

Let's add the facts up for a moment. The facts are these, that there is no question that the delivery system of the chemical weapons were through missiles.

If the rebels had missiles they'd be striking at his artillery and his aircraft.

They don't have missiles, number one.

Number two, all of our satellite intelligence shows that the delivery of those missiles came from areas controlled by Assad into the rebel areas.

We also know that Assad's regime, as it relates to chemical weapons, are fully vetted for loyalty to the regime and under its absolute control. And we know, basically, that access to chemical weapons does not exist at this point in time among the rebels.

So if you add up all of those facts, you can clearly understand that Putin's position is out of the realm of believability.

BASH: But Senator, you just said it is called Putin's -- you just talked about Putin's parallel alternate universe. It's his universe and we're living in it right now. I mean, isn't that the reality that we are -- and that's part of what he was trying to say in his op-ed. He's running the show right now.

And so -- but as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, do you feel comfortable with the fact that we are living in his parallel alternate universe?

MENENDEZ: Yes, I don't think -- when I say his parallel alternate universe, look, this is a guy who grew from the KGB to be the head of it. And he is still, from my perspective, still very dominated in his mind by KGB and the desires for a greater Russia.

So that's what I mean by his parallel alternate universe. He's very conniving; he's very calculating. At the end of the day, I think the world, however, needs to see that challenge. Many of my colleagues who are ambivalent about the declaration of the use of force want to see a diplomatic track to be pursued. And this is an opportunity to do that.


YELLIN: He has all the leverage right now doesn't he? He supplied all those weapons to Assad that you're talking about. For 30 years he's been supplying those weapons.

Why do we think he'd be motivated to get him to turn them over?

MENENDEZ: Well, I think that there is a clear understanding -- and this is why the credible use of military force needs to continue to be on the table.


MENENDEZ: -- well, it came on the table -- let me finish the first answer, then I'll go to the second.

It's four on one here.




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But are you going to be --

MENENDEZ: So let me finish the first answer -- and that is he came to a conclusion strategically that there was a real possibility.

Remember what the president said. The president said, I have made the decision that the use of force is necessary. But I'm going to go to the Congress. He has not yet abdicated the possibility of the use of force under any set of circumstances. That's a real prominent possibility.

So in that respect he looks at the issues of Syria's interests. This is the only foothold they have in the Middle East. He's lost enormous support within the Middle East because of his position as a patron of Syria.

And to be very honest with you, as he sees Syria eroding, even as they try to keep Assad in power, this is never going to be a country, from my perspective, where Assad is going to control the whole country.

So the access to those chemical weapons potentially at risk may be in Russia's interests as well to make sure they're secured again.

BORGER: Hasn't he just stuck his thumb in John Kerry's eye?

One in John Kerry's eye and one in President Obama's eye with this --

TAPPER: That's two thumbs.


BORGER: -- two thumbs with this piece?

Thank you.

We have instant fact check at this table.

Hasn't he done that with this op-ed and kind of stopped things before they even start?

MENENDEZ: Look, I think they are going to try to maximize their position as John Kerry goes in to his discussions with Lavrov and create the maximum ability to get the result that they want.

Now --

BORGER: Is that a yes or a no?

MENENDEZ: That's on --


MENENDEZ: -- well, it means that they're going to maximize their position. And if maximizing their position is taking efforts to try to divide the American public and try to undermine the very efforts so that the Americans are in a weakened position -- but I don't think he'll achieve that. It's very clear that we're going to insist on a verifiable process with the U.N. resolution, otherwise we have nothing.

TAPPER: All right, Senator Menendez and the rest of our panel, stay with us. There's a lot more to tackle tonight.

Coming up, Russia's offer to work out a Syria deal bailed the Obama administration out of a showdown with Congress over a military strike.

So what happens if talks with Russia fail? Is there a plan C? We'll break down the options with our panel and Senator Menendez coming up next.



Best case scenario for the Obama administration: Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Russia, hashes out a solid deal to get Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles put under international control. Syria complies without pulling any funny business and we all go back to remembering that looming debt ceiling battle.

If that sound like a pipe dream, and some, including Senator John McCain say it is a pipe dream, then what does that mean for the next phase of dealing with this crisis?

