Former defense secretaries Gates, Panetta fault Obama on Syria

Criticize former boss’ mixed signals

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Now, even the president’s men don’t like his Syria policy.

At a forum Tuesday at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, former defense chiefs Robert M. Gates and Leon E. Panetta found fault with how the man they worked for — President Obama — has zigzagged on Syria.

They criticized the president’s mixed signals — first threatening to bomb Syria for its use of deadly gas Aug. 21, then announcing a delay to seek Congress‘ permission, and then stopping that process and handing the issue to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The two are not alone. The White House could expect criticism from internationalist Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But lately even the president’s allies see him as weak on Syria and his ballyhooed speech to the nation last week as a punt to Russia.

In Washington, the Republican Party has taken to issuing news releases with a roll call of offended liberals.

One is Bloomberg View columnist Al Hunt, usually a reliable basher of Republicans and defender of Democrats. But not in his Sunday column.

“On public diplomacy, Obama is failing,” Mr. Hunt wrote. “There is no coherent message, little explanation of the complexities and contradictions created by difficult circumstances. By taking on the role of the agonizingly reluctant warrior on Syria, he has reinforced the country’s skepticism.”

If that wasn’t harsh enough, the column carried the headline: “Obama’s Syria Meanderings Border on Incompetence.”

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who calls some House Republicans “lunatics,” used the words “weak and indecisive” to describe Mr. Obama.

“In the past few weeks, I have encountered not a single person outside the White House, Republican or Democrat, who has kind words for Obama’s performance,” she wrote Monday.

There is no more solid pro-Obama think tank than the Center for American Progress, a band of policy analysts partly funded by leftist billionaire George Soros and founded by former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta.

But even this bastion of liberalism, in the form of Post columnist Matt Miller, writes “he blinked on Syria.”

At the staid Atlantic Council, where Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel burnished his pro-Obama policies, analysts are not defending Mr. Obama’s lurches.

“The decision of President Barack Obama to seek congressional approval for U.S. military strikes in Syria is constitutionally sound, but strategically appalling,” wrote Middle East analyst Frederic Hof. “By not making it clear from the outset of the crisis that he would seek the approval of the Senate and House for a military response to the Assad regime’s chemical atrocity, the president’s jarring change of direction now runs the risk of thoroughly undermining whatever remains of allied confidence in his leadership.”

Mr. Hof is not normally an Obama detractor. Last year, he was the White House-designated ambassador for Syria’s transition to a new government and advised then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mr. Hof said in an interview that he wrote the tough criticism because he believes the president needed to act, not go to Congress.

“One of my main themes of writing has been the general disinclination of the national security system in the administration to approach things from the point of view of national security objectives and accompanying strategy,” he said. “In this particular instance, I thought the soundest course of action for the president was to strike, strike hard, and then explain himself to Congress ex post facto.”

Among Syria policy critics, there were none closer to Mr. Obama than Mr. Gates and then Mr. Panetta. As defense secretaries, Mr. Gates guided the president’s policy of opening the ranks to gays, while Mr. Panetta oversaw the NATO bombing of Libya.

At SMU, the two loyalists were surprisingly critical, second-guessing Mr. Obama’s decision to seek Congress‘ OK. Mr. Obama did not go that route in authorizing air strikes on Libya in 2011.

Mr. Gates called Mr. Obama’s proposed air strikes to punish President Bashar Assad as “throwing gasoline on a very complex fire.”

“I believe to blow up a bunch of stuff over a couple of days to validate a point or principle is not a strategy,” Mr. Gates said, according to The Associated Press.

Mr. Panetta reminded Mr. Obama that Iran’s hard-line Islamic regime, which seeks nuclear weapons, is watching.

“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.

Asked if he would trust Mr. Putin, a former KGB colonel, Mr. Gates replied: “My answer would be, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

But the Obama team is putting some of its trust in Mr. Putin to ensure his client state of Syria gives up its chemical weapons. Russia and the U.S. agreed on a process to have inspectors identify all such weapons, with the Assad regime’s help, and to dispose of them by the end of 2014.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that Mr. Obama still believes his call for a retaliatory strike was “the right thing to do.”

“Others can disagree and that’s fine,” Mr. Carney said. “The president has enormous respect and appreciation for both of his former secretaries of defense.”

He added that their disagreement on the need for airstrikes “only reinforces the fact that these are not easy decisions to make or easy positions to take.”

Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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