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Will Syrian Conflict Widen?; US Presidential Debate Discussed

Aired October 4, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour and I'm glad to be back in this seat.

And tonight, we ask: is the bloody uprising in Syria turning into a wider regional conflict as has long been feared?


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Tonight, thousands of Turkish demonstrators are marching in Istanbul, chanting "No to war!" This as Turkey ups the ante, bombing targets inside Syria for a second day after the Assad forces shelled a Turkish border town, killing five civilians in their own home.

In recent weeks, the Turkish people have grown critical of their prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's support for the Syrian opposition, particularly because of the flood of refugees coming across the border into Turkey, the instability that's being caused and now they don't want to be dragged into a full-scale war.

Earlier today, the Turkish parliament held an emergency session and voted to authorize military action. Turkish troops are now taking up positions in Akcakale, the town the Syrians shelled yesterday.


AMANPOUR: Syria has apologized for this dangerous escalation and for its part, Turkey insists it doesn't want war. But, still, the world watches anxiously. And in a moment, my exclusive interview with Lakhdar Brahimi, the veteran diplomat who's charged with finding a solution to Syria's war.

But first, a look at what's coming up a little later in the program.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): The debate heard around the globe --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Obama is killing jobs and making the economy bleed.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): While Obama and Romney went toe-to-toe in Denver, American voters weren't the only ones keeping score.

Then America's ambassador to the children of the world -- he is also a favorite conservative punching bag. Why should Big Bird ruffle so many feathers?


AMANPOUR: We'll have that answer a little later. But first, to my exclusive guest tonight, his peace brokering success and skills have taken him all over the world, from Lebanon's civil war to South Africa, Haiti, Afghanistan and many more places.

But could finding a solution in Syria be an impossible mission? The U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, joins me right now.

Thank you for coming in to the studio.


AMANPOUR: On this very dangerous day, and in this dangerous time, you have spoken, according to the secretary-general -- to officials from both Turkey and Syria.

What have you said? What have they said to you about where this escalation and this incident is headed?

BRAHIMI: You know, it's our job to say that situations like this won't escalate. And I have talked to both sides, trying to lower the feelings of both sides. I think the Syrian side have told me that to convey to the Turkish side that, yes, this was -- this was not intentional. They regretted the loss of life and that they hope that this will not happen again.

AMANPOUR: And the Turkish side?

BRAHIMI: The Turkish side said, you know, this situation has been going on for a long time. And we want to be absolutely certain that these things do not happen and that there was very strong feelings amongst their people --

AMANPOUR: Right. So do you have a sense that Turkey's going to take advantage of this moment and pound Syrian targets?

BRAHIMI: I hope not. I think that, you know, they have retaliated yesterday.

AMANPOUR: And today.

BRAHIMI: And today again I understand. But now I think -- I think, I hope, you know, after the declaration of the secretary-general, after the contacts of the secretary-general with both sides, I very much hope that, you know, these --


AMANPOUR: (Inaudible).

BRAHIMI: -- this incident is kept (ph) down.

AMANPOUR: So do you think it could escalate into a broader regional conflict?

BRAHIMI: I have been saying for a long time that you never can contain a problem within the borders of one country. Hence the very, very urgent need of attending to this problem before it pours over the border.

It already has through, you know, the refugees, hundreds of thousands of them; through the internally displaced people, 1,200,000 of them; through the people who are in desperate need of help, 2 million and a half. So it's a megaproblem that we are facing inside Syria and outside.


AMANPOUR: And outside, to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, all those countries --

BRAHIMI: Absolutely.

AMANPOUR: -- Iraq -- let me, though, ask you to be very blunt and to be as precise as possible. Do you have a plan to do what the world has failed to do so far, to stop this?

BRAHIMI: Yes, very blunt --



BRAHIMI: -- yes. No, I don't have a plan. A plan does not exist, you see. It's -- I could write the plan now. You and I can write the plan. A plan that is accepted by the parties inside Syria, by what I call the countries of the people who have interest, influence or both. The situation is not ready for it.


AMANPOUR: But what would make the situation ready?

BRAHIMI: I am talking -- well, we are talking to people. We are waiting for people to understand that there is no military solution and we are waiting for the Security Council to come together and also, in particular, for the people of Syria to realize that there is -- on both sides -- to realize that there is no military solution.

AMANPOUR: All right. You have met with President Assad, I believe September 15th.

What impression do you get from him? Because even today, his own ambassador in response to all of this going on, one, you know, called for all governments to act right, wisely and rationally. But again, he's talking about terrorists coming in, armed terrorists are the ones who are causing all the trouble in Syria. That has been the Assad regime's mantra.


AMANPOUR: There is no uprising; it is just terrorism.

Do you buy that?

And do you see any less intransigent stance from Assad since you met him?

