The politics of Syria: Hillary tries to thread the needle


    If the war clouds can somehow be dispelled – if Russia truly convinces Syria to surrender its chemical weapons to international control – we’d all be relieved. And Hillary Clinton, for her own political reasons, would surely be relieved.

    Granted, some people think it’s tacky to speculate how a military hit on Syria might play out politically in America; after all, the immediate fate of Syrian civilians is more important right now than the career trajectories of politicians living in safety on these shores. Columnist Frank Bruni complains, “The media has a wearying tendency – a corrosive tic – to put everything that happens in Washington through the same cynical political grinder, subjecting it to the same cynical checklist of who’s up, who’s down, who’s threading a needle, who’s tangled up in knots, what it all means for control of Congress after the midterms, what it all means for control of the White House two years later. And we’re doing a bit too much of this with Syria…”

    But I disagree. Amidst the flood of Syria coverage – most of which has rightly focused on the moral, military, and diplomatic dimensions of the crisis – it’s smart to pay at least some collateral attention to the American politicians who must navigate the crisis.

    Back in 2002, it was arguably tacky to speculate how Sen. Hillary Clinton’s Iraq war authorization vote might affect her future presidential prospects, but guess what: It did ultimately affect her prospects, adversely so in the last months of 2007, damaging her standing among liberal Democrats, and abetting the meteoric rise of an anti-Iraq war rival, Barack Obama. The bottom line? Policy is inextricably intertwined with politics.

    Finessing the factors

    Which is why, with respect to Hillary’s current stance on Syria, attention must be paid. Assuming that she’s indeed mapping another presidential bid, the last thing she wants to do is tick off the Democratic base. Again.

    But she has many factors to finesse. She can’t simply stay mum on whether to strike Syria – because she’s the presumptive ’16 frontrunner, and Democrats want to hear what she thinks; and because silence might imply that she disagrees with the president whom she served as Secretary of State. The best option is to support the president’s call for a military strike, even though the Democratic base opposes a strike. She can’t afford headlines like “Clinton Breaks with Obama over Syria,” and a press narrative about disloyalty.

    And so, last week, a Hillary spokesman put out a statement: “Secretary Clinton supports the president’s effort to enlist the Congress in pursuing a strong and targeted response to the Assad regime’s horrific use of chemical weapons.” And so, yesterday, Hillary finally spoke for herself – 19 days after the reported chemical attack that triggered the crisis. During a White House visit, she said that the use of chemical weapons “violates a universal norm at the heart of our global order” and “demands a strong response” from the U.S.-led international community, because “this world will have to deal with this threat as swiftly and comprehensively as possible.”

    As for Russia’s offer to goad ally Syria into placing its weapons under international control, Hillary dutifully echoed Obama’s position, warning that “this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction,” and that the offer is on the table only because the U.S. has posed “a credible military threat…to keep pressure on the Syrian government.” (She may say similar stuff tonight, when she speaks at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.)

    “Lasting regret”

    This is a very delicate dance. Publicly, she has to ensure that there’s no daylight between herself and the guy who has overshadowed her since 2008. But privately, she probably chafes at some of the administration’s moves. During her stint at State, she was reputedly far more hawkish on Syria than many of her administration mates; she was more adamant than others about providing support to the rebels (little help was provided), and upon leaving office she said it was her “lasting regret” that more was not done to stop the violence.

    And I doubt she’s happy with the various Obama zigzags – like ordering up a seemingly imminent attack, only to ease off the pedal and toss the issue to Congress; like conjuring a sense of urgency, only to confess at a press conference last Friday that he cannot “honestly claim that the threat posed by Assad’s use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and women and children posed an imminent, direct threat to the United States.”

    But she can’t cross him, or signal in any way how a Hillary administration might do things differently. She can only hope that a diplomatic solution will defuse this crisis. Or if Obama does launch air strikes, she can only hope that he won’t get sucked into a quagmire – taking her down with him. Given where they once stood on Iraq, that would be the ultimate irony.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman


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