Obama subtly pushes back against Clinton, Panetta on Syria

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Story highlights

  • Obama says arming Syrian rebels in 2012 would have been "counterproductive"
  • Top advisers, including Clinton, have knocked Obama on Syria since leaving the administration
  • Clinton said not arming rebels in 2012 "left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled"
President Barack Obama, over the last two years, has seen his top two former national security Cabinet officials critique his foreign policy decision in Syria.
Now the President has gently pushed back.
In an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" that aired on Sunday, Obama said that arming Syrian rebels in 2012 in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad "would have been counterproductive."
"This is in response to the mythology that has evolved that somehow if we had given those folks some guns two and a half years ago, than Syria would be fine," Obama said about the 2012 plans. "For us to just go blind on that would have been counterproductive and would not have helped the situation. It also would have committed us to a much more significant role inside of Syria."
Earlier this month, the President authorized a plan to arm and train rebels in Syria fighting against ISIS, a terrorist group that has swept into power in areas in both Syria and Iraq. Obama's plan also authorizes airstrikes against ISIS targets.
Former top Obama administration officials, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, have publicly disagreed with the president on Syria.
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Clinton wrote in her memoir "Hard Choices" that she split with Obama on Syria and urged the president to arm the rebels.
In an interview with The Atlantic in August, Clinton said, "The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad ... the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled."
And just last week, at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, the former secretary of state dodged a question on whether arming the rebels was coming too late, given the recent rise of ISIS in Syria.
"Whatever the debates might have been before, this is a threat to the region and beyond," Clinton said. "I can't sit here today and tell you that if we had done what I had recommended we would be in a very different position. I just can't. You can't go and prove a negative."
Clinton does support Obama's plan to arm rebels and launch airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.
Panetta echoed Clinton's Syria sentiments and knocked the president in an interview with "60 Minutes" earlier this month.
"I think that would've helped," the former defense chief said about arming rebels. "And I think, in part, we pay the price for not doing that in what we see happening with ISIS."