John Hockenberry: If you listen to the president, the time for regime change in Syria seems to be soon, if not yesterday. Lots of talk about the regime having overstayed its welcome, having gone beyond the pale in terms of its treatment of its civilians. But what is the action? With an act of insurgency, a military plagued with defections, a Ba’athist regime at war with its own people and a ruthless leader who has signaled he will do anything to hold power, the humanitarian issues in Syria would seem to be clear. The Arab League is pursuing a peacekeeping option with the United Nations. But can the U.S. play a role here? Joining us now is White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. Mr Carney, thanks so much for joining the program.
Jay Carney: It's a pleasure to be with you. Thanks for having me.
Hockenberry: I’m going to ask you a naive question, and then we can get to some of the more straightforward issues. From the perspective of somebody who maybe lives in the region, who witnessed what happened in Iraq -- where the U.S. invaded on the pretext, which turned out to be false, of weapons of mass destruction, went in, claimed that the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein, and this isn’t a partisan issue here, so much -- what are they to make of the situation in Syria, right next door, where there’s a Ba’athist regime, a leader that, one can make the argument, the world would be a better place without him, and the U.S. does, essentially, remain detached?
Carney: Well, I would argue a couple of things. One is we certainly don’t remain detached. We have lead internationally in assembling a broad coalition opposed to Assad’s regime, calling for Assad to step down, demanding that he cease the inhumane, reprehensible brutality against his own people, and launching a sanctions regime that has put enormous pressure on Assad and his cronies and isolated him even further. In fact, it has had a tremendous effect on his financial capacity to continue to wage the brutality campaign that he’s waging. So I think there is a -- every country in the region, obviously, is different. And the analogy to Iraq, I think, is less apt than what others have made, which is an analogy to Libya, which, of course, occurred on this President’s watch. And even those situations are different. They’re similar in the sense that this president believes we have to build consensus internationally, we need to not act unilaterally, whenever possible, to try to get allies in the region, in the Arab world, which was the case in Libya and which is the case here in Syria. The difference, of course, is that in Syria there was absolute consensus among the United Nations as well as neighboring Arab countries and a plea directly from the people of Libya for military assistance which was authorized then by the United Nations. Unfortunately, as you know, because Russia and China vetoed the United Nations security council resolution against Syria, against Assad, that was essentially a license to kill, as we said it would be, that those vetoes would embolden Assad to continue his brutal campaign against his own people.
Hockenberry: Although why would we use the Chinese and Russian vetoes as an excuse to not do what the Clinton administration did in Iraq -- arm the rebels -- do what the Obama administration did in Libya which is to provide command and control with the Arab League’s permission to do an air campaign in Libya. Why would Russia and China shut that down?
Carney: Well first of all, in Libya there was the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the operation. First of all. Second of all, I think your analogies are worth examining, but they highlight the differences more than they do the similarities. Again: We have witnessed remarkable, transformational change in the region in this past year. And if you look at where we were a year ago with Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, now Syria and people in other parts of the country, and where the United States has been, which has been leading international coalitions against the kind of anti-democratic repression that we’ve seen in some regions in the country, and affecting positive change in a way that makes the United States -- makes it clear that the United States is on the side of the people who want and aspire to better futures and more democratic futures as opposed to being blamed for taking positions at odds with those aspirations. I think that this is not, obviously, a happy situation with Assad, and we have made clear our disgust with their brutality, we’ve made clear our severe disappointment with Russia and China and their decision to side with Assad against the overwhelming international consensus, but we are going to continue to put pressure on Assad, to sanction Assad, to assist with our partners in providing humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, and we believe quite firmly that Assad’s days are numbered. He’s already losing control of parts of his country, he’s already seeing defections within his government and military, and I don’t think that process is going to stop.
Hockenberry: The Libyan campaign, as you say, authorized by the security council, was to protect civilian lives inside. Would not a mission to protect civilian lives also motivate an arms program for the rebels which would not need security council authorization?
Carney: Well, yeah, these are all possible roads forward. We are now not that long since the security council resolution -- just a number of days since the security council resolution was unsuccessful at the United Nations. And we’re working with a group that we are helping stand up called the Friends of Syria, which will have meeting in Tunisia on February 24th, its first meeting, which will have high-level representation from this administration, to examine all our options to help the Syrian people deal with the brutality of the Assad regime. So that includes humanitarian and other forms of assistance as well as more sanctions.
Hockenberry: Understood. Let me hit you with a hypothetical that might be unfair, but I think this is appropriate: If there had been no Iraq invasion, and if this was not an election year, would the Obama policy be the same in Syria?
Carney: Absolutely. I mean, I think that -- I’m not sure where you’re coming from on this, John, but I think that we are not -- our absolute interest is in seeing Assad go. He has forgone the option of helping participate in and lead a democratic transition in his country. He has chosen a road of brutality and oppression that is unconscionable, and we’re working with the international community to put enough pressure on him to force him out and to empower the Syrian people. I think that the black-and-white, zero-sum analysis that suggests we should be invading or unilaterally taking military action, or, if we’re not, then we’re therefore not doing anything, misses what has been happening in the region and the helpful position that this administration has taken with regards to democratic aspirations there.
Hockenberry: Understood. Jay Carney, White House Press Secretary. I’m going to give you a chance at the end of the segment here to crow about the possible change of heart of the Republicans on the payroll tax extension -- is that how you view it?
Carney: Well, look: I think there is some irony in the fact that when we were having this debate late last year about extending the payroll tax cut to 160 million Americans who earn a paycheck, that the Republicans were insisting that it all be paid for even though in the House they had actually passed a bylaw, a resolution, in which they said that the tax cuts never have to be paid for. But when it came to tax cuts for working folks, as opposed to millionaires and billionaires, suddenly offsets were paramount. We worked out a deal at the end of December to extend the payroll tax cut for two months. Now, once again, March 1st, taxes go up on 160 million Americans unless Congress takes action and gets this done. And it shouldn’t be that hard, as you know John. We’ll see what transpires in the next few weeks. We believe there’s a way to negotiate a solution that extends the payroll tax cut for the full calendar year, but also extends unemployment insurance, which helps millions and millions of Americans make ends meet while they’re looking for work. And that money also has a very positive impact on the economy at large. We need to do that as well as extend what is known as the “doc fix.” I don’t know if your listeners are aware of that.
Hockenberry: We know what that is -- the medicare payments for doctors.
Carney: Exactly. So we need to do all three. We can’t just do one. But certainly we’re glad to hear the Republicans are interested in giving a tax cut to working Americans.
Hockenberry: Jay Carney on this Valentine's Day -- White House Press Secretary. Thanks so much.