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Obama Takes On Foreign Policy Critics; Focusing On Obama's World Vision; Clippers' Owner Putting Up A Fight; Terrorism is Most Direct Threat

Aired May 28, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, President Obama is getting ready to fly back to Washington after laying out his views on American power and the use of force. We're covering his major speech today as only CNN can with reporters and analysts around the world.

President Obama says he would look weak if he sent in troops every time one of his critics calls for U.S. military intervention. We'll get reaction from one of those critics, Senator John McCain.

We're covering the rest of the day's news as well, including a 26-page response from Donald Sterling sent to the NBA, saying he was unfairly singled out and hit with a draconian punishment.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. President Obama says it's not a question of whether America will lead on the world stage but how.

Today, the president outlined his vision for the future of U.S. foreign policy during the commencement address at West Point. Early in the speech, he fired back at critics who say he has been weak on foreign policy. He took direct aim at those who say America's leadership has diminished.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In fact, by most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise, who suggest that America is in decline or has seen its global leadership slip away are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.


BLITZER: The president touched on the most pressing global hot spots and challenges winding on the war in Afghanistan, providing more help to the opposition in Syria's civil war, the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran and strained relations with Russia over the crisis in Ukraine.

But he says the most direct threat to the United States right now, the most direct threat at home and abroad, is terrorism, specifically. He talked about the danger of a decentralized Al Qaeda.

We want to focus in on the president's foreign policy vision outlined in his speech. Joining us to do that, our Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta, our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto and our Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

Let's start with Jim Acosta over at the White House. Did this speech accomplish what White House officials were hoping for?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, they do, Wolf. They do feel that this accomplished their goal of really answering the president's critics and laying out what is essentially the Obama doctrine for the remainder of his term in office.

And, Wolf, I think if there's a theme to take away from this speech, it's that -- and from the president's standpoint, it's that caution can be muscular, too. That is what you heard from the president throughout this speech that, yes, there are times when unilateral intervention may be necessary but, for the most part, when the direct national security interests of the United States are not threatened, the U.S. has to work through global partners.

And so, you heard the president talk about that, with respect to Ukraine and dealing with Russia, how the U.S. and its allies isolated Russia because of its intervention in Ukraine. But you also heard the president talk about how he wants to build these multilateral partnerships. He talked about this $5 billion counterterrorism partnership fund that will be used to help other nations train and, in some cases, perhaps, arm their military security forces to deal with terrorist threats in their regions.

And you also heard the president talk about Syria. That is, perhaps, where a lot of this criticism began. When he drew that red line, the red line was crossed by Bashar Al Assad, and then the president did not launch air strikes. That is what started this argument over whether or not the president has gone soft in his foreign policy. The president saying in his speech today that the support for the Syrian opposition will be ramped up over time.

But, Wolf, I have to tell you, listening to a background call from senior administration officials just about an hour ago, White House officials are still not being clear as to how that assistance, how that training for Syrian opposition leaders might take place. They say they still have to consult with Congress. So, a lot of unanswered questions, at this point -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, the president said he has to consult with Congress about that as well.

Christiane, the president also said his bottom line is that American leadership is not always about military action. Listen to what he told the West Point cadets.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The military that you have joined is and always will be the backbone of that leadership. The U.S. military action cannot be the only or even primary component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.


BLITZER: So, Christiane, what's your take on his bottom line how this strategy is playing out there on the international stage?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, about the hammer and nail, President Obama has showed himself throughout his presidency to be the president to end these wars.

As we've discussed before, there is this pendulum swing in American foreign policy. The eight years of the Bush administration which was over interventionares (ph) which had the disastrous war in Iraq, and that hangover is incredibly painful still to this day. And so, the pendulum has swung all the way to the other side where there's -- as Jim said, caution can be muscular. I hope that doesn't come back to haunt them like leading from behind.

But here's the thing. The president sometimes seems to think that his critics are only sort of being critical because they think he should go to war all over the place. But that is not what allies are saying to us. They're saying, we don't want America to go to war all over the place. That's not the issue. We want to follow American leadership.

And Syria is the main thing that has allies all worked up, at the moment. We're in the third year of this war, 150,000 dead, nearly 3 million refugees around, putting enormous strain on America's key Middle Eastern allies.

