Syria: Why Obama's previous Defense secretaries criticize his approach(Read article summary)
At an event in Dallas, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta expressed their concerns about President Obama's decision last month to ask Congress to vote on military action against the regime in Syria.
But thatâ€™s what happened Tuesday evening in Dallas as Robert Gates and Leon Panetta expressed their concerns about Mr. Obamaâ€™s decision last month to ask Congress for its support for military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The men did disagree, however, about whether military action is ultimately necessary, with Mr. Gates opposed and Mr. Panetta in favor.
â€śWhen the president of the United States draws a red line, the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word,â€ť Panetta said during a panel discussion at Southern Methodist University.
He said Obama should not â€śsubcontractâ€ť his decision to lawmakers. "Mr. President, this Congress has a hard time agreeing as to what the time of day is," he added.
Meanwhile, Gates said action â€śwould be throwing gasoline on a very complex fire in the Middle East.â€ť
â€śHavenâ€™t Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya taught us something about the unintended consequences of military action once itâ€™s launched?â€ť he said.
Gates also suggested that a diplomatic solution that would allow Russia to oversee and guarantee the destruction of Syriaâ€™s chemical weapons reserves is folly and that Russian President Vladimir Putin isnâ€™t trustworthy. Obama has backed off his initial call for military action, which was received poorly in Congress and among the general public, in the hope that such a compromise could work.
Gates, who was appointed by President George W. Bush and was the only holdover from that administration to serve Obama, also said that a congressional vote against the presidentâ€™s push for intervention â€śwould weaken him.â€ť
â€śIt would weaken our country,â€ť he said. â€śIt would weaken us in the eyes of our allies, as well as our adversaries around the world.â€ť
Instead, Gates said he would impose sanctions that marked members of the Assad government as war criminals and would increase support for credible allies within the Syrian resistance, according to The New York Times.
Now enjoying private life, both men are writing books about their time in Washington, and those who embark on memoirs often seek to make news to spark interest. But Gates and Panetta, a Democrat, are widely viewed within the political and intelligence worlds as practical, thoughtful, and experienced policy gurus. Neither is a showboater.
So these latest words from Gates and Panetta are particularly stinging, even though much of official Washington has weighed in with varying degrees of concern about how Obama has handled the Syria matter in the wake of a chemical weapons attack.
The headlines have played accordingly:
â€śGates and Panetta Take Obama to Task,â€ť Commentary magazine suggests.
â€śIt is rare enough for current or former White House aides to publicly criticize a president still in office, as David Stockman and George Stephanopoulos notoriously did in the 1980s and 1990s respectively,â€ť the magazine wrote. â€śIt is virtually unheard of for senior cabinet members to do so. Which ... makes it all the more shocking and telling that two of President Obamaâ€™s former secretaries of defense â€“ both models of discretion â€“ have gone public with criticism of his handling of Syria.â€ť
Another aspect of the pairâ€™s remarks that worries the Commentary writer and others: They see in Obamaâ€™s approach to Syria a â€śdangerous signalâ€ť being sent to Iran.
â€śIran is paying very close attention to what weâ€™re doing,â€ť Panetta said, per The New York Times. â€śThereâ€™s no question in my mind theyâ€™re looking at the situation, and what they are seeing right now is an element of weakness.â€ť
Obamaâ€™s current Defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, shrugged off the episode while declaring his â€śgreatest respectâ€ť for his predecessors.
â€śObviously, I donâ€™t agree with their perspectives,â€ť he said.
The problem for the president is that many others do.