Did Bill Clinton “split” with Barack Obama on Syria, as Politico claims? Maghie Haberman reports on an appearance two days ago in which the former President and Senator John McCain debated foreign policy. Clinton told McCain that he sided with the Senator, and said that waiting on polls to intervene in Syria would end up making Obama look like “a fool”:
Bill Clinton told Sen. John McCain he agrees that President Barack Obama should act more forcefully to support anti-Assad rebels in Syria, saying the American public elects presidents and members of Congress “to see down the road” and “to win.”
At another point during a closed-press event Tuesday, Clinton implied that Obama or any president risks looking like “a total fool” if they listen too closely to opinion polls and act too cautiously. He used his own decisions on Kosovo and Bosnia as a point of reference. …
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.”
The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin also reports this as a Democratic split, one including the other Clinton:
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 non-lethal 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 Februaryshe 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.
Color me … skeptical. This looks more like a battleground-shaping exercise than a split, in part because Obama clearly isn’t opposed to intervention of some kind. The White House seems to be encouraging the demand for action at least by not publicly opposing it, and by drawing red lines … even when we don’t follow up on them.
Furthermore, the appointment of Samantha Power to the UN seems a very clear tell on the side of intervention. Power spent years arguing for muscular interventions to stop genocides and other ethnic cleansing activities, most infamously suggesting that the West occupy Israel to neutralize the IDF. Obama didn’t pick Power to front a non-intervention policy in Syria or anywhere else.
However, there are a couple of key differences between Clinton’s form of interventions in the Balkans and the Libya model that Obama would use in Syria today. First, the US and NATO paired up for both air and ground interventions in order to stop genocides, rather than a flat-out attempt to settle the civil wars there. We had boots on the ground almost from the beginning, although that didn’t stop the massacre at Srebrenica, which exposed the lack of will on the part of the interventionist forces at the time.
We put no boots on the ground in Libya and therefore didn’t have any opportunity to shape the outcomes there, with disastrous results. There doesn’t seem to be much support for putting boots on the ground in Syria either, which means we’ll topple another tyrant on behalf of whatever forces can bully their way to the top of the opposition again. Not surprisingly, it’s not going to be the “moderates” any more than it was in Libya. That kind of intervention will create another failed state as we did in Libya, with long-reaching consequences in our fight against Islamist terror networks in the region.
Clinton is doing Obama a big favor in glossing over the big differences in intervention strategies between the Balkans in the 1990s and what Obama and NATO did in North Africa over the last two years. I don’t think that can be described as a “split,” but a boost is probably more accurate.