CNN speaks with Fareed about President Obama’s speech Tuesday night on Syria, Russia’s proposal on the country’s chemical weapons, and why the international community is skeptical of military action. These remarks have been edited for length.
Do you think the president needed to go ahead and make his speech last night? This was clearly a speech scheduled before, when military action seemed to be imminent.
I think he wanted to make it because clearly he needed to shore up his position – the position that this was serious, this was a threat to international security, this was a threat to American security.
I think at the end of the day, though, it has made his case much more difficult. And even though he made a very eloquent and intelligent speech, as he often does, I think it would be difficult for me to believe that three or four weeks from now if we are haggling with the Russians over the wording of a U.N. resolution, and the Russians say we don't want this phrase because it might imply the threat of force and the United States says, no, no, no, we must have that phrase because that is precisely what gives teeth to this resolution – and those talks collapse – the president can go to the world and the American people and say, let's go and use force.
You're saying he cannot?
I think it would be tough. There is now the possibility of a diplomatic path. It may be it will take weeks and months, and I think it will be quite difficult, because remember the Iraq inspections, UNSCOM. Those guys were going in there…[and] and the country was not at civil war. So all I'm saying is two or three weeks from now can you say ‘Remember that case I was making for war? Let's come back to that.’
I think that it may be true initially that people don't change their minds, because the moral case I think is one Americans understand. They feel Assad is a terrible person. What is happening is gruesome and barbaric. But of course he's killed people in an equally gruesome manner with conventional weapons.
What I think changed, what was very persuasive to me as somebody who's been cautious about getting engaged in a very complicated civil war, was the president's very disciplined way in which he said, this is not going to be Iraq, it's not going to be Afghanistan, it's not even going to be Libya. In other words, this is going to be a very limited, curtailed strike that is meant to deter Assad from ever using these weapons again, because it would be a sign that he would invoke the wrath of the United States and strikes from the United States. So he was very clear about saying, we're not going to get involved in this war. We're not going to escalate. This is not open-ended. That would be I think quite unsatisfying...
What do you make of the Russian offer?
The most difficult piece of this could be whether the Russians and the Syrians will create so many roadblocks and obstacles in the negotiation…Won't the Syrians hide stuff? Won't they be unwilling to allow the kind of free rein across the whole territory and landscape that you had in Iraq?
You can make the case that this is a win-win for Putin. Assad stays in power. He has to provide access. He's the conduit for all this. And the weapons get taken away. And the Russians have always worried that these weapons could fall into the hands of jihadist Sunni militias, which would then use them in Chechnya, Dagestan, in Russia. Remember, this is the part of the world where the Tsarnaev brothers come from.
If the Russians are really serious that they would like to see Syria free of these chemical weapons because that removes the possibility of some kind of spillover, then they might actually cooperate. And they can press the Syrians and they can say you have got to get real inspectors. But I don't know if the Russians are serious.
The problem I think that he [Obama] faced is, and he faced it, and this was a tension in his speech, is he's trying to make the case that this is an absolute urgent necessity to do something. But what he's proposing is, what he keeps saying is a very limited military strike. Something that his secretary of state called unbelievably small.
And I think that tension, where you're trying to drum up a great deal of support, I think a lot of Americans look at it and say, yes, it's a terrible thing. Yes, chemical weapons are bad; Assad is bad. Is this in our national interests? The first principle of international law, as I understand it, is that you do not take military action except in self-defense, unless it is authorized by the U.N. Security Council.
So the problem which a lot of people around the world have is not with the cause, but the idea that the United States is prosecutor, judge, jury and hangman. And that is the problem. And I'm not saying this with any skepticism about the case. I think Assad did use weapons. I think that he is a terrible person. But this is the issue for me – how is it that the United States, when everybody else says no, they say yes? There is, to use John Kerry's phrase when he was running for president, there is a question – can we put this to a global test? And right now, that's the problem.