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Syria: Why Obama's previous Defense secretaries criticize his approach

At an event in Dallas, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta expressed their concerns about President Obama's decision last month to ask Congress to vote on military action against the regime in Syria.

By Correspondent / September 19, 2013

Former US Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates (l.) and Leon Panetta, discuss their thoughts on Syria and other current affairs with CNN political analyst David Gergen (r.) at a forum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013. Gates and Panetta expressed their concerns about President Obama's decision last month to ask Congress for its support for military action against the Syrian regime.

Nomaan Merchant/AP

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It’s a tough day for President Obama when his previous two Defense secretaries jointly criticize his approach to Syria.

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But that’s what happened Tuesday evening in Dallas as Robert Gates and Leon Panetta expressed their concerns about Mr. Obama’s decision last month to ask Congress for its support for military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The men did disagree, however, about whether military action is ultimately necessary, with Mr. Gates opposed and Mr. Panetta in favor.

“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 during a panel discussion at Southern Methodist University.

He said Obama should not “subcontract” his decision to lawmakers. "Mr. President, this Congress has a hard time agreeing as to what the time of day is," he added.

Meanwhile, Gates said action “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?” he said.

Gates also suggested that a diplomatic solution that would allow Russia to oversee and guarantee the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons reserves is folly and that Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t trustworthy. Obama has backed off his initial call for military action, which was received poorly in Congress and among the general public, in the hope that such a compromise could work.

Gates, who was appointed by President George W. Bush and was the only holdover from that administration to serve Obama, also said that a congressional vote against the president’s push for intervention “would weaken him.”

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