And, of course, there is a moral and strategic imperative to do more in Syria. But that never meant putting boots on the ground or sending America to war there. What it meant was what the president said, Assad must go by supporting a moderate opposition. And they still haven't laid out how they're going to do that. And that, I think, was the disappointment in the speech today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Because, you know, Jim Sciutto, Christiane is right, we were expecting more specifics on issues like providing help to the moderate pro-western Syrian opposition. We heard the president say he's got to consult with Congress before going forward on that front. What did you make of that?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting. I think the administration officials were stunned by the criticism that followed his now infamous comments, a couple of weeks ago on his Asian trip, that his foreign policy was about hitting singles and doubles. He likes sports' expressions. They were stunned by that and they saw a need to articulate a mission statement. And that's what the intention of this speech was.

But the truth is, when you get into the details of the speech, in effect, it is doubling down on that strategy, justifying, in effect, where he has been and where he is going and saying he's going to continue down this path, right? The one bit of specifics that we were expecting today, in terms of news, was what will the step forward be in Syria? That it seemed that there was a reassessment of the strategy but there were no specifics on that.

The examples he did give, in effect, to justify the strategy and the success of the strategy were Ukraine, a multilateral approach there which he says deterred Russia. And Iran, nuclear negotiations underway there, because you had a coalition that got behind sanctions and he said that put -- pushed Iran to the table. But those are unfinished -- two cases of unfinished business, in effect.

The crisis if Ukraine still exists. I just returned from there. The eastern part of the country very much threatened by Russian-backed militants. The negotiations with Iran. Also, not fully baked, at this point. Still serious disagreements between the U.S. and Iran standing in the way of a final agreement there.

So, in effect, you have the administration here saying that it is confident with the strategy that it's pursued so far and expressing that confidence and pushing back at critics who say that they need to be tougher, in effect. So, if this was expected to be new, it really wasn't. It was the president sticking with a strategy he has pursued so far.

BLITZER: Outlining that strategy. Jim Sciutto, Jim Acosta, Christiane Amanpour, guys, thanks very much.

Did the president make his case? Let's get some perspective from a diplomat's viewpoint. Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell served as President Obama's special Middle East peace envoy. He's joining us from New York. So, what did you think? Did you learn anything new about the president's strategy for the next two and a half years or so, Senator?

GEORGE MITCHELL, FORMER, U.S. SPECIAL MIDDLE EAST ENVOY: I think it was a good summary of his approach to issues, generally, and to foreign policy. And I think he made a persuasive case about the reality that we cannot intervene militarily everywhere that we're asked to do so.

And the reality also is, Wolf, that what we now regard as extraordinary, these conflicts around the globe are going to increase over the coming decade. The population of the world is rising. It's now 7 billion and it will be nearly 10 billion in 50 years. One out of five people on earth today is Muslim. When it's 10 million -- 10 billion, it will be one out of three, 3 1/2 billion.

And Islam is being torn by two internal conflicts, Sunni and Shia. It was a political conflict that started in the thrust for power after the death of the prophet (ph), Muhammad. The other is between the theokrats(ph), those who want to impose an exclusionary state and maintain it by force. And the others, I believe the majority, who want to have modern western-style governments that will enable people to have jobs and get their kids off to good education.

So, we're going to have these conflicts now erupting all around the world, and we can't rely exclusively on military force to deal with them. I think the president's quite right in that approach and laying it out as he did. Although, I do share the concern expressed by a couple of your correspondents just a moment ago about Syria. I think we should have done more. I think we should do more now to help those opposed to the regime there, not using American military force but using American know how, technology, assistance through others, if necessary. I don't think it's possible for that regime to remain in power indefinitely.

BLITZER: I want to pick up that thought. Senator, don't go away. We have much more to discuss.

And, by the way, later this hour, we're going to get a different perspective, a Republican perspective. Senator John McCain, a very outspoken critic of the president's foreign policy record. He'll join us live. He'll weigh in on the president's speech. I'll also ask him about Edward Snowden's new claims. He was actually a trained U.S. spy. The political battle within the GOP, lots more to discuss with Senator McCain later this hour. Senator Mitchell standing by.

