The official line from Hillary Clinton, as well as Leon Panetta, is that she was in favor of arming Syrian rebels, but that President Obama rejected her advice. This was one of the big “reveals” of her book and a theme during her book tour.
But Bryan Preston shows that during a February 2012 interview with CBS, Clinton had no use for the idea of arming Syrian rebels. Her objections were several fold. First:
[W]e really don’t know who it is that would be armed. We have met some of the people from the Syrian National Council. They’re not inside Syria.
This is not Libya where you had a base of operations in Benghazi, where you had people who were representing the entire opposition to Libya, who were on the road meeting with me, rather, constantly meeting with others. You could get your arms around what it is you were being asked to do, and with whom. We don’t have any clarity on that.
Clinton was just getting started. She continued:
What are we going to arm them with and against what? We’re not going to bring tanks over the borders of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. That’s not going to happen.
So maybe at best you can smuggle in, you know, automatic weapons. Maybe some other weapons that you could get in. To whom? Where do you go? You can’t get into Homs. Where do you go? And to whom are you delivering them.
Logistics weren’t the only difficulty. Clinton doubted the wisdom of arming rebels because of their uncertain ties and loyalties:
We know al Qaeda – Zawahiri is supporting the opposition in Syria. Are we supporting al Qaeda in Syria? Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas in Syria?
But Clinton’s most fundamental problem with arming Syrian rebels seemed to be, laughably in retrospect, that Syria wasn’t as tidy a situation as Libya where, in her view, our intervention had been a huge success. She told CBS’s Wyatt Andrews:
So I think, Wyatt, despite the great pleas that we hear from those people who are being ruthlessly assaulted by Assad, you don’t see uprisings across Syria the way you did in Libya. You don’t see militias forming in places where the Syrian military is not, trying to get to Homs. You don’t see that, Wyatt.
In making these comments, was Clinton simply being a team player, advancing the objections her boss was relying on without believing that they were dispositive? Perhaps. Notice that many of her reservations are in the form of questions, rather than declarations.
Even so, it’s difficult to read Clinton’s comments and believe that, behind the scenes, she was a forceful advocate of arming Syrian rebels. At best she must have been too conflicted, in light of the concerns she raised with CBS, to have taken a firm position in favor the action she now claims to have argued for.