Former Defense Secretary Questions Party’s War Planes

Robert Gates argues against plans from his own Republican Party for war in Syria.

Former defense secretary Robert Gates delivers a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington DC, June 24, 2010
Former defense secretary Robert Gates delivers a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington DC, June 24, 2010 (DoD)

Former defense secretary Robert Gates criticized the war plans of his own party’s presidential candidates on Sunday when he argued that putting tens of thousands of American troops in Syria is “not a near-term solution” to defeating the Islamic State militant group there.

“It would take months and months, even if you decided you wanted to do it, to put the logistics in place, get the troops trained and so on,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press.

Gates, a Republican who served under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, did not single out any one candidate for criticism. But nearly all the Republicans seeking to replace Obama in 2016 have called for more expansive military action against the fanatical Islamist group that claimed responsibility for killing more than 130 people in terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month.

Bush to war

Appearing on CBS News’ Face the Nation, another Sunday morning talk show, on the same day, Jeb Bush — the former Florida governor and son of the last Republican president — claimed that the United States could have prevented the rise of the Islamic State had it kept some 10,000 troops in Iraq after 2011, the year Gates stepped down.

The Atlantic Sentinel has argued that such criticism of Obama’s decision to withdraw entirely from Iraq is misguided. It overlooks the fact that Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki — whose anti-Sunni policies did more to pave the way for the Islamic State than anything America could have done — did not want foreign soldiers to stay in his country. It also overplays the success of the 2007 “surge” which, according to its architect, General David Petraeus, only created “breathing space” for an orderly withdrawal.

Bush did not commit to putting thousands of troops back in the Middle East, but said he would take it under “advisement” if he is elected president.

What he called for instead was a no-fly zone, creating safe havens in Syria for refugees, arming Kurdish fighters in Iraq and “reengaging both politically and militarily with the Sunnis, the Sunni tribal leaders that were effective partners in the creation of the surge.”

Bush also suggested embedding American troops with the Iraqi army to coordinate strike.

Some of this, like arming the Kurds and working with Iraqi and Kurdish fighters on the ground, is already being done.

Gates said this all needs to be “sped up and intensified.”

Different agendas

He recognized that the main difficulty is getting Sunni Muslims to turn against the self-styled caliphate, also called ISIS, that claims to rule in their interest — not just those in Iraq, but Sunni powers in the rest of the region as well.

“Most of these countries have another agenda,” said Gates.

The Saudis are mostly worried about Iran. The Turks more about the Kurds and so on. But they both are united in the fact that Assad has to go before you can make any real progress against ISIS. I think we need to listen to them if we want them to be active and aggressive members of the coalition.

Like Maliki, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad deepened Sunni discontent by targeting the sect’s non-jihadist opposition forces while allowing the Islamic State to conquer territory in the east of his country.

Indeed, there is evidence that Assad actively enabled the Islamic State by letting fanatics and violent offenders out of jail while locking up peaceful demonstrators against his regime.