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The reality is, the U.S. has now put its credibility on the line. It will find it extremely difficult to keep its actions limited in a volatile situation. And were it to succeed in ousting Assad, it would be implicated in the next phase of this war, which would almost certainly lead to chaos and the ethnic cleansing of the Alawite sect, to which Assad belongs, and perhaps of other minorities, as happened in Iraq.
Fareed Zakaria, CNN
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Airdate: September 8, 2013
A Block — GPS Shadow National Security Council Discusses Syria
FAREED ZAKARIA GPS
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: This is GPS, the Global Public Square. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I am Fareed Zakaria. We’re going to get you one step ahead on understanding the crisis in Syria. We have put together our own war room, a national security council of senior officials from recent administrations that is assembled and ready to take us through the path ahead for President Obama. We have General Wesley Clark, Paul Wolfowitz, James Steinberg and Nicholas Burns.
Then, a critical question. Can President Obama take action without Congress? Should he have even asked it or did he weaken the powers of his office? We have a lively debate.
And is Syria Libya all over again? Is Assad another Gadhafi? I’ll talk to the man who was critical in convincing the world it had to get rid of the Libyan dictator, France’s foremost public intellectual, Bernard-Henri Levy.
But, first, here’s my take. From the start of the Syrian conflict, President Obama has wanted to take two very different approaches to it. On the one hand, he’s been disciplined about the definition of American interests and the use of force.
On the other hand, he has sought a way to respond to Assad’s atrocities. The tension between the two paths continues to bedevil American policy as the administration prepares the ground for a strike.
Two years ago, Obama declared loftily that Assad had to go. A year ago, he announced that the use of chemical weapons was a red line. Now, for a while it was possible to keep the juggling act going, talking tough while doing little.
But presidential rhetoric creates expectations and, as I wrote in June, “Eventually, the contradictions in U.S. policy will emerge and the Obama administration will face calls for further escalation.”
The recent, horrific chemical-weapons attack had been the proximate cause, but there would have been others. As a result, we might be inching into a complex civil war while all the while denying that we are doing so.
Just as Obama’s past rhetoric has pushed America more deeply into this struggle, the current efforts to win congressional support are already producing mission creep.
At a meeting with House leaders, the President spoke explicitly about a “limited” strike that would “send a clear message.” That same day, his Secretary of State had to assure hawkish members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “this is not sending a message per se,” implying that the strikes would be much more substantial.
Republicans like John McCain have indicated that they have also been given more detailed assurances of a much more intense intervention.
The Administration might want to keep the mission “limited” and “proportional,” as Obama initially promised, but it will be a challenge.
In selling the case to Congress, Secretary Kerry and his colleagues have described what is at stake and they’ve done it in monumental terms, vital national security interests, 100 years of international law, the core credibility of the United States.
It is a “Munich moment,” says Kerry. But, in that case, how could American policy and response simply be merely a stiff warning, “a shot across the bow,” in the President’s words?
The reality is, the U.S. has now put its credibility on the line. It will find it extremely difficult to keep its actions limited in a volatile situation.
And were it to succeed in ousting Assad, it would be implicated in the next phase of this war, which would almost certainly lead to chaos and the ethnic cleansing of the Alawite sect, to which Assad belongs, and perhaps of other minorities, as happened in Iraq.
And, as in Iraq, if we break it, we buy it.
For more on this, go to cnn.com/fareed. You can read my Time column this week. Let’s get started.
In the coming days and weeks, the White House faces two tasks it needs to execute. First, it has to convince the American public and its proxy, the United States Congress, that striking Syria is the right thing to do.
Then, if successful, the White House and the military need to carry out those strikes in the “Goldilocks fashion,” not too hot, not too cold. So, how will they do this?
To answer that question, we have a decided to empanel our own shadow National Security Council meeting, former advisors from both sides of the aisle to offer their advice.
In the role of the military brass is General Wesley Clark, the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.