Also coming up, things are getting even more heated between the L.A. Clippers' owner, Donald Sterling, and the NBA. Sterling now says he won't go down without a fight.

And mudslinging in Mississippi. The blogger adding fuel to an already heated Republican primary race.


BLITZER: We're back with former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. He was President Obama's special envoy for Middle East peace from January 2009 to May 2011. Senator, I want you to listen to this clip from what the president said just a little while ago at West Point.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism. But a strategy that involves invading every country that harbor's terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and short comings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.


BLITZER: As you know, one of the biggest problems potentially out there is all those al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists who are now operating inside Syria against the Bashar al Assad regime. There are a lot of them who have come in, foreigners, including some Americans, who are being trained there. This represents, according to U.S. intelligence, one of the greatest threats potentially out there. So what should the U.S. do about that?

MITCHELL: Well, Wolf, in this case, as in many others that reached the level of the presidency, it's not a choice between a good alternative and a bad alternative. It's between a lousy one and a really bad one. I think that we have been too cautious in arming them. I recognize that there are dangers down the road. But the immediate threat is the continuation of the government that is bombing its own citizens, dropping bombs on elementary schools in the cities of its own country. And the president has said many times, Assad must go. He drew the line and then didn't act on the crossing of the line. I think unless and until Assad goes, American policy will be questioned.

BLITZER: So what -- so what do you recommend, because he is succeeding apparently with Russian cooperation, U.N. cooperation in destroying Syria's chemical stockpiles?

MITCHELL: That's a positive and a laudable step forward, but I think we can and should be providing more assistance to those who are opposing the regime. Wolf, let me give you an historical example. They're usually dangerous because they're not perfect, but it makes the case.

In the Second World War, the United States embraced the greatest mass murderer in history, Joseph Stalin. We provided billions of dollars of assistance. We supported Russia in the war against Nazi, Germany, because we felt the alternative was worst. It laid the foundations for the Cold War that followed. And yet, I don't know of a single historian or analyst who said that was a mistake, we helped the wrong guy. Well, we didn't. There are dangers in any course that you take, and I think we have to be as prudent as we can be. But I don't think we have to let fear of a future bridge prevent us from crossing the first bridge. And as long as Assad remains in power, Obama's going to face this question, what are you doing when this slaughter is occurring there?

BLITZER: But I want to be precise and I don't want anybody to misunderstand what you're suggesting, senator. You're not saying the U.S. should now go ahead and actually work with these anti-Bashar al Assad elements affiliated with al Qaeda?

MITCHELL: No, but there are people there who don't share those views, who haven't gotten the amount of assistance that we might have provided. Not directly, but we have plenty of friends in the region, allies, who have been anxious to help provide assistance there. We have to make it possible for the opposition to first remove the current regime and then to give a chance for those elements of the rebels who aren't al Qaeda, who want a more tolerant open regime. Now, I'm not suggesting this is easy, Wolf. It's extremely difficult. But there are two bad choices, and I think letting him stay in power is the worst of the two choices.

BLITZER: Let me get your thoughts on the pope when he was in the holy land this weekend. He extended formal invitations to the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to come to the Vatican for a peace initiative, to pray for peace, if you will. You were the Middle East special envoy for a few years. Obviously, that peace process looks pretty grim right now. What advice would you give the pontiff?

MITCHELL: Well, he's done pretty well without my advice so far. He's one of the most admired persons in the world already. Done a remarkable job and I think captured the imagination of not just Catholics but of people around the world because of his personal humility and yet his willingness to wade in issues, as he is doing in this case.

So I think it's a good gesture. I hope it will lead to an improvement in relations just seeing the leading Palestinian and Israeli political officials standing there with the pope, hopefully praying together, I think sends a positive signal about the possibility of Israelis and Palestinians and other Arabs living together. So I commend the pope. I encourage him. And I strongly encourage the leaders on both sides to do what they have to do to move this process forward.

Wolf, let me add, I do believe, despite all the problems, despite all the setbacks and the failures, it is very much in the interest of the people of Israel and the Palestinians to reach an agreement that will enable the Palestinians to have a state, the Israelis to have security, and begin the process of normalization of Israel in the region and allow Israel and the gulf Arabs to join in opposing their real enemy, which is Iran. And I think that's possible. I think it's going to happen sooner or later. And I hope somehow that the pope's intervention and visit triggers some action in that regard.

