It’s not the least bit surprising, but Bill Clinton wants the U.S. to meddle in Syria. Politico reports Clinton’s remarks:
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 [bold mine-DL].”
It’s possible that sending arms to the Syrian opposition would be similar in some ways to aiding anti-Soviet insurgents in Afghanistan, but I’m not sure why this is supposed to be a reassuring comparison. It’s not hard to imagine something very similar happening as a result: the country continues to be wracked by conflict for the better part of another decade as competing militias battle for control until one finally manages to prevail. Syria’s way will probably continue for some time no matter what other governments do, but the comparison that Clinton makes here implies that intentionally prolonging the war for perhaps for many more years is the hawks’ idea of a preferable outcome.
The last part of Clinton’s remark is telling. The standard interventionist line is that the U.S. error was not the policy of fueling the insurgency in the ’80s and thereby contributing to the later civil war in Afghanistan, but that the U.S. failed to “hang around” afterwards, as if “hanging around” would have ameliorated the effects of the earlier policy. What Clinton’s remarks imply is that he thinks that there would have to be some significant U.S. role in a post-Assad Syria (i.e., the U.S. would have to “hang around” there for some time), but he chose the earlier Afghanistan comparison to make it seem as if he is not proposing such a long-term commitment.
Clinton also said that Obama should ignore public opinion on Syria:
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.’ 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 [bold mine-DL], 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.
Of course, there are all the other times when people are saying no to a policy option because they are genuinely opposed to it. Sometimes when the majority is saying, “No, absolutely not,” it’s simply a red light telling the politician to stop. I doubt Clinton would advise a president to ignore two-to-one opposition on a major domestic issue, but when it comes to foreign policy even so great a panderer as Clinton thinks public opinion should be ignored. The curious thing about this bit of advice is that it doesn’t seem to occur to Clinton that advocates of intervention aren’t “looking around the corner and down the street.” The pro-intervention argument is focused entirely on the present with hardly any attention to the possible consequences of what they propose. Clinton and McCain aren’t “looking around the corner.” They are calling on the U.S. to act without seriously considering the effects of that action.
It goes without saying that no one should make policy solely or primarily based on what polls happen to say, but it would be even more foolish to put the U.S. on a path towards gradual escalation in Syria when it is obvious that the public has no appetite for a new conflict or more foreign commitments. Indeed, only a fool would embark on a policy that he knows has little or no political support. One of the worst things that a president could do is commit the U.S. to a foreign conflict with unpopular, ineffective half-measures, such as arming a fragmented insurgency, and then be forced to increase the U.S. role in the conflict for fear of appearing to “lose.” That is what Clinton wants Obama to do, and unless Obama is a fool he should ignore this advice.