Nicholas Burns is representing our State Department. Nick is now at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, but ended a life in foreign service as the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs.
Sitting in the Pentagon civilian leadership seat is Paul Wolfowitz, the former Deputy Secretary of Defense. He is now at AEI.
And James Steinberg will play our national security role. He was Deputy National Security Advisor to President Clinton, also Deputy Secretary of State in the Obama first term. He’s now the dean of Maxwell School at Syracuse University.
Welcome to all of you.
Jim, imagine the National Security Council meeting after, let’s say, you get congressional approval. What would be the most important thing you would want to see decided right at that point?
JAMES STEINBERG, FORMER DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: I think the most important thing is to decide what is our objective, what do we want to achieve and how will we know that we’ve achieved it? What’s success?
I think by defining our objective we can then begin to develop the strategy both on the military and the political side at home and internationally.
ZAKARIA: Paul Wolfowitz, what would success look like? It’s a very good question. How would we know if we had achieved it?
PAUL WOLFOWITZ, FORMER DEPUTY DEFENSE SECRETARY AND DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, I think, as Jim says, first you have to decide what your strategy is and that needs to be clear. And I think you’re not going to achieve success just with a military strike. I think that also ought to be clear.
So, the question is what comes afterwards. And I believe what is absolutely essential is that we finally begin to provide serious support for the Free Syrian Army because unless the balances of forces is changed in Syria, this thing is going to continue and continue with I think very bad consequences.
ZAKARIA: Nicholas Burns, when you look at this issue, what I’m struck by — you know, as an old State Department hand, the United States would be going to war without the approval of the U.N. Security Council.
How big an issue would that be for diplomats, for the United States?
NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Oh, I think the United States has every reason and right to act here because what Secretary Kerry would say, Fareed, at your virtual table, would be this, the United States has to preserve its credibility in the world.
The Security Council’s frozen because of the cynical policies of Russia and China. We have to then enforce international law on the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons. I think that’s what the State Department would say first.
I also would agree with Paul that we ought to be looking second, post-strike, at initiatives to strengthen our support for the moderate rebel forces and to strike back, push back against the Iran Hezbollah axis.
And, the third, I think the State Department would say, is there a diplomatic play available if we succeed in weakening Assad and deterring future use of chemical weapons, could we go back to the table working with the Europeans, with the Arab countries, and maybe with the Russians and Iranians to try to work towards a cease-fire. That would be a rational strategy for the United States.
ZAKARIA: All right, so that’s the sort of the set of goals, the direction we want to go in.
Wes Clark, you’re now the man in the hot seat. What would you recommend? You ran the operations in Bosnia and Kosovo — I’m sorry, Bosnia. What would you recommend the nature of the military operation be in this case?
GENERAL WESLEY CLARK, FORMER SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER IN EUROPE: Well, I’ve got to go back to what Jim says, what’s the objective? And before I go into the military, just one thing is everybody’s always seem to be eager to press the military button.
But I wonder if there’s not an additional diplomatic play once you get the United States Congress on board. Because what we really want to do in terms of our objective is not just make the strike.
We want to bring the nations of the world together to say this can’t be done. You cannot use chemical weapons. If you can use the leverage of the congressional resolutions to reopen that before there’s even a strike, that’s the best of all possible worlds.
I see where China has said they’re with Russia, they don’t want to see a strike. Well, good. Do something about it. Let’s have some diplomacy in the region.
If we go to the strike, then we know how to put the package together. So, we’re going to pick out targets that are significant, targets that are minimized for collateral damage, targets that will be easy to access, targets that will make a different to the Assad regime and we’re going to also have to work the process of delivery.
So, maybe we’ll take out some radars, maybe we’ll take out some air defense sites on the way going in. But what we are going to also need to do is we’re going to need to assure that there’s freedom of action for the U.S. Navy in the region.
So, we’re going to have to set up some kind of a naval exclusion zone and ask our Russian friends would they please stay out of the way so they don’t accidentally get hit by a cruise missile.
