Speaking at a forum in Dallas, Gates and Panetta, Obama’s first two defense secretaries, disagreed on whether the United States should ultimately carry out a military strike in retaliation for a chemical attack that the U.S. says killed 1,400 people. However, both expressed skepticism (and occasionally sarcasm) about ongoing negotiations, led by Russia, for Assad to hand over his stockpile of chemical weapons to the international community.
Panetta said he supported a strike because Obama needed to enforce the “red line” he set over Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
“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.
But Gates said a strike would be like “throwing gasoline on an extremely complex fire in the Middle East.” He brought up past interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya as examples of how American military action can lead to unintended consequences.
As for negotiations with Russia, Gates said the U.S. should push for more authority and strict demands on complying with any terms of an agreement.
Asked if he trusted Russian President Vladimir Putin, Gates said: “My answer would be, are you kidding me?”