It is rare enough for current or former White House aides to publicly criticize a president still in office, as David Stockman and George Stephanopoulos notoriously did in the 1980s and 1990s respectively. It is virtually unheard of for senior cabinet members to do so. Which it makes it all the more shocking and telling that two of President Obama’s former secretaries of defense–both models of discretion–have gone public with criticism of his handling of Syria.
Speaking at a forum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta did not agree on the wisdom of air strikes on Syria–Gates was against them, Panetta for them. (Gates was for arming the moderate opposition and for seeking war crimes indictments against Assad and his goons–something that Obama has failed to do.) But both excoriated the president for asking Congress for authorization for air strikes.
According to the New York Times, Panetta had this to say about recent events:
When the president of the United States draws a red line, the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word. 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.
As for Gates, the Times quotes him as warning of the dangers of a “no” vote in Congress:
“It would weaken our country. It would weaken us in the eyes of our allies, as well as our adversaries around the world.”
Yet another former Obama appointee, acting CIA Director Michael Morrell, joined in the chorus of criticism in a separate interview expressing skepticism about whether the deal worked out with Russia will be adhered to by Syria: “I think this is the Syrians playing for time,” Mr. Morrell told Foreign Policy magazine. “I do not believe that they would seriously consider giving up their chemical weapons.”
Both Panetta and Gates agreed on another point–that Obama’s irresolution in Syria is sending a dangerous signal to Tehran. “Iran is paying very close attention to what we’re doing,” Mr. Panetta is quoted as saying. “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.”
Coming from partisan Republicans, such indictments can be dismissed with a shrug and a “business as usual” line from the White House. There is no way, however, to dismiss the comments of such respected elder statesmen–one of them a Democrat, the other the most centrist and nonpartisan of Republicans. What a devastating indictment it is, all the more so because it is irrefutable.