And, by the way, that exclusion zone has to be under the sea as well as in the air and on the surface around our fleet. So, there’s a lot of diplomacy associated with this.
So, we’re in — you know, from the military perspective, we’re in no rush to strike. We know what the package is, we’ve got adequate targets, four, five, six days, reassess, go in again if necessary.
We’ll make a powerful statement. It’ll be a “Goldilocks” kind of strike, just right, not too much, not too light. They won’t be able to say it didn’t hurt if we do it, they won’t be able to say it destroyed the country if we do it.
ZAKARIA: I already see some difference between the civilian and military leadership at the Pentagon.
(UNKNOWN): It never happens.
ZAKARIA: This is not — this would not be unprecedented.
Paul Wolfowitz, do you think that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs should be bringing up these political and policy issues or should he just salute and present a war plan?
WOLFOWITZ: Look, they always have their views and they always express them and that’s fine. But I think — I’m all in favor of finding a diplomatic solution here, but you’re not going to find a diplomatic solution or any solution that focuses solely on chemical weapons.
The issue is how do you end this civil war peacefully. It is possible? I don’t believe it’s possible with Assad in power, but something might be negotiated if we had some leverage. We have no leverage because so far we’ve refused to supply even gas masks to the Free Syrian Army.
If we want leverage, if we want to have some influence over the final outcome, whatever that turns out to be in Syria, we need allies on the ground in Syria because we’ve made it clear weren’t putting Americans on the ground in Syria.
The only allies that would be worth anything to us are the Free Syrian Army. We should be behind them.
ZAKARIA: All right. As every military officer or general will tell you, the enemy gets to vote. So, when we come back we’re going to ask what happens after the strikes, how will Syria respond and how should the United States prepare for that when we come back.
ZAKARIA: And we are back with our shadow National Security Council war-gaming the Syria operation. Wesley Clark, Nicholas Burns, Paul Wolfowitz and James Steinberg.
General Clark, tell us what you expect is the likely Syrian response to a series of strikes, as you say, maybe two or three days of it? What do you expect them to do? Hunker down or actually retaliate in some way? CLARK: I think the greater likelihood is that they’ll hunker down. If they do try to retaliate, they may try to retaliate with some anti-ship missile against some force out in the Mediterranean.
ZAKARIA: Jim …
CLARK: Obviously, their air defense is going to try to shoot back at anything they’ve got a target on.
ZAKARIA: Jim Steinberg, if they do hunker down, part of the problem for the United States and the coalition that engages in these operations is how do you know whether you’ve won, how do you — you know what yardstick do you use at that point?
Let’s say we’re three days into this operation and then we just decide at some point that’s enough and stop?
STEINBERG: Well, I think you have to go into the operation first with a military objective which is to decide what capabilities of his you want to damage or destroy and to have your own benchmark about what is the level of harm that you’ve inflicted, the operational ineffectiveness that you’ve imposed on him.
But, again, it has to be then in the context of the broader strategy which is what you don’t want to see happen is him simply kind of dust himself take the blow and then carry on as if nothing had happened.
So, you have to think now only about the first strike, but how you posture yourself so he doesn’t feel at the end that he’s been able to ride it out.
ZAKARIA: Paul Wolfowitz, you want to do more than just these strikes. You want to warm the rebels because you want to decisively shift the balance of power.
What do you say to those people, and I know they exist within the U.S. military, who say look, we’ve been trying for a year-and-a-half now to find these moderate rebels.
And the opposition to Assad is disaggregated, it’s dispersed, hundreds if not more militias. Some of them are radical allied with al-Qaeda, others are not. In any event, this is much more difficult to do and don’t pin your hopes on this.
WOLFOWITZ: Fareed, we had a lot more options two years ago. The opposition has become more radicalized because we’ve sat on our hands. I would — from what I — I don’t believe we’ve tried very hard to do anything for the people who are identified as moderates, the Free Syrian Army.
