DALLAS, September 5, 2013 ― As Congress debates whether to authorize the use of force in the Syrian Civil War in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, numerous experts, pundits, and average citizens have weighed in on the issue. One group can offer their opinion on what actions President Barack Obama should take from a unique perspective of experience: past United States Presidents.
Often called by the world’s most exclusive fraternity, former presidents have traditionally not offered opinions on current affairs, although that trend may be changing.
In June, Former President Bill Clinton publicly split with Obama’s then-position on Syria, joining with Senator John McCain in calling for more action in overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regardless of public opinion. He has not commented on recent developments, although earlier this week former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled that she backs a limited strike in Syria.
Last week, President Jimmy Carter opined that a strike without United Nation’s approval would be illegal. “The chemical attack should be a catalyst for redoubling efforts to convene a peace conference, to end hostilities, and urgently to find a political solution,” said Carter.
Unlike the former democratic presidents, neither Presidents Bush have offered their take on the situation, although President George W. Bush was pressed on his opinion in a recent interview. “I know you’re trying to subtly rope me in to the issues of the day,” he told the interviewer. “I refuse to be roped in.”
President George H.W. Bush has also refrained from commenting on the actions or challenges of his successors.
Presidential historian and author Doug Wead notes that, until recently, it was traditional for former presidents to remain silent on the issues of the day. “Exceptions were when a former president, such as Theodore Roosevelt or later Grover Cleveland, were still viable future candidates themselves.” Former presidents also became involved with politics during the Civil War, for example John Tyler tried to set up peace talks.
“Some presidents remain active because they feel that their presidency was cut short or that it failed and so they are driven by ambition.” Wead said. “Clinton comes to mind but in a curious way, so does Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. While Reagan is content to just retire and stop, Nixon writes highly respected foreign policy papers. Carter builds houses, pounding his hammer but in his own humble way, staying in the public eye by doing so.”
For example Wead notes that Clinton’s legacy is still in flux, and his comments on Syria and other current issues may be an effort to shape how history portrays him. “Bill Clinton was impeached and thus is still fighting for his legacy. Political victories for his wife will help make his own troubles appear less serious and more partisan in nature.”
In addition to Carter’s charitable work, he has also played a not always welcome role in world affairs, most memorably meeting with various dictators and representatives of terrorists organizations such as Cuban President Fidel Castro and North Korean President Kim Jong-Il. In 2008, Carter traveled to Syria to meet with Assad as well as representatives of Hamas in Syria.
While making public comments on the issues of the day has until recently been taboo, former presidents have offered their successors advice and support in private matters.” Truman defended Eisenhower for taking time off and Nixon privately urged Kennedy to do the same. Jackie Kennedy advised the Clintons to keep Chelsea out of the limelight,” Wead said.
Despite the historic example, Bush may be the exception to presidential behavior going forward. With longer life spans and more opportunities to opine, the age of presidents retiring to a quiet life may have come to an end.
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