Let's bring back our panel. Gloria Borger, Jessica Yellin, Dana Bash and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of the great state, the Garden State of New Jersey.

Senator, let's make the assumption that this isn't going to work or at least it stumbles a little bit. It seemed as though the House was definitely not going to support an authorization of force, and the Senate might not, either, even though, of course, it passed through your committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Can the Obama administration afford to take this back to Congress?

MENENDEZ: Well, look. I think that many members who I've talked to who are undecided actually view this set of circumstances as an opportunity, and we've been talking about the possibility --


TAPPER: I think they view it as an escape hatch.

MENENDEZ: Well, I think they look at it as an opportunity in which those who have said we should really exercise the full extent of the diplomacy -- although I've argued with them that two years of Russian vetoes is an extensive use of diplomacy -- but that this opportunity might give them the wherewithal to say, you know what, put this in the resolution, give it an opportunity, and if in fact it doesn't --

BORGER: They want a vote? Really? Because my impression is -- well --

MENENDEZ: Do they want to vote? I don't know if anybody wants to vote. But to the extent that there is a vote, I think this would bring votes to the resolution that aren't necessarily there right now.

BASH: And on that note, a big part of the reason, as you well know, that the opposition was there is because people, even in your own party, feel that the case has not been made by the president.

He gave a big speech last night, and your counterpart, Republican counterpart on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, talked to me today and was extremely candid, frustrated, exasperated with the way the president handled that speech and this whole issue in general. Listen to what he said.


SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENN: The president just seems to be very uncomfortable being commander in chief of this nation. He cannot speak to the nation as a commander in chief. He cannot speak to the world as a commander in chief. He just cannot do it. And I don't know what it is.


BASH: Now, this is for people who don't realize, he's not a Republican firebrand, he -- on this issue; he worked with you. You wrote the resolution together. You very much support the president on this issue. And he's saying that he doesn't think he's comfortable as being commander in chief. What do you think about that?

MENENDEZ: Well, look, Bob Corker is an excellent senator. We have passed a whole slew of legislation, including the resolution for the use of force, in a bipartisan process. I'm thrilled to be working with him.

I think that what I gathered from that interview and his sense of frustration is he wanted the president to make a broader argument beyond that which he made. He wanted him to make --

BASH: Do you agree with him though?

MENENDEZ: Well, I do believe that where the president missed an opportunity in his address last night was to talk about some of the other consequences.

For example, what does the ayatollah in Iran think about our inability to enforce a red line as we are telling him do not pass that line as it relates to nuclear weapons?

What does the dictator of North Korea think about our resolve as it relates to some of his nuclear process and a big cache of chemical weapons as well?

I would have liked to have seen the president extend it back --


BORGER: So you're saying --

MENENDEZ: --and talk about the consequences.

I think he did make a national security argument. I think he could have expanded to the strategic importance that goes beyond Syria into other parts of the world which are very dangerous for us as well.

YELLIN: Senator, are you at all concerned about who's driving the president's policy?

When you look at his first term national security team, he seemed pretty decisive, compared to this. But at that time he had Secretary Clinton, he had Secretary Panetta, at some point he had Petraeus. Those people are all gone.

And does it worry you at all that he doesn't have people -- do you think perhaps he doesn't have around him who can drive him, can say no to him, who can give him a little more direction?

MENENDEZ: Look, the President of the United States is the one person that gets elected by all of us to make a decision. He's the one who holds the nuclear code. He's the one that makes decisions about the use of American forces. He can have a team around him that can make all the arguments in the world. He has to make the final decision. I think he's a very capable person.

YELLIN: But this is what I'm saying.

MENENDEZ: But they're very forceful.

John Kerry is not a shrinking violet. I don't think Susan Rice is a shrinking violet and has a particularly close relationship with the president even beyond his previous national security adviser. I don't doubt that they are forceful in their arguments. But he is the president and he makes the final decision.

BORGER: Can I get back to the negotiations with the Russians?

There's been talk of a timetable, no timetable.

How long will it take us to know that we're being played?

MENENDEZ: Well, Gloria, I think that these negotiations in Geneva are going to give us a big understanding. The chemical weapons inspectors are supposedly at the U.N., supposedly come out with their report next week.

