Bill Clinton cautions Obama: Beware looking like a 'total wuss' and 'total fool'

The Week
Not for the first time, there's some tension between America's two most recent Democratic presidents.
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Not for the first time, there's some tension between America's two most recent Democratic presidents.

The former president says the current president may regret staying on the sidelines if Syria's war worsens

In a rare split over foreign policy, former President Bill Clinton said President Obama risks looking like a "total wuss" if he lets public and political opposition to intervening in Syria dissuade him from taking decisive action to help rebels topple the Assad regime.

"If you refuse to act and you cause a calamity, the one thing you cannot say when all the eggs have been broken is, 'Oh my god, two years ago there was a poll that said 80 percent of you were against it,'" Clinton said in a question-and-answer period first reported by Politico. "You look like a total fool."

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Clinton, speaking with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at a Tuesday event that was closed to the press, contrasted Obama's reluctance to wade more deeply into Syria's widening conflict with the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo, which included the bombing of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's forces. "You just think how lame you'd be," Clinton said. "Suppose I had let a million people, two million people be refuges out of Kosovo, a couple hundred thousand people die, and they say, 'You could have stopped this by dropping a few bombs. Why didn't you do it?' And I say, 'because the House of Representative voted 75 percent against it?' "You look like a total wuss, and you would be."

The comments provided an unexpected boost to the rising chorus calling for beefing up support for the rebels — McCain is one of the biggest supporters for intervention, and Clinton's wife advocated arming Syrian rebels when she was Obama's secretary of State. Margaret Hartmann at New York notes that former presidents usually avoid publicly criticizing current ones, especially on foreign policy, and suggests that Clinton might not have intended for his remarks to be made public. Now that they are, Hartmann says, Obama will be feeling more pressure than ever to act.

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So, note to Obama: When asked about why you dragged you feet on Syria, stick with "concerns about aiding Al Qaeda-affiliated rebel groups," rather than "polls showed Americans weren't feeling it." [New York]

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to resist charging into another war in the Middle East — including the risk that escalating the conflict could increase the risk that it will spread into a regional war. James Joyner at Outside the Beltway points out that it's unfair to suggest that Obama's reluctance to get more deeply involved is due to polls. "The polls opposed intervention in Libya, too," Joyner says, "and that didn't seem to bother him."

I'm inclined to believe that this president is doing his best to serve America's national interests and is tempering whatever ideological preferences he has to intervene in humanitarian disasters — which may be strong, indeed, given how close he's been to Samantha Power going back to at least the 2008 campaign — with a hard-headed cost-benefit analysis. Absent strong evidence to the contrary, that's how I presume any American president decides when to send our forces off to war. [Outside the Beltway]

The U.N. just pushed its estimate of the two-year conflict's death toll to 93,000, up from 80,000 in mid-May, and the State Department is making a fresh push for arming the rebels. Such circumstances might give Obama no choice but to act more forcefully. Aaron David Miller at Foreign Policy notes that there's no diplomatic exit in sight. He also argues that nothing the U.S. has done so far and none of the incremental steps we're considering — arming rebels, imposing a no-fly zone, even launching some airstrikes — will oust President Bashar al-Assad and restore stability.

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"After America's baby steps into the Syrian war don't resolve it," Miller says, "Obama will face a choice: He can either stand down and reveal we don't have the will to stand up, or he can escalate." Miller says that judging by the people Obama has chosen to surround himself with lately — the hawkish Susan Rice, his new national security adviser, and Samantha Power, his new U.N. ambassador — it looks like the risk-averse Obama administration is destined to intervene.

The steady drumbeat of death in Syria will increase the pressure on the United States to do something, anything, to stop the violence — even if it's out of good options for doing so. For better or worse, the Obama administration seems headed for military intervention in Syria, with all the risk and uncertainty that entails. [Foreign Policy]

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