Bill Clinton Criticizes Obama on Syria

Former President Bill Clinton says President Obama should ignore the polls and intervene in Syria.


Former President Bill Clinton says President Obama should ignore the polls and intervene in Syria.

POLITICO (“Bill Clinton splits with Obama on Syria“):

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.


“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.”


“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?”


“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.


“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.”


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.

Now, these are out-of-context quotes taken from a closed-to-press event and apparently in response to questions from the audience. So, perhaps Clinton was being purely hypothetical here. Otherwise, he’s either being grossly unfair to President Obama or he’s revealing inside information that reflects the judgment of his wife, former Obama Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

While I certainly agree with President Clinton that presidents have to make foreign policy decisions without undue deference to public opinion–which is fleeting and uninformed–there’s no evidence that I’m aware of that Obama’s Syria policy is driven by the polls. The polls opposed intervention in Libya, too, and that didn’t seem to bother him.  Does Mrs. Clinton, who is certainly more privy to Obama’s foreign affairs decision-making process than I am, think otherwise? If so, having her husband plant this seed is Machiavellian, indeed.

Otherwise, I’m inclined to believe that this president is doing his best to serve America’s national interests and is tempering whatever ideological preferences he has to intervene in humanitarian disasters—which may be strong, indeed, given how close he’s been to Samantha Power going back to at least the 2008 campaign—with a hard-headed cost-benefit analysis. Absent strong evidence to the contrary, that’s how I presume any American president decides when to send our forces off to war.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Ben Wolf says:

    Clinton should be ashamed of himself. It’s not his place to mouth off about a sitting president in public.

  2. Ben Wolf says:

    @Ben Wolf: That should read it isn’t Clinton’s place to mouth off in public about a sitting president.

  3. rachel says:

    Not intervening in Syria is one of the things I approve of Obama doing.

  4. Moosebreath says:

    Yes, these are exactly the people who we should intervene to support, right?

    “In the raid, which comes at a time when the West is worried that extremists are increasingly joining the rebellion, the victorious fighters raised black Sunni Islamist flags over the eastern village of Hatla. In amateur videos, the fighters – some wearing al-Qaeda-style headbands – vented anti-Shiite slurs and fired in the air.”

    Or do we have John McCain’s magical ability to help only the good guys in the fight, whomever they are?

  5. Kari Q says:

    Why/ In heaven’s name, why are so many supposedly intelligent people so eager for the US to intervene in another country’s civil war? What have we got to gain by this? How often does this actually work out well?

  6. Matt Bernius says:

    One has to wonder how much of Clinton’s stance might have to due to guilt over his own lack of action during the Rwandian Genocide.

  7. al-Ameda says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    One has to wonder how much of Clinton’s stance might have to due to guilt over his own lack of action during the Rwandian Genocide.

    Hear, hear …..

  8. Tillman says:

    @Kari Q:

    Why/ In heaven’s name, why are so many supposedly intelligent people so eager for the US to intervene in another country’s civil war?

    Good intelligence cannot replace good perception. You can be the smartest dude in the world and still blind.

  9. Tillman says:

    I like Fareed Zakaria’s take on Syria.

  10. […] Bill Clinton Criticizes Obama on Syria ( […]

  11. stonetools says:

    As I have said, if we get involved, it would not be for humanitarian reasons (even if we say that). It will be to forestall Iran and Russia.
    Without full context, I would be reluctant to conclude that Bill Clinton is that far from the Obama Administration. He is the husband of the one who until recently helped run the Administration policy.

  12. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    Hillary supporters: heed well.

  13. […] risk that escalating the conflict could increase the risk that it will spread into a regional war James Joyner at Outside the Beltway points out that it’s unfair to suggest that Obama’s reluctance to get more deeply […]