Barack and Bill on Syria: What’s really happening

To understand the current Democratic president’s predicament, consider the last one’s experiences -- and commentary

Topics: Syria, Foreign policy, Bosnia, Rwanda, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Intervention, Humanitarian aid, Bashar al-Assad,

Barack and Bill on Syria: What's really happeningPresident Barack Obama joins former President Bill Clinton (R) at the Democratic National Convention in 2012. (Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed)

When the most popular Democratic president since FDR takes a swipe at a sitting president of the same party, pay attention. Barack Obama’s recent decision to start arming the Syrian opposition was driven by many factors, and conceived well before Bill Clinton implicitly accused him of being a ”wuss” on Syria. Clinton didn’t turn a risk-averse president into a risk-ready one on Syria — how Obama wants to be remembered as a president did.

And that’s why the substance and timing of Clinton’s remarks matter.

Indeed, given the limited supply of weapons the administration is prepared to provide the rebels, Obama’s change of heart isn’t about overthrowing Assad or jumping militarily into Syria with both feet; it’s about protecting his own credibility, reputation and legacy in a second and final term.

The problem, of course, is that if arms to the rebels don’t answer the mail, the president may well be forced to do more – an uncertain road that could well end up damaging the legacy he so badly wants to protect. What prompted the administration of a cautious president to change course on Syria – even in a limited way — is still unclear. For a year plus, the president avoided militarizing the U.S. role. Indeed, he went to great lengths to do so, including allowing Secretary of State Kerry to play footsie with the Russians on a Geneva political track.

The administration decision-making narrative on Syria goes something like this: The decision to begin arming the rebels was made as early as April and validated by increasing evidence that Assad used chemical weapons – a self-described presidential red line. But it’s now June and this red line had already turned pink with no action being taken. It’s hard to believe this was the precipitating rationale for arming the rebels.

There’s another narrative that’s more compelling, and it goes like this: Barack Obama is the extricator-in-chief. His goal is to get America out of long and profitless wars, not into new ones.

He really didn’t want to go down this road. But he was pushed – certainly not by the public or even the Republicans. But by the reality that the Syrian civil war wasn’t going to end any time soon — and that while the public wasn’t pushing for America to end it, unless he did something his own reputation was going to suffer. Not in the current polls, but in the big poll that starts to matter to a second term president – the judgment of history.



Obama’s reluctance to intervene in Syria may be savvy politics and in step with public opinion now. But with 100,000 dead and who knows how many more to come, nobody (history included) would have understood why America couldn’t have at least tried to do something more to stop the killing. And if Obama didn’t get it, then those closest to the president, perhaps including Michelle, did.

Enter Bill Clinton. Presidents rarely take whacks at sitting presidents unless you’re Jimmy Carter and, well, he’s a bit unusual. So when Clinton indirectly criticized Obama on Syria for being guided by politics rather than the national interest or morality, he framed the central question – even if Obama had already set his decision on arming the rebels into motion. And the fact that Clinton did it in response to John McCain, chief interventionist — and with the full knowledge that Hillary had supported arming the rebels as secretary of state — made it even more significant.

Whether Obama was moved – or just annoyed — by the statement, it really did underscore the president’s dilemma. After all, the clock’s ticking down on the Obama presidency, and along comes a guy who as president presided over two humanitarian catastrophes. The first, Rwanda, on which he regrets not doing more; the second, Bosnia, he takes credit for intervening — however late. And now in response to John McCain, who thinks Obama is abdicating his responsibility in Syria, Clinton’s out there essentially agreeing.

When a popular former president who got credit for finally showing resolve in Bosnia criticizes a sitting president who’s not in Syria, it matters.

Never mind that, according to Edward Joseph and Elizabeth O’Bagy, Bosnia had three things Syria doesn’t – the parties were exhausted, the Bosnians were pretty unified and the territorial lines were clear enough to produce a settlement. Two years into the Syrian civil war, Obama and his advisers perceived a vulnerability on Syria and have acted to try to correct it.

But herein lies the rub. The very course the president has identified to improve his credibility and guard his reputation almost certainly won’t work. And he may well be forced to consider other steps that are more encumbering and riskier, trapping the president in the very course of action he was so determined to avoid.

Bosnia worked out for enhancing the legacy of one president; Syria might not for another. And that would be the cruelest of fates for a second-term president whose priorities aren’t chasing windmills abroad but looking to address the nation’s broken economic and social house at home.

Aaron David Miller is currently a Distinguished Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. For two decades, he served at the Department of State as an advisor to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State, where he helped formulate U.S. policy on the Middle East.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>