Did Bill Clinton goad Obama into stepping up in Syria?

Former President Clinton told a private forum this week that President Obama would look like 'a total fool' if he followed public opinion too closely on Syria. Now the US is sending small arms to the rebels.

Jim Young/Reuters
Former President Bill Clinton speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative America meeting in Chicago, Illinois, Thursday. At a private event Clinton said Obama risked looking like 'a total fool' if he heeded opinion polls too closely and thus behaved too cautiously on Syria.

Of all the elements that fed into President Obama’s decision to send small arms to the Syrian rebels, the most intriguing possibility is the sharp criticism he faced earlier this week from the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

At a private event, former President Clinton said he agreed with Republican Sen. John McCain – President Obama’s opponent in his first presidential campaign and one of his biggest critics on foreign policy – that Mr. Obama should be acting more forcefully to help the rebels battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to a recording acquired by Politico.

Obama risked looking like “a total fool” if he heeded opinion polls too closely and thus behaved too cautiously, Clinton said. He cited as examples his own decisions to get involved in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and his regrets over not intervening in the genocide in Rwanda.

“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 told Senator McCain Tuesday night at an event in New York for the McCain Institute for International Leadership.

The White House was not amused. At the noon briefing Thursday, press secretary Jay Carney pushed back.

“The president makes a decision about the implementation of national security options based on our national security interests, not on what might satisfy critics at any given moment about a policy,” Mr. Carney said.

Later that day, the White House announced it had concluded that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against its own people, and would start sending small arms and ammunition to the rebels. Evidence of chemical weapons use, in the form of sarin gas, had emerged in April, but the Obama administration took extra caution in asserting that definitively.

Still, few people believe the delay was really all about confirming the use of chemical weapons. Other likely factors include growing evidence that the Assad regime had gained the upper hand in the two-year-long civil war; a report out Thursday from the UN Human Rights office putting the war’s death toll at 93,000, as of the end of April; and growing pressure from European capitals to do more.

Domestic US politics also plays a role in presidential decisionmaking – and likely gave Obama strong reason to hold back. After costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a successful intervention in Libya that went sour, Americans are hardly in a mood for more foreign entanglements. Clinton addressed that.

“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,” Clinton said. They’re urging caution, he added. “They hire you to win … to look around the corner and see down the road.”

Whether Obama was influenced by Clinton’s tough remarks is impossible to say, without getting inside his head. But as an outside player, Clinton certainly looms large in Obama’s world. Once political foes, when Clinton’s wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, ran against Obama for the Democratic nomination in 2008, the two men grew into allies. At times, Clinton seems almost a father figure to the president, or at least a mentor.

During the 2012 campaign, the popular Clinton emerged as Obama’s most important surrogate – and delivered the most powerful speech of the campaign on Obama’s behalf at the Democratic National Convention.

And with former Secretary Clinton leaving open the possibility of running again for president, the close, complicated Clinton-Obama connection isn’t likely to fade anytime soon.

On Friday, former President Clinton praised Obama’s move in Syria. 

“Looks to me like this thing is trending in the right direction now,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

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