WASHINGTON - Two former Pentagon chiefs who served under Barack Obama have criticized the president over the Syria crisis and his request to Congress to authorize possible US military action, media reported Wednesday.
Leon Panetta, who was defense secretary from July 2011 to February 2013, said the president should not have threatened military action against President Bashar al-Assad's regime and then backed off to seek support from Congress, according to the New York Times.
"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 at an event at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. "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," Panetta was quoted as saying.
Their remarks, which were also carried by The Dallas Morning News, were unusually critical of the Obama administration as the two former defense secretaries usually avoid commenting at length on the president's policies.
Robert Gates, an ex-CIA director who served under both George W. Bush and Obama as defense secretary, said a "no" vote from Congress on military action would have a devastating effect.
"It would weaken our country. It would weaken us in the eyes of our allies, as well as our adversaries around the world," he said.
Gates, whose 2006-2011 tenure at the Pentagon included decisions to send major troop reinforcements to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, left no doubt that he adamantly opposed any intervention in Syria.
"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.
"If we launch a military attack, in the eyes of a lot of people we become the villain instead of Assad," he said.
Gates, who opposed the NATO air war against Libya in 2011, said cruise missile strikes against 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?" Gates said.
The former Pentagon chief also said he was deeply skeptical that Syria would abide by a US-Russia agreement that requires the regime to relinquish control over its chemical weapons arsenal.
Asked if the West should trust Russian President Vladimir Putin, Gates replied: "Are you kidding me?"
The current defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, was asked about the critical remarks at a press conference Wednesday, and he said: "Obviously, I don't agree with their perspectives."