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.
The former president also said commanders-in-chief should avoid over-interpreting public opinion polls about whether the United States should get involved in crises overseas.
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 White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The remark from Clinton came as McCain, who recently took a trip to Syria and met with moderate rebel commanders, has ratcheted up his criticism that Obama has been feckless in the face of growing strength by President Bashar Assad in the civil war. McCain gave an address after the trip about the growing problems in the Middle East, saying the U.S. needs to seize the moment.
“Nobody is asking for American soldiers in Syria,” Clinton said. “The only question is now that the Russians, the Iranians and the Hezbollah are in there head over heels, 90 miles to nothing, should we try to do something to try to slow their gains and rebalance the power so that these rebel groups have a decent chance, if they’re supported by a majority of the people, to prevail?”
The event was closed to the press, but POLITICO listened to audio of portions of it recorded by an attendee. Clinton, whose wife stepped down as Obama’s Secretary of State at the end of January, has largely stayed away from offering foreign policy views while Hillary Clinton was serving in the president’s administration.
She had supported a plan that then-CIA head Gen. David Petraeus drew up to arm a vetted group of rebels, but it was put aside after his extra-marital affair scandal and her head injury following a severe virus.
My view is that we shouldn’t over-learn the lessons of the past,” Clinton said. “I don’t think Syria is necessarily Iraq or Afghanistan — no one has asked us to send any soldiers in there. I think it’s more like Afghanistan was in the ’80s when they were fighting the Soviet Union … when President Reagan was in office [and] got an enormous amount of influence and gratitude by helping to topple the Soviet-backed regime and then made the error of not hanging around in Afghanistan” to try to cash in on the gains.
The social media-driven revolutions can’t supplant having bodies to build a sustainable new government, Clinton added.
Clinton, who McCain also asked about his own decision-making process on the violence in Kosovo and Bosnia when he was president, expounded on what the public means in opinion polls when it expresses disapproval of foreign intervention.
“What the American people are saying when they tell you not to do these things, they’re not telling you not to do these things,” he said, but instead, they’re urging caution. “They hire you to win … to look around the corner and see down the road.”
Clinton did not call for specific measures to aid the Syrian rebels. McCain has urged Obama to enforce a no-fly zone in the country to give rebels a “safe zone” to fight the Assad regime.
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.