BORGER: So what's your timeframe?

MENENDEZ: I would say that we are going to know pretty clearly within the next two weeks whether this is a serious opportunity or not, whether we're going to be at the U.N. with a resolution somewhere within that timeframe. I think that that's going to give us a pretty clear idea whether this is a sincere opportunity or whether this just is a purchase of time and international maneuvering.

TAPPER: Senator, before you go I want to get your reaction.

I asked the White House what they made of "The New York Times" op-ed and -- from Vladimir Putin. They did not express any feelings of nausea as you did.


TAPPER: They of course are in the middle of negotiating --

MENENDEZ: They must have a stronger stomach.

TAPPER: -- and stronger stomachs.

This is what they said -- and this is from -- this is a senior White House official saying that, "The op-ed indicates that Putin is now fully invested in serious chemical weapon disarmament."

I said, well, what about saying that the rebels were behind the chemical weapons? What about the poke in the eye on American exceptionalism?

And the official said, "That's all irrelevant. Putin put this proposal forward and he's now invested in it. That's good. That's the best possible reaction. He's fully invested in Syria CW disarmament. That's potentially better than a military strike, which would deter and degrade but wouldn't get rid of all the chemical weapons. He now owns this. He has fully asserted ownership of it and he needs to deliver."

Now that's good spin.

But do you think that that's what this op-ed says? I am Vladimir Putin and I own this process?

MENENDEZ: Look, I don't think that's necessarily what it says. But I don't disagree with the part of the analysis that says, look, Russia has played a card here. And they think it's going to work out to their advantage.

This could be a total backfire for Russia. If at the end of the day the sincerity, the transparency ends up being that this was just a ploy, I think the Russians pay a huge consequence for it. I think the world looks at it in a different way. I think Americans look at it in a different way. And that could backfire.

BORGER: Don't we pay a price too, though, if it fails, not just the Russians?

MENENDEZ: If the effort fails?


MENENDEZ: I think -- I think what happens is we once again show to the entire world at a time that they're riveted -- I don't know that they've been riveted for the last two years in our efforts at the U.N., but world and the nation is riveted on this right now.

And seeing that the Russians lied, if that's what ends up happening, and that in fact it was not sincere and that in fact we have exhausted all possibilities, I think that strengthens the president's hand.

And what we need to be doing in the Congress is making sure that a credible use of military force is on the table, because that's the only way that we're going to get to a diplomatic solution.

TAPPER: Senator Menendez, everybody wants to ask more questions, but I have to end it here. I promised your staff I'd let you get home before you turn into a pumpkin.

Thank you so much. Great having you here.

Gloria, Jessica, Dana, stand by.

Up next, the spin doctors aren't just a cheesy 90s band, they are the people who go out of their way to control the message in Washington. And there is speculation they had plenty to do with the widely cited report used to calm fears about the opposition in Syria. We'll take you behind the curtain of D.C.'s true power players. That's up next.



I'm sure I'm really going to blow your mind with this observation. The operators in Washington, D.C., do not always have the purest of motivations, so-called experts and analysts can have their own agendas, connections, financial ties that might make you re-evaluate their positions, that is if you ever found out about it.


TAPPER (voice-over): Do you remember the movie "Wag the Dog," the black comedy about a fake war sold to the American people by public relations professionals and a Hollywood producer?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going have the appearance of a war.

TAPPER (voice-over): Or do you remember "Thank You for Smoking," an attempt to pull back the curtain on how this town really works?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The message Hollywood needs to send out is smoking is cool.

TAPPER (voice-over): Those two films and their somewhat exaggerated takes on D.C. came to mind today because of this woman, who has regularly appeared on CNN and other networks.

ELIZABETH O'BAGY, SYRIAN "ANALYST": I travel with groups where we actually can kind of identify the more extremist checkpoints.

TAPPER (voice-over): Elizabeth O'Bagy: as the Obama administration prepared its case for military force, O'Bagy wrote an op-ed for "The Wall Street Journal" in which she pushed back against the narrative that the rebels are Al Qaeda-led extremists. She argued that, quote, "Moderate opposition groups make up the majority of actual fighting forces."

