President Barack Obama came under mounting pressure on Thursday to act more forcefully in the Syria crisis with Bill Clinton offering a sharp critique of his policy, even as the White House signaled a growing urgency in deliberations on arming increasingly desperate Syrian rebels. By Matt Spetalnick.
Clinton’s call for deeper U.S. engagement in Syria’s civil war put the Obama administration on the defensive just a day before Western envoys are expected to hear rebel pleas for weapons in the face of setbacks to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and his Lebanese Hezbollah allies.
“Some people say, ‘OK, see what a big mess this is? Stay out!’ I think that’s a big mistake,” the former Democratic president, who until now had avoided criticizing Obama’s foreign policy, was quoted as telling a private session in New York this week.
While Obama has resisted U.S. military entanglement in Syria during more than two years of conflict there, the rebels’ deteriorating situation on the ground has prompted a reassessment of Washington’s options, including the possibility of reversing policy and sending arms to the opposition.
Obama’s national security aides have conducted a rolling series of meetings on Syria this week and White House spokesman Jay Carney made clear on Thursday that further steps are all but certain to come from the talks. He gave no specifics and offered no timing for a decision.
“The president … is very closely evaluating options available to him,” Carney told reporters. “And, you know, we’re fully aware about the worsening situation in Syria and are assessing options in light of that.”
But he cautioned that, “As terrible as the situation is in Syria, he has to make decisions when it comes to policy toward Syria that are in the best interests of the United States.”
The arrival of thousands of seasoned Iran-backed Hezbollah Shi’ite fighters to help Assad combat the mainly Sunni rebellion has shifted momentum in the civil war, which the United Nations said on Thursday has killed at least 93,000 people.
Syria will be high on the agenda at the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland next week, Carney said. Obama also can expect a difficult encounter with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, which has backed Assad.
WASHINGTON BUZZES OVER CLINTON COMMENTS
It was Clinton, however, who got Washington buzzing on Thursday and also prompted the White House to push back.
“Nobody is asking for American soldiers in Syria,” Clinton said, according to the report from the newspaper Politico published late on Wednesday.
“The only question is: now that the Russians, the Iranians and the Hezbollah are in there head over heels … 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?”
Clinton made the remarks at a closed-press event this week with Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, a fierce critic of Obama’s reluctance so far to provide direct military support to the rebels.
He said he agree with McCain on the need for more decisive U.S. action on Syria and cautioned that it would be unwise to be hesitant because of opinion polls. Recent surveys show most Americans, weary of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade, are against a new foreign military engagement.
Clinton also was quoted as saying: “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.”
Carney sought to play down any sign of a split between Obama and Clinton, saying the president welcomes “the input of every individual out there who has perspective on a situation like this.”
But Carney also pointedly defended Obama’s approach on Syria. “The fact of the matter is the president makes a decision about the implementation of national security options based on national security interests, not on what might satisfy critics at any given moment,” he told reporters at the White House.
Clinton said he agreed with McCain that the United States needed to intervene, according to the report in Politico, which said it obtained an audio recording from someone who attended the McCain Institute for International Leadership meeting in New York.
Clinton was criticized during his presidency for waiting too long to intervene militarily in Bosnia, although he was credited for a faster response to the 1999 Kosovo crisis.
Clinton’s comments come only about a year after his wife, Hillary Clinton, who departed as secretary of state in February, joined several other Obama aides arguing in favor of funneling arms to the rebels – a proposal the president rejected.
Obama and his aides have been wary of arming the rebels, at least partly out of concern the weapons could fall into the wrong hands. The al Qaeda-linked Nusra front has emerged as the strongest and most cohesive rebel fighting unit. DM
Photo by Reuters
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