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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.

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“It would weaken our country,” he said. “It would weaken us in the eyes of our allies, as well as our adversaries around the world.”

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Instead, Gates said he would impose sanctions that marked members of the Assad government as war criminals and would increase support for credible allies within the Syrian resistance, according to The New York Times.

Now enjoying private life, both men are writing books about their time in Washington, and those who embark on memoirs often seek to make news to spark interest. But Gates and Panetta, a Democrat, are widely viewed within the political and intelligence worlds as practical, thoughtful, and experienced policy gurus. Neither is a showboater.

So these latest words from Gates and Panetta are particularly stinging, even though much of official Washington has weighed in with varying degrees of concern about how Obama has handled the Syria matter in the wake of a chemical weapons attack.

The headlines have played accordingly:

“Gates and Panetta Take Obama to Task,” Commentary magazine suggests.

“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,” the magazine wrote. “It is virtually unheard of for senior cabinet members to do so. Which ... 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.”

Another aspect of the pair’s remarks that worries the Commentary writer and others: They see in Obama’s approach to Syria a “dangerous signal” being sent to Iran.

“Iran is paying very close attention to what we’re doing,” Panetta said, per The New York Times. “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.”

Obama’s current Defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, shrugged off the episode while declaring his “greatest respect” for his predecessors.

“Obviously, I don’t agree with their perspectives,” he said.

The problem for the president is that many others do.


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