Devastating Criticism for the Obama Administration on Syria

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 19, 2013

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 threatened or taken over 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. Too bad that no one from the administration saw fit to engage Gates, Panetta or Morell in the discussion.

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)?

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