Devastating Criticism for the Obama Administration on Syria


From two of the administration’s former defense secretaries, and from its former acting director of Central Intelligence:

President Obama’s first two defense secretaries publicly questioned the administration’s handling of the Syrian crisis on Tuesday night and expressed skepticism about whether Russia can broker a deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons.

In a joint appearance in Dallas, both former Pentagon chiefs, Robert M. Gates and Leon E. Panetta, were critical of Mr. Obama for asking Congress to authorize the use of force against Syria in retaliation over its use of chemical weapons. But they disagreed on whether military action would be an effective response. Mr. Gates said Mr. Obama’s proposed military strike was a mistake, while Mr. 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,” Mr. Gates said during a forum at Southern Methodist University. “If we launch a military attack, in the eyes of a lot of people we become the villain instead of Assad,” he added, referring to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

Mr. Gates, the only cabinet member from the administration of George W. Bush whom Mr. Obama asked to stay, said missile strikes on Syria “would be throwing gasoline on a very complex fire in the Middle East.”

[. . .]

Mr. 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,” Mr. Panetta said.

“Once the president came to that conclusion, then he should have directed limited action, going after Assad, to make very clear to the world that when we draw a line and we give our word,” then “we back it up,” Mr. Panetta said.

[. . .]

Another former high-ranking Obama administration official, Michael J. Morell, who recently retired as the deputy director of the C.I.A., also expressed skepticism about the negotiations brokered by Russia.

“I think this is the Syrians playing for time,” Mr. Morell told Foreign Policy magazine in an interview published Tuesday on its Web site. “I do not believe that they would seriously consider giving up their chemical weapons.”

Mr. Gates said he doubted whether President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was sincere in his efforts to broker a deal, and said he was skeptical that 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 that the timetable should be an ultimatum of 48 hours.

When asked whether the West should trust Mr. Putin, Mr. Gates said, “Are you kidding me?”

Obviously, I am with Gates on whether military action should have been taken in Syria, but Panetta’s point is not without merit; the Obama Administration looks non-credible for having backed down–especially given the entirely appropriate skepticism expressed for the Putin plan. It would have been nice if the Administration had reached out to Gates, Panetta and Morell prior to signing on to the Russian plan–and it would have been nice if John Kerry had not given the Russians an opening to begin with by being clumsy enough to answer a hypothetical question. 

Speaking of the difference between former and current Obama Administration officials, are those who championed the confirmation of Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary still glad that he is in the cabinet, given his endorsement of the awful Russian plan and his disagreement with Gates, Panetta, and Morell (a disagreement the New York Times story linked above references)?

There are 6 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive

    Obama threatened military action with all the decisiveness of a politician traingulating on PR factors not national interests.

    His “use of force” proposals are about as comprehensive as his vice president’s advice to stick a double-barreled shotgun out the door and fire randomly.

    People with actual knowledge/experience are appalled, and probably should be even more appalled.

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  2. Profile Photo Member

    I agree completely with both assessments. I’m particularly glad that Panetta is voicing the following: Mr. 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. It pushes mightily against the idea that everything the president says is golden. Hardly. It’s pathetic to watch a president whose method of push back is never his word, only mere words.

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  3. Profile Photo Inactive

    The credibility of the nation is only at stake when someone does something TO us – and we fail to notice. Like Benghazi.

    Syria is an irrelevancy. It is ugly, but it is ugly TRIBAL. And tribal wars are ALWAYS ugly. I have no doubt that were the opposition to have chemical munitions they would use them against Assad.

    We constantly speak of the 100,000 that “Assad killed”. That is not strictly true. There is a great civil war in Syria, and there are 100,000 dead, but both sides are busy killing people – and relatively indiscriminately.

    It is not as if there aren’t more than enough issues to fix in our own land that we need to be involved in other nations.

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  4. Profile Photo Inactive

    I think there is an additional consideration here as well. We are on the cusp of potential energy independence in the United States. I believe some of the turmoil in the Middle East is the result of that knowledge on the part of our erstwhile allies like the Saudis. We could use this as weapon in Grand Strategy but we refuse to do while mouthing alot of nonseinse about renewables. Italy got half its electricity from Lybia and Quadfi came under fire at the moment that the Italian banking system and thus all of Europe teetered on the brink. Leading from behind and getting it in the rear are not supposed to be the same thing.

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  5. Profile Photo Thatcher

    You can make a good case that the Syrian government should have been punished for using chemical weapons.  You can also make a good case for staying out of the conflict completely.

    However, what is completely indefensible is what Obama actually did:  Threaten to use force, then promise to carry out the threat, then back down.  This guaranteed the negative consequences of both of the above courses of action, while not only losing any of the potential benefits but making it increasingly likely that the U.S. is going to face emboldened bad actors around the world.

    Right now, North Korea and Iran are thinking that if they need to do something that would anger the U.S., they’d better do it in the next three years.   China will be looking at its territorial ambitions in the east and re-evaluating its actions based on its new knowledge that the U.S. has been defanged by incompetent/feckless leadership.  

    In the meantime, Israel now has to consider its own strategy in light of the obvious:  The U.S. is not going to help them with Iran.

    The minute Obama backed down, the world became a little more dangerous.

    • #5

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