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Bill Clinton on Syria: Don’t Rely on the Polls

On Tuesday night I attended a benefit dinner in New York for the McCain Institute at Arizona State University. The star attraction was Bill Clinton, in conversation with John McCain. Like other attendees I was startled to hear Clinton come out in favor of aiding the Syrian rebels, but I wasn’t planning to write about it because the event was off the record. However, Politico has obtained a tape recording of Clinton’s talk and posted an article about it.

The article quotes Clinton as follows: “My view is that we shouldn’t over-learn the lessons of the past. 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.”

Clinton also suggested that any president who refused to intervene simply because it would be unpopular to do so is not acting very presidential: “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, 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.”

The implication is obvious: Obama is in danger of looking like a “total fool.”

On one level Clinton’s criticism is not terribly surprising since his wife was in favor of aiding the rebels last summer. But Clinton, whatever resentment he may feel toward Obama, has been loyal in public. That he has chosen to break with the White House over Syria is significant. One hopes his comments, which he surely knew would leak, may presage a wider revolt among Democrats in Congress who, like Clinton, are disgusted with Obama’s do-nothing policy on Syria.