KERRY: There is a real moderate opposition that exists.

TAPPER (voice-over): The op-ed was cited just days later by Senator John McCain and Secretary of State John Kerry as Kerry testified before Congress.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZ.: Dr. Elizabeth O'Bagy.

KERRY: She works with the Institute of War, she's fluent in Arabic.

TAPPER (voice-over): O'Bagy was a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. But it turns out she also works for an organization that advocates for the Syrian rebels, the Syrian Emergency Task Force.

That was not disclosed at the time. Today the Institute for the Study of War fired O'Bagy, saying in a statement, quote, "Contrary to her representations, Ms. Elizabeth O'Bagy does not in fact have a PhD from Georgetown University. ISW has accordingly terminated Ms. O'Bagy's employment effective immediately.

Even so, the founder of ISW defended the content of the op-ed as rock solid in an interview with "Politico" today. Still, it's all part of this weird world in Washington, an echo chamber of paid pseudoexperts, a doctor who is not a doctor writing an op-ed, testifying for the rebels, without disclosing that she is paid for by a rebel advocacy group.

And it all ends up as evidence in a case for attacking.


TAPPER: As has been said, why does the dog wag its tail? Because the dog is smarter than the tail. If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog.

I want to bring back in our panel, Dana, Jessica and Gloria.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now that that's clear.


TAPPER: Here's the thing. This all reminded me -- and this is an extreme example, OK? Because nothing that O'Bagy wrote, the credibility has not been questioned.


TAPPER: It's whether or not she was paid. But what she wrote in the op-ed,"The Wall Street Journal" and the Institute for the Study of War say it seems all legitimate, even in retrospect.

But it does remind me of when the Bush-Cheney administration would place information in "The New York Times" with Judith Miller and then the next day cite -- or the day it was on the front page, cite "The New York Times" as evidence for why Saddam Hussein was trying to build a nuclear bomb or whatever.


Again, that's an extreme example. I'm not comparing O'Bagy to this but --

BORGER: -- we're willing participants in that because of course there -- in the case of the Bush administration, they're leaking to "The New York Times" because they then want to refer to "The New York Times," which they say the media reads and listens to, so they create their own story line.

TAPPER: But the illusion that it's independent, though, is what I'm getting at, as opposed to like if O'Bagy had been cited, according to the Obama administration, blah, blah, blah, as opposed to she's an independent researcher.

But I know this is how Washington works. I just thought it would be interesting to pull back the curtain a little for our viewers because it does happen all the time.

BASH: It happens all the time, absolutely all the time. And to the way you illustrated it, to show the reality and then to show John McCain and John Kerry talking about this woman in one of the most important hearings that we've seen in a long time, should give everybody pause.

BORGER: But it's part of the rollout. And I don't have any indication that she was involved in any way in that. We now know who she represents.

But you see this article, you quote this article. Somebody plants this article. We don't know if it was planted or not planted. I mean, "The Wall Street Journal" just says that they had no idea about any of her other credentials, right?

TAPPER: But that's what public relations firms in this town do, is they'll say we need -- we're trying to have this happen.


TAPPER: Let's write an op-ed. We'll get so-and-so to sign their name to it. It appears in "The Washington Post," The New York Times," The Wall Street Journal," and then people are able to point to this as evidence when -- again it's --

BORGER: Like Warren Buffett writing about tax laws, right? On behalf of the Obama administration, right?

YELLIN: Then they name the law after him?

BORGER: Then they named the law after him.

TAPPER: That's the reward; you get a law named after you.


BASH: But this is happening in this arena this way. But it also happens in advertising; it happens in business; it happens all over the place with people who are trying to --

TAPPER: Oh, sure.

YELLIN: (Inaudible) people are savvy to it at this point? And it's part of the reason that there's less -- you don't think so?

TAPPER: I don't think so. I think that's why I think the disclosure that did not appear originally with Elizabeth O'Bagy's op-ed was so important. It should have said that, and then they still could have held it up as evidence and there would be no -- we wouldn't have done a story about it. I will say we did reach out to Elizabeth O'Bagy and she did not return our call.

