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The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg Tries To Find Coherence In Obama’s Syrian Policy

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

HH: At this hour, the Syrians have accepted a Russian offer to accept a John Kerry offer that the State Department assures us the Secretary of State did not actually make, but which the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, eagerly endorsed this afternoon. Meanwhile, President Obama stopped by a Congressional Black Caucus meeting with Susan Rice and stayed an hour. He’s speaking with Wolf Blitzer shortly. I’ll be speaking with Jon Kyl and Tom Cotton, Juan Williams, Jonathan Alter, Pastor Robert Jeffress, author Daniel Silva, all about this extraordinary sequence of events. And I begin with write for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg. Jeffrey, welcome back. Is this a Marx Brothers movie or a clever, indeed a genius scheme to get the WMD from the Syrians and into the hands of the Russians?

JG: (laughing) You put it that way, it makes it sound so enticing. Well, I don’t, I’m in the camp of people who really don’t believe that he would give up all his chemical weapons.

HH: Right.

JG: And so, I mean, anything is possible, but what are we going to do exactly? We’re going to have inspectors roaming around the countryside in the middle of a war zone between Hezbollah and al Qaeda looking for chemical weapons depots, and then we’re going to secure them and drive them out? Who’s going to…

HH: Details, details, Jeffrey Goldberg (laughing).

JG: No, no, no. Look, I’m all for Assad not having chemical weapons. But you know, another question, by the way, by the way, another question is do the biological weapons that he has in storage, do those count as well?

HH: Oh, good point.

JG: No, I mean, these are details, I guess, right?

HH: Yeah. Now Senator Hoeven just minutes ago said he’s a no vote. And this is hemorrhaging faster than the Black Knight in Monty Python And The Holy Grail.

JG: (laughing) Yeah, no, no, we’re just having flesh wounds.

HH: What in the world…just flesh wounds. What do you think he needs to say tomorrow night, because I want him to get this authority. I think Khamenei is just laughing his head off at us.

JG: Well, okay, so like here’s a positive way of looking at this. The reason the Russians felt compelled to do this, maybe, is because they’re clever and they wanted to box Obama in. But it appears that some of America’s adversaries believe that there’s a chance that the U.S. would use military force against Syria. So our responding to it, in some way, so apparently there are, I mean, maybe there are not a lot of people in America who think that Obama would do it, but there are maybe some people outside the country. So it’s good to have that kind of pressure. This is where it’s analogous to Iran in the sense of all options are on the table. And so you know, it does concentrate people’s attention. But I don’t know what he’s going to say, because the message, we’re getting two messages from the administration. One is this guy is Hitler using poison gasses like the Holocaust, but we’re just going to leave him in power, you know?

HH: Right.

JG: We’re going to take away his CW, or we’re going to hit him in an unbelievably small way, which will convince him not to use chemical weapons, and then he can go on killing everybody with the usual prosaic ways, with guns and bombs. So the message is incoherent. If, this is the problem with rhetoric, right? If the guy is Hitler, if he’s committing a holocaust, then don’t, then doesn’t the United States as the leader of the free world have an obligation to get rid of Hitler?

HH: Yes.

JG: I mean, I don’t happen to think he’s Hitler, by the way. So you know…

HH: Yeah, but that’s where it leads. That’s where the logic leads.

JG: Well, the logic leads. And then, so, okay, so the most amazing thing about today was the comment unbelievably small.

HH: Let me play that for the audience in case they haven’t heard it.

JG: Yeah, yeah, go tell them.

HH: This is Secretary of State John Kerry with William Haig at his side in London earlier today, cut number three:

JK: I believe that the aftermath of the Iraq experience and Afghanistan leave a lot of people saying we don’t want to, you know, see our young people coming back in a body bag and so forth, but that’s not what we’re talking about. And what we have to do is make clear to people that this is, we’re not talking about war. We’re not going to war. We will not have people at risk in that way. We will be able to hold Bashar Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground, or any other prolonged kind of effort, in a very limited, very targeted, very short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war. That is exactly what we’re talking about doing, unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.

HH: Unbelievably small, limited kind of effort, and done in a modulated tone to blow out your earphones, Jeffrey Goldberg, because John Kerry has to shout at you every three words. I think that may be one of the most inane statements by a secretary of State ever.

JG: Well, you know, this is what I don’t understand about that statement. John Kerry himself was in a small war that accidentally became a big war. So that was his formative experience. And so very few people who study war, or have been in wars, covered wars, think that just because you say it’s going to be a small war means that it’s going to be a small war. Once you start firing rockets at people, things happen that you can’t account for.

