President Barack Obama reportedly was “rip-shit angry” at his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton for strongly criticizing his self-declared foreign policy doctrine of “don’t do stupid shit” and his decision not to intervene in the Syrian civil war, according to an article published Thursday in The Atlantic.
Obama’s hesitance to take action in Syria to stop the violence perpetrated by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad frustrated his national security team, including Clinton, who had argued for a more aggressive response earlier in the conflict.
After leaving office, Clinton publicly blasted the president for not doing enough in Syria and his doctrinal rationale for choosing inaction.
Obama had privately said that “the first task of an American president in the post-Bush international arena was ‘Don’t do stupid shit,’” according to the article, which was written by Jeffrey Goldberg and based on his extensive interviews with the president. In the context of Syria, this meant that the civil war there did not pose a direct national-security threat to the United States, so America should avoid getting bogged down in a difficult conflict like George W. Bush did with the Iraq War.
Clinton told The Atlantic in 2014 that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”
The former secretary of state also criticized Obama’s self-declared “don’t do stupid shit” doctrine as insufficient for a country as powerful as the United States.
“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Clinton said.
One senior adviser to Obama reportedly said the president became “rip-shit angry” in response and did not understand how one could consider “Don’t do stupid shit” a “controversial slogan.”
“The Iraq invasion, Obama believed, should have taught Democratic interventionists like Clinton, who had voted for its authorization, the dangers of doing stupid shit,” Goldberg writes.
Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and speechwriting, recalled that, in the wake of Clinton’s comments, “the questions we were asking in the White House were, ‘Who exactly is in the stupid-shit caucus? Who is pro-stupid shit.’”
Clinton soon apologized to Obama for her public criticism.
The article explains how Obama’s decision to not follow through on a red line he set to take military action against Assad if he used chemical weapons against the Syrian people was a turning point for leaders around the world.
Prime Minister of France Manuel Valls told Goldberg that “by not intervening early, we have created a monster. We were absolutely certain that the U.S. administration would say yes. Working with the Americans, we had already seen the targets. It was a great surprise. If we had bombed as was planned, I think things would be different today.”
U.S. allies in the Middle East were also dismayed that Obama did not act on his red line threat, causing the king of Jordan, Abdullah II, to say, “I think I believe in American power more than Obama does,” and Leon Panetta, Obama’s former secretary of defense, to add, “Once the commander in chief draws that red line, then I think the credibility of the commander in chief and this nation is at stake if he doesn’t enforce it.”
Goldberg also said that Hillary Clinton privately warned after Obama’s reversal: “If you say you’re going to strike, you have to strike. There’s no choice.”
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power also disagreed with the president’s policy decisions in Syria, arguing that the administration should have armed Syrian rebels early on. Power is a strong proponent of humanitarian intervention when leaders slaughter their own people, a belief she details in her 2002 book A Problem From Hell, which describes how past American presidents failed to prevent genocide. Obama became annoyed by Power’s repeated calls to take more action in Syria and elsewhere on moral grounds, according to the article, causing him to snap at her one time, “Samantha, enough, I’ve already read your book.”
Obama has vigorously defended his decision to not take more action in Syria, dismissing alternative ideas at one press conference in October as “half-baked” and “mumbo jumbo.”
The president also reportedly called some U.S. lawmakers’ criticisms of his Syria policy “horseshit” at a private meeting, arguing he has taken the right course of action in dealing with the civil war.
470,000 people have been killed in Syria since conflict broke out there in 2011, according to a recent estimate, with millions displaced from their homes and fleeing as refugees to Europe.