Coming up, even before the situation in Syria came to a head President Obama faced an uphill battle getting Congress on board with his second term agenda beyond Syria. So now that he's laid so much on the line to get support from military strikes, has he spent what little political capital he had left to take care of business at home?


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) TAPPER: And welcome back to our special coverage CRISIS IN SYRIA: DECISION POINT.

After President George W. Bush was elected to a second term he told reporters candidly --


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me put it to you this way. I earned capital in the campaign, political capital. And now I intend to spend it.


TAPPER: Political capital: it doesn't come cheap in this town. Now after weeks of trying to rally Congress to support him on a fast- changing policy in Syria, has President Obama broken the bank on what political capital he has left in his second term?

Joining our panel right now, Congressman Steve Israel; he is the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Congressman Israel, thanks so much for being here.

You say that you were surprised by how politicized this vote became. I want to play some sound from Tulsi Gabbard. She's a freshman -- you know she is -- from Hawaii.


TAPPER: And this is what she has to say about this vote.

Oh, I'm sorry. It's -- oh, I apologize. It's Tammy Duckworth. I apologize.

She said --

ISRAEL: She's also great.

TAPPER: She's also great.

"It's military families like mine that are the first to bleed when our nation makes this kind of commitment."

She opposes the authorization, as does Tulsi Gabbard, the freshman from Hawaii, who also served honorably.

Is President Obama hurting his credibility with some Democratic members of the House?

ISRAEL: No, I don't think so at all. Look, the president has a strongly held position on this. Many of us agree; some disagree. What counts now is what emerged at a briefing that we had early this morning in the Democratic caucus, where we focused on where do we go from here, what has to happen with the Russian proposal. And so -- TAPPER: Who was briefing?

ISRAEL: It was a Democratic caucus briefing with members of the administration.

And it was a classified briefing. I'm not going to talk about what happened in a classified briefing.


TAPPER: It's between us.

ISRAEL: That's right. Just between us.

TAPPER: Just us girls.


ISRAEL: But here's what's important. The focus wasn't on the nature of the intel, the focus was on how do we make sure that the Russian proposal is real?

How do we make sure that there are meat on the bones?


ISRAEL: And so our focus on both sides of the aisle right now, quite honestly, is on ensuring that this is a legitimate, transparent, verifiable proposal.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How do you do it?

ISRAEL: Well, here's how you do it. And I think this is how it unfolds over the next several days.

Number one, you send your secretary of state to sit down with the foreign minister over the next several days and begin to not dot the I's and cross the T's but we want to see the I's and the T's.

Secondly the United Nations is going to present -- the inspectors will present their report and Congress has a responsibility to digest that.

And then we have to make an assessment sometime next week, I believe, as to have we put this proposal in the pressure cooker and has it -- can it withstand the pressure?

BORGER: And Vladimir Putin writes an op-ed?

Is that part of it?

I mean, did -- you heard what Senator Menendez said.


ISRAEL: (Inaudible). That's --

BORGER: Well, what is that -- ?

ISRAEL: The point is this. Words don't matter. The words in an op- ed don't matter. Even the words on a proposal that the Russians present to us don't matter. It is the deed that matters.

And you have to make sure -- I agree with what Ronald Reagan once said, "Trust, but verify."

You can trust the words, but you have to verify the deed.

BASH: I'm just -- if it's OK I want to turn back to what Jake was talking about and about the agenda. And also just about kind of the state of play of Congress vis-a-vis the president.

Jake was talking about spin doctors. We like talking to you because you're definitely not a spin doctor; you'll give us the truth.

ISRAEL: My mother always wanted me to be a doctor but never a spin doctor.


BASH: But the idea of the whole -- much of the caucus, of your caucus, people you helped get elected in the last cycle, being against the president, how much of that is because they don't have a relationship with a president of their own party?

They're just -- it's just -- there's no there there, in all candor.

ISRAEL: No, I think it has more to do with the concern that many of my colleagues had with intelligence in the prior administration. I think there's a --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is about the president?

ISRAEL: No. There is -- I think more than that, is a sense that we've been down this road. We're dubious when the intelligence community tells us that there are weapons of mass destruction. Been there, done that. And so this administration had a much and has a much higher hurdle.