BRAHIMI: You know, I think Assad and his people do say that. By the way, of course, there are terrorists acts. You've seen what happened yesterday in Aleppo, I mean, you know, 30 people died; 150 people were injured. There are some totally unacceptable events taking place there from all sides.

The --

AMANPOUR: The bulk --

BRAHIMI: -- what they are saying, what they are saying, also, is that we are ready for discussions. What we have been telling them -- and, you know, publicly -- is that you know, the time for talk about reform is past. In all the region, not only in Syria, people want change, real change, complete change. And we are inviting them to accept that and start working on it --

AMANPOUR: So you mean --

BRAHIMI: -- and we are offering to help --

AMANPOUR: -- by real change --

BRAHIMI: -- (inaudible).

AMANPOUR: -- you mean a transition that sees the stepping-down of President Assad?

BRAHIMI: It's not for me to say what the transition will lead to. But I think, you know, I think there is -- there is a necessity for a realization that, you know, change is needed, real change. I've been telling everybody that in our region -- and I am from there myself -- in our region, people do not trust us anymore.

People have been disappointed by us. They want now -- you know, they don't believe us, really, anymore. They want real change. They want to be in charge of their destiny, in charge of their own affairs, to decide for themselves what is good for them.

AMANPOUR: Do you see yourself being any more successful than your predecessor, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan?

BRAHIMI: You know, he and I were in touch throughout his period. I am in touch with him now. We are -- we are working on the same --


BRAHIMI: -- the same plan, the same crisis and hoping for the best.



AMANPOUR: Does Iran have any role to play? Iran is -- says that it's been meeting with its counterparts, you know, the foreign minister with the Turkish and --

BRAHIMI: I met them myself.

AMANPOUR: -- does it have any role to play? Because certainly the U.S. and the West doesn't want Iran involved.

BRAHIMI: I don't know. I think what they are saying is that Iran is helping Syria --

AMANPOUR: Do you think (inaudible) --

BRAHIMI: -- (inaudible). They themselves said that they are supporting Syria. They said that their Revolutionary Guards are present.

AMANPOUR: Because now they deny it.

BRAHIMI: Well, you know, it is one of their important people who said -- who said that. You know, there are -- they are there. They are in the region. If they say that they want to help solve the problem, I think we should challenge them to do just that.

AMANPOUR: Do you have any plan -- I keep using this word plan -- any diplomatic skill to try to get China and Russia on board?

BRAHIMI: I am talking to them. You know, they are very responsible countries. They know -- they know that this is a problem. They have their own interests and their own principles that they are defending.

But they are supporting -- they repeat every day that they are supporting what we are trying to do. You know, there again, I think we will be -- we will be discussing with them and working with them.

AMANPOUR: One senior defector, Manaf Tlass, who you obviously are very familiar with, the general, has said that they don't want foreign intervention, a military foreign intervention. But what they do want is for the entire world to speak with one voice, and that would cause Assad to step down.

Do you -- do you -- do you accept that analysis?

BRAHIMI: I accept that analysis insofar as it says that, you know, foreign intervention is not the best option. And insofar as the -- a united international community will be extremely helpful.

AMANPOUR: Lakhdar Brahimi, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

BRAHIMI: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: We hope to continue our conversation when you have more updates and more developments. We'll watch it very closely.

BRAHIMI: Look forward to that.

AMANPOUR: Thank you very much indeed.

BRAHIMI: (Inaudible). Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Syria, as we have just been discussing, has stymied world leaders, including the President of the United States for over a year now. Last night, in the first of three crucial presidential debates that could decide who will occupy the Oval Office next, Syria wasn't mentioned once.

Instead, the focus was on the economy. When we come back, we'll ask the experts not just who won but why and how it will affect the election.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): First, though, a last look at Syria before we take a break. That there is a classroom in a village in a cave. When their school was destroyed by the Syrian military, the teacher and students found sanctuary in this cave and there, despite the dangers above, the lessons went on. We'll be right back.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. And last night, America's presidential debate and the candidates came face to face for the first time. Here in the United States, media reaction was almost unanimous. Challenger Mitt Romney cleaned the president's clock.

But what about reaction around the world? Listen to this anchor in India.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Obama is killing jobs and making the economy bleed. Romney prospers blood (ph) in round one of the presidential (inaudible).


AMANPOUR: And this from the Netherlands.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).


AMANPOUR: Interested.

Two candidates, he says, and only one looked interested. Maybe Obama was distracted by his wedding anniversary, said that anchor. Newspapers around the world told the same story, India, Israel, Indonesia. That Indonesian headline, by the way, translates as "Mitt Romney on the offensive; Obama upset."

We could find only one example of someone who thought President Obama scored a win.


JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've been saying for a long time, this election presents the starkest choice in my memory. And I think the president did a wonderful job in making just how -- making it clear just how stark that choice is.


AMANPOUR: And you didn't need a name banner, because that was President Obama's vice president, Joe Biden, and he is clearly biased.

Now let's bring in Sir Christopher Meyer, who, as former British ambassador to the United States, is very well acquainted with American politics as well as foreign policy. And he joins us from London.

And here with me in the studio, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist David Remnick, editor of the influential "New Yorker" magazine and author of "The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama."

Gentlemen, thank you very much for being with me.

Let me quickly go to you, Christopher, overseas, because obviously people were watching, whether in live or afterwards. What do you think people around the world were getting? What did they want from a first presidential debate?

SIR CHRISTOPHER MEYER, FORMER BRITISH AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: Well, I think what they wanted was a clear-cut contest with a clear loser and a clear winner. People like simplicity in that respect.

So the British newspapers, the British media, like almost everybody else around the globe, have declared Mitt Romney a points winner, not a knockout winner, but a points winner. And I think part of the reason that they have done this over here in Britain is because expectations were so low. So to a degree, we, the Brits, have magnified Mitt Romney's success because we didn't expect a lot from him.

As for Obama, he did look a little bit out of sorts, a bit lackluster, as if he was thinking to himself, why the hell do I have to do this? I prefer to be being president. And so points win to Mitt Romney --

AMANPOUR: All right.

MEYER: -- not entirely clear how this will affect the race.

AMANPOUR: All right. Well, as you say, points -- and I'm going to put up this graphic, so we can all see it on the big wall behind me. This is from Intrade market (ph), and it shows Barack Obama prediction shares. And it, frankly, has changed a lot.

David Remnick, points win for Romney. What about substantively?

DAVID REMNICK, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST: Well, why substance? Why should we talk of substance?


AMANPOUR: Was there any?

REMNICK: It's a debate. It's on -- of course there is. But there's two -- there's two things there. It's a performance and then there's substance. And to be perfectly honest, performance is what trumps substance, whether you like it or not, in an event like this.

And the President of the United States didn't just lose on points; he didn't show up. He was --

AMANPOUR: That bad?

REMNICK: He was staring down. He was annoyed to be there. Romney was engaged. He was alive. He was energetic -- my politics are not with Romney, I should say right off the bat. They're much more with President Obama, much closer to his.

But he was deeply disappointing to his supporters and he was deeply disappointing to, I think, people who were trying to make a choice, that small segment that's still left.

On substance, there were all kinds of inconsistencies and fallacies and things that need to be deeply fact-checked, especially on the Romney side of the ledger.

AMANPOUR: You mean on taxes, on health care, all those things?

REMNICK: (Inaudible) everything. You know, the president was quite right to say, OK. You have $5 trillion tax cut plan; where are you going to cut from? Romney had no specifics. You're going to cut ObamaCare and veto it and keep the things that you like. Be specific. Romney knew that wasn't the game; he didn't play that game.

The problem is is that the President of the United States was half asleep. This is a deep problem --


REMNICK: -- and this tightens the race significantly.

AMANPOUR: It tightens the race. That is the important takeaway from this, because Sir Christopher, as you know, Obama has enjoyed a fairly substantial lead in these last few weeks.

Let me ask you this, because you also were a political adviser to a British prime minister, Sir John Major.

Some of Obama's real partisans have said that this actually could have been a "rope-a-dope", deliberate strategy by him to draw in all of this talk by Mitt Romney, to then use what he said in the debate against what he said way before and contrast and compare and basically call him untruthful, or at least inconsistent.

Is that desperate by Obama's partisans? Or do you think there's some truth to that?

MEYER: No, I think there's some truth to that. I think (inaudible) two things.

First of all, as David Remnick was saying, there's some arithmetical - - put it mildly -- inconsistencies in some of the things that Romney was saying about his budget plans, about Medicare and about what Obama called even ObamaCare.

So I think there is plenty of fertile ground there for accusing Romney and his people of just getting the data wrong. And that's going to have to be explained.

The other thing that I found utterly fascinating was it seemed to me that Romney in embracing his own health care proposals in Massachusetts, extremely warmly, was starting to ram against the very right-wingers whom he had to convince in order to get the nomination in the first place.

So are we watching a run by Romney towards the center ground, which again, ought to be fertile territory for Obama to say subsequently, "Well, what you said in the debate ain't exactly what you were saying on the campaign trail."

REMNICK: Quite right. Here's the problem -- and you're talking to somebody who wrote a biography of both Obama and Muhammad Ali. "Rope-a- dope" means you absorb the blows; you take them in and you exhaust the other guy -- and then you knock him out. You've got to do the last part for "rope-a-dope" to fulfill its definition.

