The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons

The Atlantic‘s Washington editor-at-large assesses the U.S. position on the civil war in Syria.

Steve Clemons is The Atlantic's Washington editor-at-large and publisher of the political blog, The Washington Note, which focuses on foreign policy issues and general U.S. policy debates. He's also founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a Washington, DC-based centrist think tank where he was previously executive vice president. A long-term policy practitioner, Clemons was the first executive director of the Nixon Center. His work has appeared in many of the leading op-ed pages and magazines around the world, and he frequently speaks on national security issues and domestic and global economic policy challenges.


Tavis: With at least 70,000 people dead and intelligence reports indicating that chemical weapons are being used against civilians, the two-year civil war in Syria is raising questions of what response, if any, the United States should take.

President Obama has gone on record saying the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, but the White House seems to be walking back from that position, questioning the veracity of the intel.

Joining us now from Washington is Steve Clemons, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and editor-at-large for “The Atlantic.” Steve, good to have you on this program.

Steve Clemons: Great to be with you.

Tavis: Let me start with what I just said a moment ago. To your mind, to your read, is the president walking back his earlier comments on what would happen, what the consequences would be if chemical weapons were used in Syria?

Clemons: No I don’t, because I think that the president will deliver on his commitment to take some action, and there are a wide variety of actions could be taken if the intelligence turns out to be robust enough, and I think there are questions about that.

We engage in a game sometimes where those who want to rush to judgment, if it proves out to be right, they say they’re right all the time, and those that raise other scenarios and questions, either about the veracity of the intelligence or about what the other factors may be – who wins, what motives would Bashar al-Assad have for using chemical weapons on such a small scale.

Over the weekend, I spoke to a senior administration official who told me that one of the real questions, because I had raised questions about whether or not somebody on the resistance side had engineered this because they would benefit so greatly from American intervention, and the person said it’s highly likely that if chemical weapons were used, that the orders came from Assad’s command staff.

But they said what is perplexing is why they would use it in such a small dose on such a small scale. So there are legitimate questions. That’s not walking back, that’s being, I think a cautious and judicious commander-in-chief.

Tavis: To what extent, though, might – underline the word “might” – to what extent might the White House be frozen by the fear of making a decision on whether to move forward in Syria based upon the fact that we have had, famously, infamously, shoddy intel in the past that put us in places we had no business being?

Clemons: I think that’s absolutely part of the picture, but the biggest distinction that I’ve heard over – I’ve heard this comparison to Iraq many, many times. The biggest distinction between them is that we know that there are chemical weapons inside Syria. Syria acknowledges that they have chemical weapon stashes and they’re not part of the chemical weapons convention.

So there’s no doubt about the weapon stashes that Syria has today. What is the question is what was the circumstances in which these chemical weapons may have been used, if they were used? Who had chain of command and command authority over their use? Why were they used, under what circumstances?

We have lots of signals intelligence, I would imagine, that we haven’t shared publicly, so the intelligence community knows more, I believe, than we see on the surface of this, and I think that there must be something in that intelligence that has kept France, Israel, Great Britain, from issuing as robust a statement about the use of these chemical weapons as you might have (unintelligible).

We’re all assuming that these nations are all in line. They’re not. They are asking for a U.N. inspection, which many people are saying is just a delaying tactic. I don’t agree at all. But they have some doubts, not necessarily about their use, but of the circumstances.

So there’s a bit of a game here. Many people are saying it’s a delay game. I don’t buy it. I think it’s a genuine and earnest effort to find out what is really going on. But we’ve had bad intelligence in the past. I think that’s driving it.

But the other part of the question, Tavis, is say you take action, say you intervene. I think one of the things the United States does not want to end up is in the box, if you think about game theory, in the very worst box, where you use U.S. military forces in Syria under the supposition that chemical weapons were used, and you turn those forces into a force fighting the Syrian regime and toppling Assad, and taking on and essentially owning the outcome of the Syrian civil war.

I think that might collapse the state underneath Assad and lead us right into the chaos that we saw after the Iraq invasion and the dissolution of the Iraqi military. So the nightmare scenario is far more chastening and humbling and disconcerting to the administration than the intelligence piece of this.

Tavis: So since we’re playing game theory, let me complicate the situation a little bit further, then.