Face it, we don’t want to send in American troops. You’ve got Hezbollah fighters, you’ve got Assad fighters, you’ve got al-Qaeda fighters. The only people who might promise something better are the Free Syrian Army and we should be supplying them with both lethal and non-lethal weapons. And I — one thing that is very confused in the strategy now, sometimes the president seems to say we’re not aiming to shift the balance of forces in Syria, sometimes he talks to Senator McCain and Senator Graham and he says we are.
I think it is essential that we do so. I tend to agree Assad has got enough on his hands without retaliating, but he is certainly going to step up the pressure on the opposition to demonstrate that he’s not defeated and may even claim that he is the victor from out strikes. It’s important to make clear he’s not.
ZAKARIA: Wes Clark, could you train these rebels given what you know about them?
CLARK: I think there’s an arming and training program going on. Some can be, but I think — and, again, I’m not trying to — let me step out of the chairman of the JCS role for a second.
If they’re going to be successful, they’re going to have occupy some piece of ground inside Syria and claim it as their own. That’s the way movements like this succeed.
Bosnia would never have happened if it had simply been President Izetbegovic in Paris saying please kick the Serbs out of Bosnia. And what happened in Kosovo happened because people were on the ground and there was a strong political force associated with the fighters.
So, the Free Syrian Army has to have some politics behind it and it has to have some territory. Can people be trained to fight? Of course they can be trained to fight.
Can it be done overnight? No, it takes months to build of chain of command, to rehearse, to prepare these people, to equip them. That’s what’s been going on.
But what we really are after is what Paul says you’ve got to have the political/diplomatic impact of this and to do that, you’ve got to have somebody on the other side of the table from Assad.
ZAKARIA: You raise in important point which is that the Free Syrian Army does not seem to control much territory at this point. I think I saw a report that said of 14 major cities, it doesn’t control any.
Nicholas Burns, let me ask you about the intriguing prospect you raised which is let’s say this operation takes place, it has some success, you want to then use that to try to build on it and get some kind of negotiated settlement, a political settlement.
How would you do this and do you think the Russians will play ball?
BURNS: Well, the United States has to find a way to unite the use of force with a follow-on diplomatic strategy. And sometimes they can reinforce each other as they did in Bosnia and Kosovo very successfully under President Clinton’s leadership. And that depends, Fareed, on the strike being significant enough that it does, in effect, deter President Assad. And Senator McCain has been making that very good point.
If that’s the case, if Assad can effectively be intimidated, there might be a possibility for the United States then to launch another diplomatic effort under Secretary Kerry to see if we can work with a very cynical Russian government to bring about some kind of cease fire.
There’s a humanitarian catastrophe underway in Syria and the Syrian people need relief from this war. That would be one objective. But let’s even become more ambitious. Is there a way to bring Iran into those talks that might reinforce what we need to do with the Iranians on the nuclear issue?
And that is have direct conversations with them and try to begin a way to work with this very new Iranian government, test them to see if they’re willing to adopt some kind of a more pragmatic policy themselves in Syria.
There are lots of opportunities, but it all starts with the effective use of military power so it has to be significant enough in its strike capacity.
ZAKARIA: All right.
James Steinberg, we’re going to have to go, but if you were running this National Security Council meeting, any decisions you need taken that were not taken? Any last thoughts?
STEINBERG: I do think that one of the critical decisions we have to make is what do we need to be prepared for in terms of retaliation.
It’s not just the Syrian military. They have to think about Hezbollah and others who will be tempted to try to use and to harm American interests, to go after American civilians. So, we need to make sure we have a good posture worldwide to protect Americans.
And then to reinforce Nick’s point, we have to have a full-court press afterwards to make sure that when all is said and done that Assad is not in a better position, not able to simply carry on with his efforts as if the strike had never happened.
ZAKARIA: Gentlemen, thank you. Very very interesting, successful meeting. Maybe we’ll reconvene when this all actually happens.
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