Former defense secretaries Leon Panetta (left, in photo) and Robert Gates (right) disagreed this week on whether President Obama should launch a military strike against Syria. The ex-Pentagon chiefs agreed, however, that the president does not need authorization from Congress to take that action — despite the fact that the U.S. Constitution delegates to Congress the power to declare war.
As reported in the New York Times, the two men appeared together Tuesday night at a conference at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where they discussed the growing tension between Washington and Damascus over reports last month that chemical weapons were used by government forces in Syria against rebels fighting to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime. Syria's civil war, now in its third year, is said to have killed more than 100,000 people, including the more than 1,400 reported dead from a sarin gas attack on August 21. More than 400 children were reported dead from the attack.
Obama, who said a year ago that a resort to chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a "red line," resulting in serious consequences, has since asked the Congress to authorize the use of military force. That was a mistake, said Panetta, who served as Obama's defense chief from July 1, 2011 to February 27 of this year. He argued that for the president to fail to follow through on the promised retaliation would make the United States appear weak in the eyes of other nations.
"Iran is paying very close attention to what we're doing," Panetta said, alluding to a long-standing dispute between Washington and Tehran over Iran's nuclear program. "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." He said the president "has to retain the responsibility and the authority on this issue," and that it was wrong to, in Panetta's word, "subcontract" the decision to Congress. "Mr. President, this Congress has a hard time agreeing as to what the time of day is," he said.
Gates served as defense secretary in the second term of President George W. Bush and for the first year and a half of the Obama administration. His opinion of the proposed military action against Syria was in sharp contrast to that of his predecessor.
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Photo of Leon Panetta (left) and Robert Gates: AP Images