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Clinton: Don’t be ‘a total wuss’ on Syria

If you are apt to say to yourself, “Syria is such a mess,” Bill Clinton seems to  have some advice for us: We have to do something.

It’s an unwritten rule that past commanders-in-chief keep their noses out of foreign affairs (Jimmy Carter didn’t get the memo), but that didn’t stop Clinton in a week of dismal news for the rebels. …

Lebanese militants have helped Bashar Assad’s forces make such quick gains against the rebels that Syria is at a “tipping point,” a European official has told The Wall Street Journal. Gen. Salim Idris, the top Syrian rebel commander backed by the West, has beseeched the U.S., France and Britain for weapons, WSJ reported Wednesday night.

President Obama’s top national security aides were huddled at the White House on Wednesday, discussing options for aiding rebels, according to  the Washington Post. Several in the administration believe the recent gains by forces loyal to Assad are not likely to be sustained, but there is a growing number of  intelligence and defense officials who say that the momentum is in Assad’s favor with the Hezbollah militants now on the battlefield, WSJ said. “We are now at the tipping point,” a senior European official told WSJ.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan on Tuesday night, the president who intervened in the Yugoslavia-Kosovo conflict weighed in.

At a discussion closed to the media at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, a program started by the Arizona senator to debate foreign affairs, the Democrat sided with the Republican, reported Politico, which listened to audio of portions of the event recorded by an attendee.

“Some people say, ‘Okay, see what a big mess it is? Stay out!’ I think that’s a big mistake. I agree with you about this,” Clinton said to Sen. John McCain. “Sometimes it’s just best to get caught trying, as long as you don’t over-commit — like, as long as you don’t make an improvident commitment.”

McCain this month called for a no-fly zone over Syria and use of U.S. and allied air power.

But Americans are wary of intervening in Syria, perhaps rightly so — mindful of an on-going war in Afghanistan and a conflict in Iraq whose mission was not accomplished in a few months.

Clinton doesn’t sound worried. In fact, he flipped  Santayana’s “those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them” inside out.

“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.”

In a poll conducted late last month by NBC News and the WSJ,  11 percent wanted to provide arms to the opposition, 15 percent favored U.S. military action, 24 percent believed the U.S. shouldn’t take any action and 42 percent preferred to offer only humanitarian assistance.

Clinton riffed, as he is wont to do, on what opinion polls mean when most Americans disapprove of foreign intervention.

If a president had ever blamed a lack of action because “there was a poll in the morning paper that said 80 percent of you were against it … you’d look like a total wuss,” he said. “And you would be. 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.”

Clinton went on to compare Syria to Afghanistan in the 1980s when Kabul was fighting the Soviets.

Experts on the region, however, have a much more recent intervention in mind: Libya.

Like its neighbor to the east, rebel militias in Syria contain al-Qaida-linked elements. In April, al-Qaida in Iraq said it had joined forces with the Nusra Front, the most successful and powerful rebel militia. The honeymoon was nonexistant. The squabbling has been so bad between the two groups that Ayman al-Zawahri, the al-Qaida leader, told them to cut it out and remain single.

A backgrounder on Syria by the Council on Foreign Relations notes:

Syria’s widening civil war and the growing toll on civilians have raised new debate about the international community’s responsibility to mount a humanitarian intervention by outside forces. But any such efforts seem overshadowed by the Libya experience. In 2011 the UN Security Council invoked the “responsibility to protect” doctrine and adopted Resolution 1973, endorsing a no-fly zone over Libya and authorizing member states to “take all necessary measures” to protect civilians under attack from Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government. Western-led air strikes ultimately ousted Qaddafi from power and prompted criticism from Security Council members like Russia that the R2P doctrine was cover for a regime change strategy. Experts say such sentiments, combined with concern about the way Libya’s upheaval spilled over into the region, have given pause to humanitarian interventions backed by regional or global bodies.

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