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What Does America Think Of President Obama's 'Red Line?'


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to spend a good amount of time today hearing various points of view about how the U.S. and the international community should respond to events in Syria. Later, when we head into the Beauty Shop, we'll ask our panel of women journalists and commentators for their thoughts. And we also want to ask them about a list published by a business magazine of the smartest women on Twitter that was notably lacking in diversity. That's in just a few minutes.

We are going to start with our political chat as the Obama administration continues to make the case for military action against Syria after a reported chemical weapons attack by the regime against its own people. The president addressed the issue again today at a press conference in Stockholm, Sweden.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: First of all, I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world's population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use, even when countries are engaged in war.

MARTIN: President Obama had stopped in Sweden on his way to Russia for a meeting with other world leaders. And he also explained why he requested the U.S. debate the issue. So we are going to start with two of our veteran analysts, two former White House insiders.

Ron Christie is a former assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He's now president of Christie Strategies. Corey Ealons is a former communications advisor to the Obama administration. He's now senior vice president at VOX Global. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

RON CHRISTIE: Nice to join you.

COREY EALONS: Good to be here.

MARTIN: So, Corey, let me start with you. A recent poll by ABC News and the Washington Post says 60 percent of Americans said that they oppose unilateral U.S. military strikes against Syria. How much would that weigh on the administration in making a decision at this time? And if you don't mind my asking your personal view - should it?

EALONS: Sure. I think that there are a couple of things you have to consider. First of all, the number one thing that the administration has to deal with right now with the American people, with members of Congress, with the global community, is this issue of uncertainty. And what we're dealing with because of that is the shadow of Iraq.

Everybody knows the case that was made for weapons of mass destruction - why we needed to go into Iraq at that time - and we realized what happened when we got there. We wound up fighting a war under false pretenses. That's a ghost that still continues to haunt us to this day.

MARTIN: So is that uncertainty or lack of trust?

EALONS: I think...

MARTIN: Americans don't believe what their leaders tell them anymore. Is that what you're really saying?

EALONS: Well, I'll tell you this - what's interesting, you cited the poll that talks about a 60-40 split today and people opposing this interaction in Syria. There's actually a poll that came out in December that showed the exact opposite of that. It was 60-40 in support of intervening in Syria if they used chemical weapons.

I think the major difference in the two polls and the period between that is what we've discovered - the American people have discovered - with what's been revealed from Eric Snowden and from the NSA. So, it is that, but, ultimately, the case has to be made by the president as to why this is important because the other thing that I think people are concerned about is what's the imminent threat? How am I being impeached upon here, ultimately?

MARTIN: Ron, what do you say about that?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think Corey is largely right in his last point. I think the president of the United States needs to make the case why it is in our best national security interest, not only to protect the Syrian people from chemical attacks by President Bashar al-Assad, but what that means to the greater context of the Middle East. You know, I have been so intrigued by looking at the political statements coming from President Obama, for example this morning in Sweden, saying that he didn't draw a red line around Syria when he clearly did last August, and by folks such as former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who's making the case for war and saying that we need to entrust the intelligence sources - when these are the same politicians that when President Bush made his case that we're saying that we can't trust the intelligence. So I hope that as the debate unfolds that we look at the broader national security interest of the country rather than broader partisan political advantage.

MARTIN: Well, what about somebody like Senator Rand Paul because members of Congress are also divided on this question, it seems to me. I mean, we haven't done a headcount so far, I don't know that - I'm assume the administration has or at least they're starting to and the leaders are. But Senator Rand Paul, Republican from Kentucky had this exchange with Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting.


SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: If the United States of America doesn't do this, Senator, is it more or less likely that Assad does it again? You want to answer that question?

SENATOR RAND PAUL: I don't think it's known. I don't think...

KERRY: Is it more or less likely that he does it again?

PAUL: I think it's unknown whether it's more or less likely whether you have the attack.

KERRY: It's unknown? Senator, it's not unknown. If the United States of America doesn't hold them accountable on this, with our allies and friends, it's a guarantee Assad will do it again, a guarantee. And I urge you to go to the classified briefing and learn that.

MARTIN: And, Ron, just to tie a bow on that, House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor say they are supportive of moving source. So how do you - you said that this shouldn't be a partisan issue but to the degree that it is, what are the politics on the Republican side, Ron?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think the politics on the Republican side are putting American lives at risk for a cause and a war that is of dubious value to our national security interests. And I just - I'm so concerned about the lack of clarity that we've heard from the president as to really why we need to go over there. And President Obama was very, very specific when he was pushing his stimulus package.

