Roundtable: This Week in Politics

George Will, Donna Brazile, Cokie Roberts and Dan Balz on "This Week."
14:26 | 08/25/13

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Transcript for Roundtable: This Week in Politics
Folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well. Gets us mired in very difficult situations. We have to think through strategically what's going to be in the long-term national interests even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians. Big decisions on syria. Let's get into it with our roundtable. We have george will, donna brazile, washington post chief correspondent, dan balz, and author of the excellent new book, collision 2012, and our own cokie roberts. This morning, the white house is saying there is very little doubt that the syrian government was behind this chemical weapons attack. Does the president really have any choice but to intervene militarily? He does. Because we have to read what he has said about this as carefully as he stitched a loophole into what he said a year ago. He said a red line for us is when we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons being moved around or being utilized. I don't know what the metric of a whole bunch of is, but he can say this is not a whole bunch of. But this is the second time they have used chemical weapons on a wider scale. And after the president said that, he said the use of chemical weapons would be a game changer. Donna, what will his red lines -- what will his statements to the world mean if he allows this to go unanswered? Well, I think this is a complex issue. And if we had an easy answer, as bill clinton would say, if there was an easy answer, somebody would have found it already. The president has to use back channels, not just to make sure this is factually correct, but to get our allies in the region on board with us, secretary kerry is meeting with his counterpart in turkey and saudi arabia to ensure that they're on board. Of course, there will be attempts to go to the u.N. Where the russians may once again defeat our efforts. But the bottom line is, president obama needs to spell out an obama doctrine for the middle east. We cannot simply go in and police the region, they don't want us to play in their backyard. Except to the degree that they do. And there is a sense that we've abandoned them. And that is a terrible problem for the united states. We can't be in that position. And, look, is it complicated and horrible? Yes. We heard the former egyptian foreign minister say it always starts off small and then it gets to be big. He says at some point the whole region would be involved. That's exactly what everybody is terrified of. But the fact is we also can't be uninvolved. Because if you just leave it to fester and you have people both in egypt and in syria feeling like we have abandoned them, that the united states of america is not on their side, that becomes a breeding down for terrorists, and that becomes dangerous for us in the long run. And dan, with these weekend meetings with the national security team at the white house, and the warships, you can hear the war drums beating. Just today the syrians denied the u.N. Access to the site. Although now we are hearing just in the last few minutes the syrian government saying they will allow the u.N. Inspectors in. They clearly anticipate that this time it's for real. I think that's right. What they're looking at inside the white house, and we can see it, is weighing the price of inaction versus the cost of action. And the question is, has this come to a moment in which the price of inaction is so high that something has to be done? And you can see the machinery moving in that direction as we heard from martha earlier. The question is, how much can they stitch together in terms of international support? What do they do about the united nations? And the other question is, the options that they're looking at would be in essence symbolic.Cc1: It would be some kind of a limited strike. It wouldn't change fundamentally the situation that is there. So that's the equation that they're debating in the white house. And they have been going round and round for days looking at options with people taking different sides at different times. But doing something symbolic matters. It is sending the signal. The fact that the president made this very firm statement even when the loopholes, there are a whole bunch of people, people are still expecting him to do something. The president knows that if assad re-establishes control over a unified syria, or if his enemies establish control over a unified syria, syria will be governed by people hostile to the united states. That's a given. So there's things worse than a stalemate. And it's billions of dollars we're talking about once the united states -- we are already on the hook for humanitarian aid in jordan, turkey and other places. We're in afghanistan, the american people are war-weary. The president will have to explain it to the american people and the congress before the united states steps into this region once again. Given that, this is a president who ran against the idea of unilateral u.S. Military action around the world. That was one of the central planks of his rise to power. Could you really see him going in another military campaign in the middle east without u.N. Authorization? I don't see -- it doesn't have to be -- it would have to be international authorization, not necessarily the u.N. In the way it was in kosovo, they used the nato authorization. And to put together an international group, I don't think the united states could or should or in any way go in by itself. But to have some sort of international sanction is doable without the u.N. Although what I'm hearing this morning from the white house, they believe there's a sliver of hope that russia could go along with something out of the u.N. Now. This crossed a red line even for russia if in fact this is proven as it appears -- part of the question is how definitively proven that is and how long it will take to prove versus the question of the preponderance of evidence looking clear at this point. And does he feel something has to be done and do others feel something needs to be done. That's part of the equation. And the issue of, should he wait for the u.N. Or can he in some other way put together international consensus to do it. What's interesting, george, talking to u.S. Officials, you get the sense that the belief is not that military action can be decisive here. That it's really military action because you need to do something because