Not only is President Barack Obama leading from behind, now he’s leading from behind Bill Clinton.
After dithering for two years over what to do about the slaughter in Syria, the president was finally shoved into action by the past and perhaps future occupant of his bedroom.
Clinton told John McCain during a private Q-and-A on Tuesday in New York that Obama should be more forceful on Syria and should not rationalize with opinion polls that reflect Americans’ reluctance to tangle in foreign crises. McCain has been banging the gong on a no-fly zone in Syria for some time.
The oddity of Obama’s being taken to the leadership woodshed by the Democrat who preceded him and the Republican who failed to pre-empt him was not lost on anyone. When Obama appointed Clinton “the Secretary of ’Splaining Stuff,” he didn’t think Bill would be ’splaining how lame Barry was.
As Maggie Haberman reported in Politico, Clinton said at the McCain Institute for International Leadership that the public elects presidents and lawmakers to “look around the corner and see down the road” and “to win,” not to follow polls.
When the man who polled where to take his summer vacation and whether to tell the truth about his affair with Monica Lewinsky tells you you’re a captive of polls, you’d better listen up.
Citing his own experiences in Kosovo and Bosnia, Clinton said that if you blamed a poll for a lack of action, “you’d look like a total wuss.” He added that “when people are telling you ‘no’ in these situations, very often what they’re doing is flashing a giant yellow light” of caution.
According to Haberman, Clinton, who apologized for failing to intervene in the Rwandan genocide, continued: “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. So you really have to in the end trust the American people, tell them what you’re doing, and hope to God you can sell it.”
That is the problem for Obama: selling it. The silver-tongued campaigner has turned out to be a leaden salesman in the Oval Office. On issues from drones to gun control to taxes to Syria, the president likes to cite public opinion polls to justify his action or inaction. He seems incapable of getting in front of issues and shaping public and congressional opinion with a strong selling job.
After the whistle was blown on the National Security Agency’s No Call Left Behind program, the president said he would welcome an ex post facto debate. But now that polls indicate that the overwhelming American attitude is “Spy on me,” Obama has dropped the subject.
Too bad. We’ll see what Americans have to say when someone in the mold of Dick Cheney or Bob Haldeman gets his hands on all that personal data; the West Wing has been known to drive its occupants nuts.
On Syria, the administration now says it will begin supplying rebels with small arms and ammunition, a gesture that friends and foes alike say is too little, too late. The Times’ Peter Baker reported Saturday that Obama himself said it wouldn’t change anything but would maybe buy time.
And as the White House announced this pittance of a policy Thursday evening, the president was nowhere to be seen. He let his deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, be the face of the Syria plan, while he spent time at an LGBT Pride Month celebration, a Father’s Day luncheon and a reception for the WNBA championship Indiana Fever basketball team.
On “Morning Joe” Friday, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Carter national security adviser, dismissed the president’s response to Syria as “propaganda,” noting the ambiguous nature of the red line that President Bashar Assad had crossed, killing 150 people with chemical weapons after nearly 93,000 had died in the civil war.
“It all seems to me rather sporadic, chaotic, unstructured, undirected,” he said. “I think we need a serious policy review with the top people involved, not just an announcement by the deputy head of the NSC.”
Especially, he added, since Syria could slide into a larger regional war that would pit America against Syria’s ally, Iran, with a huge effect on the international economy and America’s budget.
While the president was avoiding talking about what he hadn’t wanted to do in the first place, the former president was ubiquitous and uxorious, chatting about Syria and myriad other issues on MSNBC and Bloomberg TV; smiling on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek and offering his solutions for corporate America’s problems; presiding at his global initiative in Chicago; and promoting the woman he hopes will be the next president.
On Friday, a self-satisfied Clinton told the “Morning Joe” hosts about Syria, “It looks to me like this thing is trending in the right direction now.”
The less Obama leads, the more likely it is that history will see him as a pallid interregnum between two chaotic Clinton eras.
Nature abhors a vacuum. And so does Bill Clinton.
Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.
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