In publicly criticizing President Obama’s Syria strategy, former secretaries of defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta’s behavior was unprofessional and unseemly. Moreover, the positions that these two men are taking with regard to how to handle Syria are inconsistent with their own history, are not supported by the majority of the American people, and are not strategically sound.
Men and women who are appointed to cabinet-level positions by a president and leave while that president is still in office normally refrain from criticizing the administration they were privileged to serve; this is especially true for those who are on the national-security team. For example, Robert McNamara never publicly criticized the Johnson Administration’s negotiations with the North Vietnamese, even after Johnson forced him out as Secretary of Defense in 1967. Cyrus Vance, who resigned as Secretary of State in 1980 after the failed attempt to rescue the American hostages, never criticized the Carter Administration’s strategy for dealing with Iran. Colin Powell refrained from criticizing President George W. Bush’s conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan even after he was unceremoniously forced to resign as Secretary of State in 2005, despite having put his reputation on the line in front of the UN to justify the misguided invasion of Iraq.
But on September 17, 2013, Gates told a forum at Southern Methodist University in Texas that he is against conducting a limited strike against Syria even to enforce the President’s red line. According to him, this would be like “throwing gasoline on a very complex fire in the Middle East” and “is not a strategy”; this from the person who advised President Obama not to send the Navy Seals in to kill Osama Bin Laden. And when he was deputy director of the CIA in 1984, he advocated bombing Nicaragua to remove the Sandinistas.
Gates was also critical of President Obama and Secretary Kerry about working with Russia. Does he forget that while he was part of the Obama administration the Russians allowed the United States to use their territory to send equipment to Afghanistan, signed the New START nuclear deal, and cooperated with us in imposing crippling sanctions on Iran? But given the fact that when he was serving as deputy director of the CIA, Gates said Gorbachev would be succeeded by a Stalinist and that the Soviets would never leave Afghanistan, his views about Russia should not be surprising.
Gates’ public complaints about the President’s decision to go to Congress are also off the mark. After Obama submitted his request to Congress to authorize a military strike on Syria, Gates urged Congress to support it; now he says he would have told Obama not to go to Congress after he decided to use military force because of the risk to presidential prestige if he was rebuffed. Yet Gates was Deputy National Security Advisor to George H.W. Bush when that president did ask for a Congressional resolution to use force to evict Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in 1991. At that time, the U.S. already had more than four hundred thousand troops in the theater, several hundred thousand troops and billions of dollars of support from other countries, and a UN resolution authorizing action. But like Obama’s position on Syria, the majority of Americans were not supportive of the first Gulf War at the time Bush went to Congress. Moreover, even with that support the Bush administration’s request was narrowly approved in the Senate by a vote of only 52 to 47. Did Gates think President Bush was wrong to go to Congress?
While Panetta did support the President’s decision to enforce the red line, he faulted him for the decision to go to Congress, saying that the President has to retain the responsibility and the authority on this issue and that it was wrong to subcontract the decision. This is somewhat surprising for someone who spent sixteen years as a Member of the House of Representatives, who voted on President Bush’s request to start the First Gulf War, and who as Committee Chairman was very jealous of Congress’ prerogative. Moreover, asking for permission from the people’s representatives before taking another military action of choice in the Middle East is in keeping with our constitutional principles. This is especially true when President Obama could not get UN support and our closest ally, the United Kingdom, had followed their own constitutional procedure by asking the House of Commons to approve the action, and the American people were not supportive of an attack on Syria.
Where these two former officials fail is in their policy prescriptions. While it may be easy to just strike Syria with cruise missiles, the fact of the matter is that it was the threat of doing so that got the Russians and Syrians to agree to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. Not surprisingly, Gates and Panetta’s criticisms of Obama mirror those of much of the foreign-policy establishment. However, they are overwhelmingly rejected by the American people, who support Obama’s diplomatic deal by a four to one margin. As we consider who is correct, remember it was the foreign-policy establishment that overwhelmingly supported Bush’s mindless, needless, senseless invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as an assistant secretary of defense from 1981-1985.