Face the Nation transcripts September 1, 2013: Kerry, McCain, Kaine, and Chambliss

The latest on the president's decision to attack Syria

KERRY: Of course not. This delay is a serious intent by the president of the United States to seek the strongest position possible for military action that was directed specifically at the Assad regime in order to deter and degrade the use of chemical weapons. It is also a period of time during which we can build a stronger approach with our allies. We can tweak and refocus some of our energies on support for the opposition. And I hope that kind of comment will -- will be digested carefully by the members of congress who will recognize that that will be the result if they don't support the president in the effort to uphold this international norm. So I believe that -- and I talked yesterday with the president of the opposition, with President Jarba. I hope he understands the seriousness of purpose here. We will do a better job, and in fact work with important voices like John McCain and Lindsey Graham and others who believe more should be done. I believe there is a way to support the opposition and, in effect, come up with a stronger approach and a stronger presentation of America's determination here.

GARRETT: Mr. Secretary, you're saying something, and I want to make sure I pin you down accurately on this. A couple of things, the opposition has also said they hope this debate will open the way for more direct, covert arming of the opposition which, as you know, still hasn't arrived. MREs and medical kits have, but weapons haven't. They want weapons to come with this authorization. And are you suggesting that if congress goes ahead and authorizes this, this will be a more forceful, memorable military strike than it would have been had the president acted alone?

KERRY: No, what I'm saying is -- what I'm saying is, Major, is that -- first of all, I can't -- and I'm not going to discuss what may or may not be happening in terms of any kind of convert program. But I will assure you the president has made the commitment, he's announced it publicly, that he intends to provide additional support to the opposition. The president has drawn a clear line. He is not seeking to have America assume responsibility for Syria's civil war. He does not intend to put boots on the ground. He is not going to envelope the United States inside Syria's civil struggle. But he has committed to help the opposition, and he has stated unequivocally that Assad has lost all legitimacy and cannot conceivably continue to govern ultimately Syria. The president is committed, through the Geneva negotiation process and the implementation of the original Geneva communique, to have a transition government in Syria and to help support the effort to get there.

GARRETT: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for joining us on Face the Nation.

KERRY: Thank you.

GARRETT: Joining us now one of the top critics of the administration's handling of the entire situation in Syria, Arizona Republican Senator John McCain. Senator McCain, thank you very much for joining us. I know you want to unpack some of the things you heard from Secretary Kerry, but first I want to ask you, if the vote were held tomorrow, would it pass the United States Senate? And are you in a position now to support this authorization?

MCCAIN: I don't know the answer to that. But a case needs to be made, and I would suggest that case be made to the American people as well who are -- I understand they're very skeptical. They really haven't had the information I think they need to make a decision of this magnitude to move forward with whatever military actions we may be taking.

GARRETT: So to be clear you're not sure it would pass? And you're not sure you could support it?

MCCAIN: We're in a bit of dilemma here because I think Senator Lindsey Graham and I and others will be wanting a strategy, a plan, a -- rather than just we're going to launch some cruise missiles and -- and that's it -- and even worry more when the president's chief of staff -- chairman of the Joint Chiefs -- says, "Well, it doesn't matter when we strike." Well, that's not a military action then. That's a symbolic action. So we need to have a strategy and a plan, and that plan, in our view -- the best way to eliminate the threat of Bashar Assad's continued use of chemical weapons -- and, by the way, we know he's used them a number of times before -- would be the threat of his removal from power. And that, I believe, has to be part of -- of what we tell the American people. But, finally, the consequences of the Congress of the United States overriding a decision of the president of the United States of this magnitude are really very, very serious. And already, we're sending a bad signal to Iran, to North Korea, to Bashar Assad. But if we overrode the president's decision and did nothing, then, you know...

GARRETT: That sounds like you're a conditional "yes."

MCCAIN: No, I want to see the plan and a strategy that this will achieve some goals that we need to achieve.

GARRETT: The president...

MCCAIN: But I also am aware of the failure of Congress to endorse this plan, that the signal that it sends to the world, in a very dangerous world, where we've also lost enormous credibility -- you mentioned the Syrian -- Free Syrian Army. I can tell you their morale has been devastated. Bashar and his people are euphorious -- euphoric. The Iranians are happy. When the president of the United States said that he was going -- that it was a red line, he didn't say that it's a red line and, by the way, I'm going to have to seek the approval of Congress. He said it was a red line and the United States of America would act. And that is a big difference. And that's one of the reasons why this is so problematic.

GARRETT: Was it a tactical mistake for the president now to come to Congress? Should he have acted already?

MCCAIN: Look, if he had acted, as Ronald Reagan did, as Bill Clinton did, as a number of other presidents did, in compliance basically with the War Powers Act, I think that he could have done that. And that would have been a decision made by the president. But at the eleventh hour, when the strikes -- leaks have been massive and unprecedented -- the strikes are already planned; we know what ships are there; we know how many missiles -- I mean, unprecedented leaking, then a reversal at this point, I think, has -- has serious consequences as far as steadfastness and purpose of this administration.