HH: Yeah.

JG: And so I would just much prefer the administration to say you know, look, this is important to do, because we have international norms, and we, unfortunately, have to enforce them because no one else will. And we don’t know what’s going to happen, but we are going to give him a good, hard smack, and we’re going to teach him a lesson that he shouldn’t do this again. But as for the day after, yeah, we might have to go back. I mean, in other words, leveling with people, you know, is a good idea, because you cannot make a promise that a war is going to stay small, self-contained and limited once you start killing people. So this is why I have my doubts about this operation.

HH: On Friday’s program, Charles Krauthammer said look, one of the things I don’t have time to get into is the fact that the al Qaeda threat in Syria is not as bad as the threat from Assad-Hezbollah-Iran-Russia. And I wonder if you agree with him on that, because what I get from this audience a lot is that we don’t want to be al Qaeda’s air force, to steal the Kucinich phrase, and they’re killing all the Christians, and they’re the Islamist terrible people. And they are bad, some of them. But how do you respond to the relative threat matrix of the al Qaeda-infiltrated opposition vis-à-vis Assad-Hezbollah-Khamenei?

JG: Look, I take it seriously, because I mean, flash forward two years, imagine the headlines. Obama strikes al Qaeda safe havens in Syria, right? I mean, it’s possible to tip it in that way. I would say that Iran is a more formidable foe of the United States than these al Qaeda-inspired groups in Syria at the moment. I wish that we could go back two years and convince the Obama administration to pay more attention to the opposition in Syria as it was forming, because it was not radicalized. It was not jihadist at its core. Look, it started as a completely non-violent protesting at the dictator. But we can’t go back and get them to realize that it would be important to help shape the nature of that opposition. That’s why I tend to think that the best thing to do is to work in the long term to rebuild that opposition, to try to marginalize, look, it’s very hard. I’m not kidding myself here. It’s very hard, but reshape the opposition, try to marginalize the jihadists. But in order to do that, we have to commit to a long-term program that costs money, and that requires staying power that we don’t seem to have. And remember, the President told us that he’s tired of war, and that we’re all tired of war. That’s one of the quotes, also, that gives me pause about. I don’t want, I don’t think that America should go to war with a president who is signaling to the enemy that he’s already tired.

HH: Right, that and Russia…

JG: …even if he feels it, like don’t, don’t, don’t say it. It doesn’t make…I don’t think Sun Tzu would say yeah, go tell them that you’re real tired.

HH: (laughing)

JG: And Sun Tzu would say go tell them you’re tired when you’re really not tired…

HH: When you’re about to hammer Iran’s nuclear program.

JG: Right, right, when you’re about to drop the hammer on them. So we’re down the rabbit hole a little bit here.

HH: Oh, my gosh, are we. Here’s Chuck Todd this morning on the Today show, cut number two:

CT: They’re very worried, and they’re treating, if you look at this public relations campaign that’s gone on over the last 48 hours, and what you’re seeing in the next 40 hours, just look at what they’re doing today. They’re rolling out Hillary Clinton to say something, she’s coming to the White House for another event, but she’s now going to talk about Syria, because they’re trying to lobby Democrats. You’ve got the President doing all these interviews today and then the speech to the nation tomorrow. You had Denis McDonough doing what he did yesterday on all of the Sunday talk shows. They’re very concerned, Matt, because it’s not just that they believe they need Congress on this, and they want to punish Assad, and all of the Syria policy, but they realize a loss like this could be politically crippling to him all over Washington on all the different battles that he’s got coming in the next six months.

HH: Jeffrey Goldberg, one minute left, is this his Katrina? Is his presidency effectively over because of this?

JG: No, no. I don’t want to make grand guesses about the future. Look, there are many scenarios in which he could come out looking very smart. He could win the vote in Congress. It doesn’t seem likely at the moment, but he could win the vote in Congress. Maybe the Russians are sincere. I mean, there are things that could happen that could make them look post facto like geniuses. It’s just a little bit hard for me to see the path to that at the moment.

HH: That’s why I have Daniel Silva on later. It’s going to take a novelist to write his way out of this basement.

JG: Gabriel Alon would know what to do.

HH: That’s what, exactly why we’re having Silva on later. Jeffrey Goldberg from The Atlantic, thank you. Gabriel Alon would know what to do, and we’ll find out.

JG: Thanks a lot.

End of interview.

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