He was very specific when pushing Obamacare through the Congress. I think he needs to make that same case with the same passion to the American people and not only articulate what the risks are for not acting, but talking specifically about why it's in our best interest to act. And I think he's yet to make that case.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking about U.S. intervention in Syria with two former White House aides, Republican Ron Christie, Democrat Corey Ealons. And Corey, of course, you probably know better than anybody - Democrats, and Progressives in particular within the Democratic caucus, have been skeptical for years going back to Iraq about the case for these kinds of interventions overall without a more explicit, in their view, direct threat to American interests. I mean, do you think that the president has made a persuasive case to Progressives?

EALONS: I think he's in the process of doing so. To have Nancy Pelosi go into the White House yesterday, hear that briefing and come out full-throatedly supporting the president and saying that she'll cast a vote - I think that's significant considering where she was on the Iraq war and the vote that she cast there.

Ultimately though, I think that the president, Senator Kerry and Democratic members of Congress are making the case that the reason we need to do this is because the crime that has been committed is so atrocious -this is about making sure that Assad doesn't do it again.

But it's also about making sure that the next tyrannical dictator doesn't do it as well. A signal has to be sent to the global community and to people in those areas that they crossed the line. Using chemical weapons against your own people - that's crossing a line and that's a line, as the president said, that's been long established for nearly a hundred years at this point.

MARTIN: Ron, can I ask you about something that Corey said earlier? He said that, in part, the reason that the American people don't trust the administration on this to the degree that they might is - are the actions of the administration you served, the George W. Bush's administration - that the lack of weapons of mass destruction having been found in Iraq after the administration made such a strong case that they were there, has really kind of damaged or undermined the trust that Americans now have when they say that we should go forward - that America should go forward based on intelligence that you can't see yourself.

You can't touch, you can't feel, you can't personally go and see. You're actually taking their word for it. Do you credit that? Do you think that that's true? And I'm also wondering if our - the U.S. experience in Iraq has changed your views of how the U.S. should proceed here?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think Corey's point is largely correct. I think that the case that was made about the weapons of mass destruction being in Iraq and the threat that Iraq posed to the United States, as well as Afghanistan - some of the intelligence was clearly erroneous. But the distinction I have between where we were back in 2002 and where we are today is this - President Bush went to Congress and he got an overwhelming bipartisan vote for the use of the authorization of military force. President Bush went to the United Nations and made the case with our strongest allies that we needed to contain Saddam Hussein and to intervene in Afghanistan. And we had the United Nations Security Council approve that resolution.

In the present case, the president hasn't made the case to the American people. He had a, what I thought, was a stinging rebuke by the House of Commons and their vote last week rejecting Britain's going to join military forces with the United States. And he hasn't assembled the coalition. I was in London last week and I spoke to a number of members of the House of Commons and they said that we don't trust the United States now, and that's what I'm so worried about. I think the seeds of that mistrust were bred from the Iraq intelligence but they manifest themselves now in that President Obama hasn't made a clear case as to why we need to move forward. And so, yes, the trust has been breached and the question is how do we repair that right now and what do we do with this as it relates to Syria.

MARTIN: Corey?

EALONS: I think the president actually may appreciate exactly the point that you're making, Ron. And so rather than - I think this time last week, we thought we were going to be engaged in Syria by the weekend. I think that was very much the sense. But I think as the president continued to deliberate with his staff and with members of Congress that he has confidence with, I think he came to realize that he needed to slow this down.

He needed to take a moment to do what he said needed to be done. When he was campaigning in 2007, he said the president does not have the right to engage forces overseas or in a war unless there is an imminent threat against the United States. And so, basically, he's doing - he's standing up for the principles that he espoused during the campaign, and it makes absolute, total sense.

He's not only doing what he said he would do, he's doing what John Boehner and other members of Congress asked him to do in coming to them and to have this deliberate conversation. So we are exactly where we need to be right now. We may not have gotten there in a nice, clean, smooth way from a script standpoint, but we are exactly where we need to be at this point in the conversation.

MARTIN: I gave Corey the first word, so, Ron, I'm going to give you the last word. Final thought from you?

CHRISTIE: Well, I hope the president uses the occasion while he's over in Europe and in Russia meeting with foreign leaders to implore them to get involved in a coalition of the willing, so to speak, if that's the proper and necessary action to take. But I want the president of the United States to come home and to address the American people from the Oval Office and specifically lay out what the objectives are and why it's in our national security interest. And I think that we can move forward in a more unified fashion.

MARTIN: Ron Christie's a Republican strategist. He's a former assistant to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. He's now the president of Christie Strategies. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Also with us, Corey Ealons. He's senior vice president for VOX Global and a former director of media for the Obama administration. He joined us from Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for joining us.

CHRISTIE: Thank you, Michel.

EALONS: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.