BLITZER: I hope so too. Couldn't agree more. Senator Mitchell, as usual, thanks very much for joining us.

MITCHELL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: He's been a major critic of the Obama administration's foreign policy. (INAUDIBLE) give you a different perspective. Republican Senator John McCain, he'll join us live. I'll ask him what he thinks about the president's speech today. I don't think he's happy about it.

But first, Donald Sterling has a lot to say to the NBA. We're going to tell you what he's now doing to try to maintain ownership of his team.


BLITZER: So while his wife is apparently moving quickly to try to sell the NBA team, Donald Sterling is now vowing to fight to the bloody end to keep the L.A. Clippers. Here are some of Sterling's lengthy response items to the NBA. Sterling claims, and I'm quoting, "a jealous rant to a lover never intended to be published cannot offend the NBA." Here's more. "No owner, coach or player has ever been fined close to $2.5 million, banned for life and forced to sell their property for any offense."

Our Rachel Nichols is joining us no from Indianapolis with more.

Rachel, a lot of moving parts going on right now. Seems to be a contradiction. On the one hand, his legal documents suggest he wants a fight to the bitter end, but all the reports we're getting is that Shelly Sterling is moving quickly to try to sell the team. What is going on? RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's sort of a three-ring circus here. The thing you have to remember though is the NBA is still the ring master. They're still in control of this process.

Let's take this point by point though. I have actually seen the letter that Donald Sterling's lawyers sent Shelly Sterling's camp a while ago saying that they did authorize her to take bids for the team. However, she can solicit all the bids she wants. If she now doesn't have Donald Sterling's permission to sell his portion of the team, she can't do it. That document doesn't entitle her to sell it forever, it just entitled her to maybe take those first steps.

Which, by the way, she is doing. In fact, reports are that those first bids were due today. So she is soliciting bids from six different camps. We've heard some of the names. Oprah Winfrey, along with David Geffen and Larry Ellison as a group. That's certainly a popular one. Magic Johnson has a group. Grant Hill has a group. Wolf, I don't know if you have a group trying to buy the Clipper. But Shelly certainly enjoying the fact that there's a lot of people picking up the phone to call her.

That being said, as you noted, Donald is saying now he does not want to sell the team, that he will fight this to the, quote, "bloody end." And that means that we do still expect the board of governors to meet next week to vote on whether they are going to remove him from his organization. Now, this letter that he sent, all these 32 pages of documents, this was aimed at the other owners. And it's really making his case that, hey, something he said in private, something that was just his opinion, should not be a reason to force him to sell the team. But the problem there is, he's basically saying, hey, it's OK for me to be a bigot and still own an NBA team. And the NBA is going to say, that is not OK. Not even if it was a conversation in private.

BLITZER: You know the numbers that are being thrown around, Rachel, $1 billion, $1.5 billion, $2 billion, $2.5 billion. You say there are six parties bidding right now. Are those numbers realistic?

NICHOLS: Well, you know, the Clippers television contract is up in the next couple of years and that's one reason why the valuation is so high. Whoever owns the team in the next year or two is going to get a huge cash infusion from the television organization that broadcasts Clippers games (ph) locally. They're also, by the way, going to get a huge infusion from the national broadcast contract, which is also up. So it's a little bit of a bet on future earnings. And it's also a franchise in L.A. Those don't come up very often. Both of the L.A. teams have been owned for decades by their respective families. So it's an opportunity that doesn't come around very often. And as we know, the market demands, when there's scarcity, people are going to step up and pay for it.

BLITZER: Yes, that could be a huge, huge consolation prize for the Sterlings. $2 billion, $2.5 billion, who knows. Even if you have to pay capital gains, that's still a lot, a lot of money coming into their little nest egg. All right, Rachel, see you later in "The Situation Room." Thanks very much. Still ahead, he's a fierce critic of President Obama's foreign policy record. So what does Republican Senator John McCain think of the president's big foreign policy speech today at West Point? The senator standing by to weigh in.

And two candidates, plus one very big bizarre political scandal equal a messy Senate primary race in Mississippi. We'll have the details.