BASH: But it's easier to swallow and it's easier to clear that hurdle when members of the president's own party have a relationship with him.


ISRAEL: No. I think, you know, quite honestly the relationship actually should be put aside when you're making decisions on whether to commit force. You have to put those relationships aside.

You've got to make a judgment, not based on do I like this president, but do I believe the intelligence and do I believe that his recommendation is the most appropriate course for the national security interests of this country?

BORGER: But how does it affect everything else, as Dana was talking about?

You've got the debt ceiling, the government shutdown, all this other stuff that's really important coming up -- and Syria.

ISRAEL: And the issue is not whether the President of the United States has expended his political capital. The issue is whether House Republicans are willing to spend any of theirs.

This is a group of people who have said that they're willing to shut down the government unless the Affordable Care Act is defunded.

This is a group of people that couldn't even pass a bill to provide assistance to families like my constituents who got hurt in Hurricane Sandy.

So it's not that the president won't -- can't -- doesn't have any more political capital to spend; it's does he have anybody who's willing to get stuff done.

YELLIN: But are you at all surprised that he has spent more lobbying effort on this one cause than on any other effort to date since health care reform?

ISRAEL: No, I'm not because this is a very significant crisis.

YELLIN: To the American people this is the most significant crisis that has faced the American people since health care reform?

ISRAEL: Well, a decision on whether you should deploy force, even if it's on a standoff capability, is a very serious decision.

BASH: But he didn't do it for Libya.

ISRAEL: Oh, you know, I've never believed that there's a one-size- fits-all on any kind of national security imperative. So you have to take each crisis and each situation on its own.

TAPPER: Congressman, I want to ask you about the intelligence. You're saying that members of the House Democratic Congress, Democratic members of the House are skeptical of the intelligence.

Is that what you're saying?

ISRAEL: No, no, I'm saying they came into this with a high level of skepticism.

Let me just speak for myself.

I listened to President Bush tell me that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. I was there when he showed me a vial with pink liquid and he said this is a precursor to a chemical or a biological weapon.

To me it looked like some medicine that you would get at the local drugstore. But the president of the United States said that the intelligence supported that this was dangerous to our country. I actually entered this process far more dubious and far more skeptical about what the intelligence community was saying than I would have had I not gone through the Iraq process. And that actually ended up serving me well because I questioned it more seriously.

I parsed the data in a more significant way and came to the conclusion, having been more dubious, that this was the real deal, that this guy has used chemical weapons. And every time we didn't stop him, he showed the world he was willing to escalate, amplify and would do it again.

YELLIN: (Inaudible) option to work, our allies also need to be on board with it.

ISRAEL: Correct.

YELLIN: And you know, today the Gulf Cooperation Council says because of the president's change in policy, the Gulf states feel misled. "Le Figaro's" headline today is their President Hollande is now forced to manage Obama's retreat.

Cameron in England took a humiliating defeat that now looks like he didn't have to take.

Do you think America's allies are now going to be with us after they've gone through all of this, maybe for naught?

ISRAEL: I think that the focus over the next week or so, with our international partners and with Russia, will be whether or not we have a diplomatic solution to this, whether or not we can achieve the key strategic objective of degrading the chemical weapons capacity in Syria through diplomacy, through inspections, through an opening up of the process.

And if we can get that done in a verifiable way, all the process arguments and all the arguments about what happened, what didn't happen, who said what, will be irrelevant.

You know who studies the process that goes into presidential decisions? Presidential historians.

You know what the American people care about? Did you get a result.

BORGER: Do you think the president in a way has boxed himself in?

And if these negotiations fall apart -- let's just say it falls apart -- that now he has to use force, whether he goes to the Congress or not?

TAPPER: And should he go to the Congress?


TAPPER: Would you tell him to go?

ISRAEL: Question, two yes, he should go. BORGER: Answer to question one?

ISRAEL: He should continue to engage.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you want all your members (inaudible) get reelected to vote on this?

BORGER: But wait, will he -- do you think he's boxed himself in so now he has to use force?

ISRAEL: No, I believe he did what most presidents would do.

You are managing a crisis. You are managing a very fluid situation.

