WASHINGTON — President Obama’s first two defense secretaries have publicly questioned the administration’s handling of the Syrian crisis and expressed skepticism Tuesday night about whether Russia can broker a deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons.
In a joint appearance in Dallas, both former Pentagon chiefs, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, were critical of Obama for asking Congress to authorize the use of force against Syria in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons. But they disagreed on whether military action would be effective. Gates said Obama’s proposed military strike was a mistake, while Panetta said it was a mistake not to carry out an attack.
“My bottom line is that I believe that to blow a bunch of stuff up over a couple days, to underscore or validate a point or a principle, is not a strategy,” Gates said during a forum at Southern Methodist University.
Gates, the only Cabinet member from the administration of George W. Bush whom Obama asked to stay, said missile strikes on Syria “would be throwing gasoline on a very complex fire in the Middle East.”
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“Haven’t Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya taught us something about the unintended consequences of military action once it’s launched?” Gates said.
Panetta, also speaking at the forum, said the president should have kept his word after he had pledged action if Syria used chemical weapons.
“When the president of the United States draws a red line, the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word,” Panetta said.
“Once the president came to that conclusion, then he should have directed limited action, going after [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, to make very clear to the world that when we draw a line and we give our word,” then “we back it up,” Panetta said.
Asked about the comments Wednesday, the current defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, said he had “the greatest respect” for his two predecessors, but added, “Obviously, I don’t agree with their perspectives.”
Gates said he doubted whether President Vladimir Putin of Russia was sincere in his efforts to broker a deal and said he was skeptical the Syrian government would disarm. He said it was absurd that Syria needed days or weeks to identify the location and size of its chemical-weapons arsenal, and he suggested the timetable should be an ultimatum of 48 hours.
When asked whether the West should trust Putin, Gates said, “Are you kidding me?”
He advocated identifying credible partners within the Syrian opposition and increasing support, including weapons — but not surface-to-air missiles, which could be seized by extremists for terrorist acts against civilian aviation.
He also supported a strategy of sanctions that labeled members of the Assad government as war criminals, with the threat of arrest if they left Syria, and suggested sanctions on Assad relatives living or studying overseas, including on their financial holdings. Such pressure might prompt some in the inner circle to negotiate an end to the civil war, Gates said.
Under questioning from the moderator, David Gergen, who advised four presidents and is now on the faculty at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, both former secretaries said U.S. credibility on Syria was essential to enduring efforts to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.
“Iran is paying very close attention to what we’re doing,” Panetta said. “There’s no question in my mind they’re looking at the situation, and what they are seeing right now is an element of weakness.”
Panetta said it was wrong to “subcontract” the decision to Congress.
“Mr. President, this Congress has a hard time agreeing as to what the time of day is,” Panetta said.