Bill Clinton warns Obama not "wuss" out on Syria

It looks as if former President Bill Clinton is just as eager to get into the Syrian civil war as Senator John McCain, because surreptitiously-recorded audio from a closed-press event at the McCain Institute for International Leadership in Manhattan have Clinton offering some spicy-hot criticism of President Obama’s inaction.  As transcribed by Politico, Clinton spent a lot of time hammering Obama for being over-sensitive to public opinion polls:

His remarks came during a question-and-answer session with McCain, who has been among Obama???s harshest critics over what he calls a failure to take ???decisive??? action in Syria. Obama has come under growing pressure to step up American intervention by sending military and other assistance to the rebels.

???Some people say, ???Okay, see what a big mess it is? Stay out!??? I think that???s a big mistake. I agree with you about this,??? Clinton told McCain during an event for the McCain Institute for International Leadership in Manhattan Tuesday night. ???Sometimes it???s just best to get caught trying, as long as you don???t overcommit ??? like, as long as you don???t make an improvident commitment.???

[…] Clinton repeatedly said it would be ???lame??? to blame a lack of intervention on opposition in polls or among members of Congress.

If Clinton had ever blamed a lack of action because ???there was a poll in the morning paper that said 80 percent of you were against it ??? you???d look like a total wuss,??? he said. ???And you would be. I don???t mean that a leader should go out of his way or her way to do the unpopular thing, I simply mean when people are telling you ???no??? in these situations, very often what they???re doing is flashing a giant yellow light and saying, ???For God???s sakes, be careful, tell us what you???re doing, think this through, be careful.???

Clinton continued, ???But still they hire their president to look around the corner and down the street, and you just think – if you refuse to act and you cause a calamity, the one thing you cannot say when all the eggs have been broken, is that, ???Oh my God, two years ago there was a poll that said 80 percent of you were against it.??? Right? You???d look like a total fool. So you really have to in the end trust the American people, tell them what you???re doing, and hope to God you can sell it??? and that it turns out okay in the end.

It’s not clear from Clinton’s remarks what he wants Obama to do in Syria, exactly, but the boys in the Improvidence Battalion of the Over-commitment Brigade will be glad to know he doesn’t want to put their boots on the streets of Damascus.

Basically, Clinton thinks Obama should do something to balance out the assistance the Assad regime is receiving from Russian, Iran, and Hezbollah, “so that these rebel groups have a decent chance, if they’re supported by a majority of the people, to prevail.”  He made approving references to Reagan-era assistance to the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invasion.  Bill Clinton is apparently a big fan of those policies.  It sounds like he doesn’t want to dwell on what happened next in Afghanistan, which would seem very pertinent to the situation in Syria, where a lot of the front-line resistance troops are linked to al-Qaeda.

Personally, I’ve been appalled by the human tragedy of Assad’s struggle to retain power since the early days of the uprising, and the international community’s belief it can address such outrages with Strongly Worded Letters is a grim farce, but there are great dangers to direct intervention.  A glance at the terrorist-infested ruins of Libya should remind us to be very careful about who we choose to equip with those fantastic American weapons and training.  There’s an unlovely but honest strategic case to be made for leaving a weakened, exhausted Assad in power after he beats the snot out of al-Qaeda, rather than discovering the horrifying answer to the question, “What could be worse for Syria than Bashar Assad?”  There are counters to that argument, too, but it’s a complex issue, made more difficult by the lack of good options for effective U.S. intervention.

Leaving the specifics of the Syrian crisis aside, Clinton’s general point about leadership and public opinion polls is interesting… but it’s highly amusing for the master of “triangulation” – the man who dedicated his last few years  in office to an all-out effort at keeping his poll numbers up, to avoid getting bounced out of Washington – to portray himself as a fearless leader who doesn’t care about the transient passions of the uninformed public.