Josh Rogin

06.13.13

Bill Clinton: Obama May Look Like a ‘Wuss’ Over Syria

What happens when you don’t intervene in Syria? Bill Clinton said that Obama risks looking like a ‘wuss,’ a ‘fool,’ and ‘lame’ by sitting on the sidelines. Josh Rogin reports.

In sharp remarks directed against his Democratic successor and his wife’s former boss, President Bill Clinton said Tuesday that President Barack Obama risks looking like a “wuss,” a “fool,” and “lame” for not doing more to influence events in Syria.

Clinton, speaking with Sen. John McCain Tuesday night in a closed press event sponsored by the McCain Institute, contrasted Obama’s inaction in Syria to his own action in the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo, which included the bombing of the forces of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Clinton said a president must look beyond public and congressional reluctance to military intervention for the sake of national security and to save lives.

“You just think how lame you’d be … suppose I had let a million people, two million people be refugees 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 Representatives voted 75 percent against it?’” Clinton said. “You look like a total wuss, and you would be.”

Responding to a question from McCain about how he views Obama’s Syria policy, Clinton said that any president who avoids a military intervention in order to satisfy short-term political objectives would come to regret it in the end.

“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.’ You look like a total fool,” Clinton said.

The event was closed to the press, but a recording of portions of Clinton’s remarks were obtained by The Daily Beast. Clinton’s remarks were first reported by Politico.

“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, who rarely speaks on foreign policy in opposition to the current president, now joins a growing chorus of current and former officials who have broken with Obama’s policy on Syria, which until now has amounted to providing humanitarian and limited amounts of nonlethal military aid while pushing for a political solution to be negotiated with the assistance of Russia, which is providing arms to the Syrian regime.

Last summer, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey all supported arming vetted, moderate elements of the Syrian opposition but were rebuffed by the White House. Hillary Clinton told The New York Times in February she had been an advocate for more forceful action in Syria, a move seen by many as an attempt to distance herself from Obama’s Syria policy just before she left office and in advance of her 2016 presidential run.

Senior administration officials met Wednesday at the White House to discuss several possible options for a policy adjustment in Syria, in what has become an increased pace of high-level internal meetings that have not yet yielded any decisions about arming the rebels, imposing a no-fly zone, or switching formal U.S. recognition to the rebel leadership and away from the Assad regime. Meanwhile, the regime is making gains against the rebels on the ground, with the help of Hezbollah. A conference between all the parties in Geneva previously planned for this month is now indefinitely postponed.

President Clinton noted the regime’s gains and the heavy involvement of Russia and Iran in the conflict as another reason that the U.S. cannot afford to sit on the sidelines.

“Some people say, ‘See what a mess it is. Stay out.’ I think that’s a bad mistake. I agree with you about this,” he told McCain. “Sometimes it’s just best to get caught trying, as long as you don’t overcommit.”

“The only question is, now that the Russians and the Iranians and Hezbollah are in there head over heels, 90 miles to nothing, should we try to do something to slow their gains and rebalance the power so these rebel groups have a decent chance, if they are supported by the American people, to prevail,” he said.

Americans are war weary and feel bitter about the Bush administration’s interventions abroad, Clinton said. But the Obama administration must do more to make sure that people in countries going through the tumult of the Arab Spring are giving “the strongest incentives possible” to steer their countries toward democratic principles and systems governed by majority rule and minority rights.

“That could all be thrown away if this thing in Syria goes wrong. So my view is that we shouldn’t overlearn the lessons of the past. I don’t think Syria is necessarily Iraq or Afghanistan. No one has asked us to send any soldiers in there,” he said.

He compared Syria with Afghanistan when that country was fighting the Soviet Union in the 1980s. American help to the Afghans at that time yielded great benefits for the U.S. in the eyes of the Afghan people. Unfortunately, the U.S. didn’t follow up by supporting Afghanistan and Americans shouldn’t think interventions are quick or easy, he said.

“So if we do something in Syria and it works, it still won’t be done.”

Overall, Obama can’t govern by opinion polls and in fact must set them aside and take a longer view when it comes to deciding what to do in Syria, said Clinton.

“What the American people are saying when they tell you not to do these things, they’re not really telling you not to do these things. They’re saying, ‘You know, we’ve had a lot of bad experiences with improper involvements. We’re skeptical of this. We’re not sure it’s our fight. We don’t have all the money in the world. For God’s sakes, be careful. That’s really what they’re telling you,’” he said. “They hire you to win. The president and the Congress are hired to win for America and for our values and our interests, to look around the corner and see down the road.”

“When people are telling you ‘no’ in these situations, very often what they are doing is flashing a giant yellow light and saying, ‘For god’s sakes be careful, tell us what you are doing, think thinks through … But they still hire the president to look around the corner and down the street,” he said. “In the end, trust the American people, tell them what you’re doing, hope to god you can sell it, and hope you turn out to be alright.”