Clemons: Okay.

Tavis: In terms of playing devil’s advocate with this question. If it takes the use of chemical weapons to get us off the dime here – and I’m not suggesting that we should have intervened before now; I’m just asking a question.

If it takes the use of chemical weapons to convince us that we ought to get involved at this point, then what does it say about the 70,000 lives reportedly that have already been lost that have not motivated us to get involved?

So my point is is chemical weapons going to be the threshold for whether or not we decide into the future to intervene somewhere where we know that genocide, or something close to genocide, is taking place? Does it have to be chemical weapons to convince us to get off the dime?

Clemons: You’re getting at one of the core questions, most vexing questions that always faces those that are deploying power in the world, putting, in this case, American women who are fighting at the front lines in various wars and conflicts on the line. What justifies that kind of deployment and what does not?

The general rule of the realist side of that equation is only core interests, which should include the transport or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, where chemical weapons would fall into that category, would be part of those things, along with oil and energy and other sorts of threats that would justify that.

On the humanitarian side, many of my friends – Anne-Marie Slaughter, who’s a very well-known member of what we would call the liberal interventionist school, Bill Kristol and others in the neoconservatives, believe that these values about human life, human trauma, these large-scale arenas that deal with other areas which don’t classically fall under the parochial concerns of a country equally justify American intervention and international concern and support.

Much of the so-called “responsibility to protect” movement that’s been trying to validate the intervention inside other countries arguing that states lose their sovereignty if they go to war against their own people, and that this would justify intervention.

This is a debate that’s going on – it went on over Libya, it’s going on over other places, certainly going on over Syria, and frankly, it’s a fight and an argument still moving on.

So you’re right that in a case with chemical weapons, a large-scale chemical weapons use, brings a lot of other people to the table that have not favored intervention simply on humanitarian grounds, because you couldn’t justify the American interest dimension to that and possibly taking U.S. forces into another black hole –

Tavis: Right.

Clemons: – that you couldn’t figure out how you were going to get out of. That’s part of the equation. People always think – it’s easy to get out of war; it’s very, very hard and costly to get out. I think that Barack Obama, if you can understand anything about his doctrine, is one where he believes in small military footprints, not the large military footprints we saw from the Bush/Cheney administration.

If you can make a tipping point difference in the outcome, then a deployment might be made. And if it has both regional and international support, which is unclear in the Syrian case because of the Russians and the Chinese. So it doesn’t fit the neatness that Libya fit.

Tavis: I might agree with you on the Obama doctrine, save the issue of drones –

Clemons: Yeah.

Tavis: – and his exponential use of those over the Bush years, but that’s another conversation for another time.

Clemons: Right.

Tavis: But I take your point. Let me ask you this very quickly here – so John McCain and others, certainly Mr. McCain stands out as one calling for a no-fly zone. I’ve got about a minute and a half. So if not a no-fly zone, is there a short-term answer while we figure out this intelligence conundrum?

Clemons: Well, I think the short-term answers right now is to do everything you can to prevent the – Bashar al-Assad is an evil man, and part of his strategy, I believe, is to try to widen the conflict in various ways to the neighbors.

So you’ve got Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan, you have inside Iraq a lot of turmoil because of refugees moving into Iraq as well as into Jordan and Lebanon, and of course Turkey.

But you also have a Kurdish question that not enough people are paying attention to. We’ve got three million Kurds inside Syria, and you have Kurds inside Iraq that are very upset with the fact that the democracy we all hoped for in Iraq is not turning out to be what they expected. So all of this could get much worse.

Tavis: Right.

Clemons: What U.S. policy needs to do is first secure the needs and support those people that are refugees. Help those people to get out, and help those governments that are now playing host to those refugees to be able to manage it.

Otherwise, we will see a tripling, if you will, of what is considered the conflict and instability zone very rapidly. That’s one thing we should be doing right now.

Tavis: Steve Clemons from the New America Foundation. I’m honored to have had you on. Thank you for sharing your insights. This is a –

Clemons: My pleasure.

Tavis: – sadly a story that’s not going away anytime soon, I suspect, so maybe we’ll be talking again in the future.

Clemons: Happy to.

Tavis: But thanks for coming on tonight.

Clemons: Thank you.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 30, 2013 at 10:07 pm