When Bill Clinton Called Barack Obama a “Total Wuss”

Why the former president is wrong for using schoolyard taunts to send America to war in Syria.

Back in the 1990s — when the U.S. was about 20 years past the horrors of Vietnam, and still a few years off from the horrors of post-9/11 combat — officials in the Clinton administration were contemplating a military intervention of their own to help bring an end to the war and suffering in Bosnia. Some of the president’s advisers were ready to attack; others, like Gen. Colin Powell, were reluctant.

Then-U.N. Secretary Madeline Albright would have none of it. “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about,” she snapped, “if we can’t use it?”

I thought about that Clinton-era display of hubris and machismo this week, thanks to President Bill Clinton himself. The last we saw him was back at the Democratic National Convention, delivering a masterful “here’s how things work” speech that might’ve saved Barack Obama’s presidency.

Forget all of that. This week, President Clinton called President Obama a “wuss.”

Why? Because the president has hesitated to wade into the quagmire that is Syria unlike Clinton himself, who committed the United States to an air war over Kosovo near the end of his term.

“You just think how lame you’d be … suppose I had let a million people, two million people be refugees out of Kosovo, a couple hundred thousand people die, and they say, ‘You could have stopped this by dropping a few bombs. Why didn’t you do it?’ And I say, ‘because the House of Representatives voted 75 percent against it?’” Clinton said. “You look like a total wuss, and you would be.” …

“If you refuse to act and you cause a calamity, the one thing you cannot say when all the eggs have been broken is, ‘Oh my god, two years ago there was a poll that said 80 percent of you were against it.’ You look like a total fool.”

Let’s untangle this a bit:

American presidents should never go to war because they’re afraid of looking like a “total wuss.” They should go to war in defense of American lives, territory, and allies; they should also vigorously defend and advance American interests. But those interests should be concrete. Wussiness — or, to put it in in a more positive light, “American prestige” — should appear pretty close to the bottom of reasons to use force. It’s too nebulous. If we’re going to ask people to die, ask them to die for real stuff.

• Though it’s been made fuzzy by American presidents and their assertion over all the levers of war-making, the Constitutional power to declare war actually resides with Congress. So, yeah, if 75 percent of the House of Representatives votes against going to war in Syria, yes, the president should probably be paying attention to that. Because that’s the law.

• Obama should also pay attention to that 80 percent of Americans who don’t want to go to war, in Clinton’s scenario — at least, if going to war is completely the choice of the president and not pushed on us by an attack on the aforementioned American lives and territory. Let’s be honest: It’s not always that hard to persuade us that invading or dropping bombs on some other country is the right policy, but you usually do have to give Americans a reason to do so. If you can’t do that, you’re probably not a very good president. Make your case.

What’s interesting here is that Clinton makes only a glancing reference to what might the core U.S. interest in intervening in Syria: saving lives. Ninety-three thousand people have died in the civil war so far — a terrible atrocity for any country to experience. The problem? U.S. involvement doesn’t always save lives; just this weekend, 30 people were killed in car bombs across Iraq, the victims of forces we unleashed with our invasion there a decade ago. Doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing.

And remember: Clinton as president stood by while Rwandans slaughtered between 500,000 and a million of their countrymen back in the 1990s. Remember: He fled a humanitarian mission in Somalia just as soon as he could after U.S. soldiers were killed there in the “Black Hawk Down” incident. And a reading of history certainly seems to show that he was for the Iraq War when it was popular, and then against it when it wasn’t.

You want to talk about wussiness? Clinton’s record — going back before his time as president — is to back popular wars, flee unpopular conflicts, and above all “to preserve (his) political viability in the system.” If there’s an example of moral courage in Bill Clinton’s record on war and peace, it is difficult to find. It’s one reason he can drive liberals so crazy sometimes.

President Obama, it seems, is going to step up American military involvement in Syria. Maybe we’re lucky and it’ll turn out well. But I hope he did so for better reasons than Bill Clinton’s schoolyard taunts. Otherwise, he really is a wuss.