Obama’s two former defense secretaries weighed in on the controversy Tuesday night, saying they disagreed with the president’s decision to seek congressional authorization for a strike. While Leon E. Panetta said a cruise missile attack would have been worthwhile, Robert M. Gates said the plan was akin to “throwing gasoline on an extremely complex fire in the Middle East.”
“To blow a bunch of stuff up over a couple of days to underscore or validate a point or principle is not a strategy,” Gates said at a forum in Dallas in which the two appeared.
The prospect of a new U.S. military intervention in the Middle East elicited grumbling from a war-weary generation of senior commanders and veterans who share similar reservations to those voiced by the former defense secretaries. Their reluctance was informed by lingering distrust over the administration’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been wound down in ways that have left many in uniform feeling apprehensive, if not bitter.
But there was also trepidation about a White House that many career military officers say has monopolized decision-making in a tight circle dominated by civilians and that often deliberates endlessly, seemingly unwilling or unable to formulate decisive policies.
“The U.S. military feels it has been burnt with half-measures,” said Peter J. Munson, a retired Marine officer who most recently served as a senior adviser to a Marine Corps commander. “There is going to be on the part of our senior military leaders an aversion to using force when you don’t have clear ends and escalation can take on a life of its own.”
The prospect of a U.S. strike has faded after the United States and Russia agreed on a plan to dismantle Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal. The Pentagon, though, said that four Navy destroyers will stay within striking distance, signaling that the White House wants to keep the option of force on the table.
After largely sitting on the sidelines during Syria’s civil war, which is well into its third year, the White House’s response to the poison-gas attack in the Damascus suburbs startled commanders.
“These last few weeks have raised serious doubts about their agonizing failure to reach a clear decision,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a military strategy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former senior intelligence official at the Pentagon.“This basically was seen as the president’s worst moment.”
As the debate unfolded, an uncomfortable narrative for the White House began taking root: While Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry were advocating a strike with zeal, senior military leaders had deep reservations. The divide was perhaps most noticeable during congressional hearings that featured an emphatic Kerry sitting alongside Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the cerebral and soft-spoken chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.