WASHINGTON -- On one of the first major foreign policy rifts between President Barack Obama and his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, one top former administration official is siding with the president.
Former Deputy CIA Director Mike Morell said he disagreed with Clinton’s suggestion –- offered in a recent Atlantic Magazine interview -– that the United States should have armed Syrian rebels far earlier than it did.
“There is no doubt that what ISIS [the Islamic State] was able to do in Syria was probably the key factor in strengthening them in terms of what they are doing in Iraq today,” Morell told "CBS This Morning" on Monday. “It is difficult for me to see how arming the moderate rebels would have made that much difference in Syria. We would have had to have it on a very, very large scale that I think would have frightened our partners in the region because it would have put a very, very large footprint, U.S. footprint on the ground in the Middle East."
“So you support the decision made by the president at the time,” host Charlie Rose asked.
“Yes,” Morell replied.
Watch the interview above.
A lifer in the intelligence community, Morell served as both deputy director and acting director at the CIA when the Obama administration’s policy toward the Syrian rebels was put in place. His skepticism about arms transfers ended up prevailing, though contemporaneous reporting has shown it was one of the most contentious foreign policy debates inside the administration. (Eventually, the president did send light arms to the rebels).
The argument has been revived in recent weeks as the Islamic State has moved from waging an insurgency inside Syria toward wreaking havoc through western, mid and northern Iraq. And in a notable break from the president, Clinton stressed that more could have been done earlier to deal with the menace.
“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” she told The Atlantic.
Whether timed for political benefit or an honest assessment of her policy preference, Clinton’s deviation from Obama on Syria underscored the rifts that continue to exist within the Democratic Party on matters of foreign affairs. Its more hawkish wing may have been humbled by the Iraq War, but recent events in the Middle East have encouraged its members to speak up a bit more.
The president has never been a part of that camp, as his "don't do stupid stuff" ethos is (more often than not) philosophically at odds with it. And in comments that appeared before Clinton's, he made the same case as Morell -- that more weapons in Syria never would have guaranteed better results.
“This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards,” the president told the New York Times’ Tom Friedman.
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