of what the president said. And our military is rightly leery of making a gesture. They're not in the gesture business. And they have a feeling that's what they would be doing. Throwing -- lobbing cruise missiles, these standoff weapons into a country to make us feel or look good. The president on cnn this week said the use of gas is going to require america's attention. And hopefully the entire international community's attention. Now, some people believe in the tooth fairy, the easter bunny, santa claus, the loch ness monster, others believe in the international community. It's a fiction. Isn't there a credibility question, though? Yes. If the president draws a red line and says it cannot happen -- of course he does. It's almost as if assad is taunting the united states. Iran is watching this. That's the big thing. Iran is watching this little dance of deadlines and red lines and deciding it doesn't mean a thing. Absolutely. The other big national security story, the nsa and surveillance programs. Yet more revelations just this past week. Wall street journal reporting it covers 75% of all internet traffic in the united states. Cokie, my question to you, the public has been supportive of these programs, but these drip, drip, drip revelations, are we going to reach a tipping point? Doesn't look like it at the moment. I think, you know, we're going to have senator feinstein is going to hold hearings when congress is back in session. And there will be a libertarian and liberal coalition of people saying we've got to stop this. But I would be very, very surprised if congress actually does anything about this. Well, the first thing they should do is have a little bit more oversight. When you see the pfizer court and others talking about violations, that's a problem. And the president and the administration needs to get ahead of this dripping and leaking because more is being revealed every day. When the president came out and announced he was going to do some reforms and review all of this, he didn't sound like he was really necessarily seeing this as -- this was more a phoney scandal. Because remember how he described it, I've got the sound right here. He compared it being able to prove to michelle he did the dishes. If I tell michelle that I did the dishes -- now, granted, in the white house I don't do the dishes that much. And she's a little skeptical, well, I'd like her to trust me, but maybe I need to bring her back and show her the dishes. I mean, that's -- he was talking about his reforms. So these are not putting a privacy officer at the nsa is not essentially changing any of this. The pfizer court is not a court in the normal sense. There's not an adversarial process. Only executive branch is represented in the court. What happened this week, two things, the court said three times in less than three years, it has been misled bit nsa. On the other hand, bob moller, leaving after 12 years as director of the fbi, the longest-serving director since j. Edgar hoover, said if we had had the nsa system we have, then when one of the 9/11 hijackers made the phone call to yemen, we might have found the conspiracy. All the complaints was nobody did this. They didn't connect the dots. All of that. There is support for it. But it is a problem. The president says michelle would have to trust me, right? And he had said earlier, if you don't trust me, trust me and the congress and the courts. Well you know what, people don't and that's the bottom line problem and that becomes a problem for the president in everything that he's doing. Because he believes in government, and he believes in big government. And to have people not trusting the governments on any level becomes a big problem for him. One of the things that's happened. And there's clear frustration inside the white house of the revelations about things they didn't know and the mistakes that had been made. But there is a shift in public opinion. I think you're right. Public has not tipped in the side of civil liberties versus security. But there is an erosion, and i think that what this has -- what this has done -- when people thought about this in the past, they thought yeah, we should do everything we can, they're going after the bad guys, not looking at me or you or anybody else around this table, the average person. Now people are beginning to say what are they getting from me? I think that changes it slightly. I want to look at another big development, more nixon tapes. 340 more hours from the most transparent administration in the history of mankind. And, george, I want to play one particular call that was released for the first time. This was the last nixon tapes. Ronald reagan calling richard nixon after a big speech on watergate. You can count on us. We're still behind you out here. And I wanted you to know that you're in our prayers. How nice of you to say that. This too shall pass. Everything passes, thank you. Richard nixon in april of 1973 saying everything passes. Everything does, man. George -- maybe not so nicely for him. There was a young, rising star conservative columnist for the national review at the time writing some columns about this almost exactly the same time, george will, you wrote in the national review, that the unfolding watergate scandal and the unraveling coverup indicates the moral terrify attitude attitude of staff members has exceeded even their delusions. George. A lot harsher than ronald reagan on richard nixon. I became a columnist in 1973 just as the watergate dam was about to break. It was awkward. But, you know, the phrase this too shall pass, if nixon had burned the tapes, he would have finished his presidency. There's no question in my mind. That's what cost him this. The interesting thing is it dove tails with the nsa story, that nixon saying that one of his aides, say this is a national security matter, butt out. And people are therefore even 40 years on reluctant to butt out. The tapes always kind of break your heart. Because at the same time that you have these, you kn, scurrilous things about trying to cover up and all of that, you have him talking about china on these tapes in a way that is so smart and so interesting and you just, you know, it's the tragic flaw. But the notion that we had, you know, virtually everything said in the oval office on tape. And it's -- what president could survive that scrutiny? Well, we have lyndon johnson tapes that are quite remarkable. But not as extensive. This was just about everything.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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