AMANPOUR: Right. Maybe they hope the (inaudible) will be the knockout punch.

REMNICK: I'm sorry. That never, ever came. What Christopher says about health care, for instance, is 100 percent correct. But, after all, he is going for centrist votes in battleground states.

AMANPOUR: So do you think, David -- and I think, Christopher, you sort of said this already -- do you think that if this Romney had showed up a few weeks ago, he would have a real fighting chance of winning this election?

REMNICK: I still think he has a fighting chance. But you -- remember one thing, Christiane, Barack Obama had a poor performance last night. He has never, ever been a very good debater.


REMNICK: Hillary Clinton beat him most nights in that -- in the very dramatic campaign of four years ago and when he ran for Congress, he wasn't very good at it. And when he was in the state Senate, he wasn't very good at it. He's a great speaker, not a great debater.

AMANPOUR: Well, then, let me ask you sort of a broader question that comes from all of this, that I think people are really, really concerned about.

Obviously, the economy, did either one of them show that they were going to make the economy stronger under them, but even broader than that, not only around the rest of the world, but certainly here in the United States, the idea of partisan gridlock, the idea of government being unable to get the business of the people done, did either of these candidates show that they'd be able to get over that?


MEYER: Well, I was very struck by the -- by this other thing as well. I mean, the political point of gravity in the United States is some way more to the right than it is in Europe or in -- or in the United Kingdom. And what often Americans see is big ideological differences between candidates, between Romney and between Obama.

Over here in Britain, looks like differences on points of detail, not on points of ideology. And I thought to myself, what am I looking at here? A debate between a center right pragmatist -- Romney -- against a center left pragmatist -- Obama.

Now Romney may have been different during the primary campaign and Obama may have been different in 2008, when he was virtually utopian in his campaign. But here you have these two grizzled centrist politicians with not a great deal of difference between them. That was certainly the prism through which I looked at it from this side of the Atlantic.

REMNICK: Which is -- which is a logical European prism to see it through. But remember that health care on the Obama side, it gives health care to 32 million people who didn't have it before. That's extremely significant, and there were other points of great significance in this debate. It wasn't just about little morsels of difference.

AMANPOUR: But in terms of the bigger picture, bigger story of getting government to work -- because the American people, as you've seen in every poll, are thoroughly disgusted with government. It doesn't work. They consider it paralyzed.

Did either of them -- ?

REMNICK: Except they don't -- except when it comes to big programs and what Romney insists on calling entitlements, nor do they want them taken away.

AMANPOUR: Right. But they also want something to happen in Congress other than just this static debate.

REMNICK: These debates are not going to resolve that. You have -- remember, if you -- the uberstory here, the story from a great remove, to me, is the radicalization of the Republican Party in this country. Republican Party in -- that especially dominates the House of Representatives, is infinitely more conservative than it was 25 -- a generation ago or even more recently.

AMANPOUR: Chris, big vision? Was there a big vision articulated at this time of meeting (inaudible)?


MEYER: Not really, except for the -- no, except for very broad sort of oratorical level, not really. But one of the questions I ask myself -- I don't know the answer to this -- is a second -- for a second-term president, the dynamics in his relationship with Congress tend to be different from what they are in a first term.

And he's always got at the back of his mind -- or at the front of his mind -- he needs to be reelected in four years' time. So I wonder what this is going to mean, if Obama wins the presidency again, is confronted by a Congress dominated, as David said, by these hard right-wing Republicans, is it going to be gridlock, Groundhog Day, or not? I'm just not quite sure how this is going to work out.

AMANPOUR: In five words, can you tell me how you think it's going to work out?

Last word to you?

REMNICK: Well, it won't be smooth sailing for either one. And I think Romney, if he wins -- although I still think he is distinctly the underdog, distinctly the underdog -- it will -- remember, he is not going to rule as a hard right Republican. But he is captive to the Republican Party at the very least.

AMANPOUR: Both of you, thank you very much.

David Remnick, Sir Christopher Meyer, thanks very much for joining me. And we will be right back after a break.


AMANPOUR: And finally, imagine a world where a larger-than-life puppet raises his head in a presidential debate. That's what happened last night, when Mitt Romney targeted, of all things, Big Bird, the yellow- feathered star of "Sesame Street," the children's educational program on America's public television.

PBS, for some reason, has long been a punching bag for conservatives here in the United States. And yet from its very beginnings, "Sesame Street" has reached out to children left behind by traditional education. And it's now seen in over 100 countries around the world, building bridges between the United States and other nations, like Pakistan.

In Bangladesh, where Big Bird's counterpart is a tiger, literacy among 4-year olds who watch Sisimpur, as he's known there, is 67 percent higher than among children who don't. That says it all. And that is it for tonight's program. Thanks for watching. Goodbye from New York.