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Bill Clinton’s Caution on Syria May Stem From His Own Regrets

Former President Bill Clinton suggested President Obama might appear to be a “total fool” or a “wuss,”  if he chooses not to get involved in the civil war in Syria.

Clinton chastised the president for proceeding with caution as Syrian forces clash with rebel groups that are intent on dislodging repressive President Bashar al-Assad.

Last year, Obama had said that if there was clear evidence that Assad had used chemical weapons against opposition groups that it likely would prompt the U.S. to take action.

On Thursday, the White House announced that the U.S. and its allies have concluded that the Assad government had indeed used chemical weapons and President Obama said broader aid, including military support, would be provided to opposition groups.

A day earlier, the State Department announced it would modify a ban on trade with Syria and lift sanctions on U.S. exports to areas under the control of opposition forces.

Earlier in the week, however, Politico reported that Clinton said in a closed press event that Obama’s slow move toward greater involvement could make him look foolish and that the president’s decision should not be based on support from the American public or Congress.

“[Y]ou’d look like a total wuss. And you would be,” Politico quoted Clinton as saying. “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.’”

Recent polls show that only about 15 percent of the American public, perhaps weary from extended conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, support action in Syria.

One might wonder if Clinton’s remarks stem from more personal experience.

In March, Clinton told CNBC that about 300,000 lives might have been saved if the U.S. had gone into Rwanda sooner following the start of the 1994 genocide, which killed about a million Rwandans. In other interviews, Clinton has said it was one of the worst decisions of his administration.

“If we’d gone in sooner, I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost…it had an enduring impact on me,” Clinton said in the interview.

CNBC reported that according to classified documents released in 2004, the Clinton administration had advance knowledge that there was a “final solution to eliminate all Tutsis’ well in advance of the genocide.”

Even though intervention in Syria does not enjoy wide support among Americans, Clinton said, “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.”

But as the U.S. winds down from two expensive, protracted wars of its own, Americans may not easily accept actions that plunge the nation back into fighting. And the administration doesn’t seem to have much taste for more war, either.

“What we have been pushing for, all of us involved in this effort, is a political solution that ends the violence, saves Syria, stops the killing and destruction of an entire nation,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in announcing the trade ban modification.

The real tussle, as Clinton surely must know, is whether the perception of Obama being weak is worse than him wading too deep into another country’s conflict and ultimately weakening his own nation.

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”


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