There's a new development, a new development that is only a few days old where the entity, the country that was protecting a chemical weapons capability in Syria, now says, OK, we're going to take a different position. We're going to open up the process. We're going to help you verify that these chemical weapons will not be used.

Now, it's easy to criticize any president of any party for what he's done.

But what would you do?

Would you say, given that offer, we're not even interested in exploring it?

The president did what we would want him to do. Let's take a look at it, put it in the pressure cooker. If it works, great. If it doesn't work, we're going to consider other alternatives.

BASH: Carl Levin of Michigan said that he believes that the message has been muddled. I'm paraphrasing what he said. He said there have just been different messages from different members of the administration.

Have you found that that's a problem that you're hearing about when you are in the cloak room or on the House floor with your colleagues?

ISRAEL: I've heard my colleagues say that the message has been muddled. I do believe that there's a level of frustration with how fast things are changing.

How would you like to be a White House speech writer yesterday?

So the fact of the matter is, when you have -- this is just international politics. When you have a fast-changing situation, you want to be able to adapt to it. You don't want to force a position that may no longer be operative because events have overtaken that position. So you want to have flexibility. And you want to use time as an ally. You have to use time as an ally. That's what's happening now. TAPPER: All right. Congressman Steve Israel, Democrat of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, thanks so much for stopping by. We appreciate it.

Coming up next for our panel, was Putin's feisty op-ed in "The New York Times" the turning point in the negotiations?

Our panel delivers the best lines, and I'm going to make them do it with Russian accents.


TAPPER: We're back with our panel. It's time for the turning point. Russian president Vladimir Putin's very quotable op-ed breaking this evening in "The New York Times" gave White House staffers some late night homework as reporters have been bombarding their inboxes for reaction, present company likely included.

Jessica, I want to get your take on what was the most interesting, the turning point in the op-ed. I thought, for me, it was his -- he's still blaming it on the Syrian rebels and not the Syrian government, against all rhyme and reason and against the actions of his own government.

What was the most -- ?


YELLIN: Well, he's going to hold onto that message, I think. I thought when he said we must keep hope alive -- because this is Putin showing that he really understands American politics and he is really messing with President Obama, hope and change his head, Putin 2016.


BASH: OK. So I'm going to bounce right off of that about messing with Obama and also understanding that the American political system effectively saying that he's George Bush. He said you're either with us or against us. You, Barack Obama, are being a warmonger here. You are just like the guy who you promised you were never going to be like. Pretty remarkable.


BORGER: Do you think this essay is one of those things that was dropped into "The New York Times," a la the one we were just talking about? Planted?

Putin wrote it all by himself?

OK. So, number one he didn't write it. But the bored kid in the back of the classroom as the president calls him is also writing essays now. My favorite part was when he said, "My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust."

TAPPER: Growing. BORGER: Growing ever, ever larger.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Except for the Edward Snowden thing.

BORGER: Right. Exactly. And I don't know how the president would feel about that.

TAPPER: I mean, it's an interesting thing to try to peel back, that you're just talking about who wrote this. Obviously Vladimir Putin doesn't speak English. So he didn't write it. He probably is not familiar with Jesse Jackson's campaign.


BASH: -- And half kidding, half seriousness, the next thing is going to be to try to figure out which crisis communication firm in Washington was hired by the Russians and wrote this. I challenge you.

TAPPER: I don't think any (inaudible) I would catch in public relations represents the Russian government. But I can't believe that any PR firm would recommend this op-ed being published in "The New York Times."


TAPPER: -- because it's not winning anybody over.

BORGER: But you're not always in charge of your clients. Sometimes your clients will say, I think this is a really good idea and we ought to -- this is what I want, so go write.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He doesn't want to win anybody over.

TAPPER: All right. That's all the time we have. Dana Bash, Jessica Yellin, Gloria Borger, thank you so much.

And thank you for watching. I'm Jake Tapper. You can catch me on "THE LEAD" weekdays at 4:00 pm Eastern, 1:00 pm Pacific. And I'll be right back here tomorrow night at 11:00 pm Eastern, 8:00 pm Pacific, for another edition of CRISIS IN SYRIA: DECISION POINT.