September 18, 2013
By THOM SHANKER and LAUREN D’AVOLIO
President Obama’s first two defense secretaries criticized the administration’s handling of the Syrian crisis on Tuesday night, saying they would not have asked Congress to authorize the use of force and would have accelerated the shipment of weapons to Syrian rebels.
Former U.S. Secretaries of Defense Robert M. Gates (r.) and Leon E. Panetta with CNN political analyst David Gergen at SMU.
While the two former Pentagon chiefs, Robert M. Gates and Leon E. Panetta, shared skepticism over the chances of Russia’s brokering a deal to effectively neuter Syria’s chemical weapons, they disagreed over whether focused, limited military strikes would have a strategic effect.
“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,” Mr. Gates said during a forum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “If we launch a military attack, in the eyes of a lot of people we become the villain instead of Assad,” a reference to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Mr. Gates, the only cabinet member from the George W. Bush administration whom Mr. Obama asked to stay on, said missile strikes on Syria “would be throwing gasoline on a very complex fire in the Middle East.”
“Haven’t Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya taught us something about the unintended consequences of military action once it’s launched?” Mr. Gates said. . .
Under questioning from the moderator, David Gergen, who has been an adviser to four presidents and is now on the faculty at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, both former secretaries said American credibility on Syria was essential to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.
“Iran is paying very close attention to what we’re doing,” Mr. 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.”
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