Everyone in America seems to have an opinion on what America should do in Syria following the recent chemical weapons crisis. Should the president use direct force? What will action or non-action in Syria mean for the stability in the region? These questions served as the center of Tuesday’s Linda and Mitch Hart Lecture of the Tate Lecture Series.
The lecture featuring Robert Gates and Leon Panetta was the opener of the 32nd season of the Tate Lecture Series. Both Gates and Panetta have served as secretary of defense and director of the CIA.
Gates and Panetta sat down with moderator and CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen to discuss the situation in Syria, actions of the National Security Agency and budget fights in Congress.
Gates began the evening with an explanation of what he would have recommended the United States do in Syria.
He suggested that Congress should have authorized the president’s military action, but that the president should not attack directly.
“My bottom line is, I believe to blow a bunch of stuff up over a couple of days to underscore or validate a point or a principle is not a strategy,” Gates said.
Rather, Gates said, the United States should use covert methods and arm rebels to combat Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad.
Gates is skeptical of the new initiative proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I think that the United States needs to seize the high ground, seize the initiative back from the Russians and the Syrians, and we ought to dictate the terms of this,” Gates said.
Panetta, too, finds himself questioning the Russian and Syrian motives.
“The name of their game is delay,” Panetta said.
Panetta also suggested a strategy for the United States’ involvement in Syria.
“We have to keep our eye on the big target here, which is to bring Assad down,” Panetta said.
Panetta would fight Assad by using rebel forces and keeping the international community unified in getting Assad to step down. He also recommended the United States continue to provide humanitarian help in the region.
The discussion on Syria led into an evaluation of the responsibilities and powers of the United States president.
Panetta maintained that the president should have certain authorities that Congress cannot undermine so that the United States will be respected.
“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.
Gates agreed with Panetta on the president’s authority and responsibility to act in certain situations without going to Congress.
“Given the timelines that were involved…I would have advised him against going to the Congress, for all the reasons that Leon cites,” Gates said.
Gates, Gerden and Panetta also discussed the NSA. Both Gates and Panetta believe that the NSA has done what it has had to, and that there is a lot of oversight.
“We entrust the responsibility of oversight, not directly to the voters, but to their elected representatives and the other branches of government,” Gates said.
Panetta agreed with Gates, crediting intelligence programs like the NSA as the reason we have not had another major terrorist attack post-9/11.
“All of these efforts have been aimed at one thing: protecting America,” Panetta said.
Turning to the domestic side of American policy, the speakers discussed the budget and the need to make spending cuts. Both Panetta and Gates advocated compromise.
“Our Constitution requires compromise in order for government to work at all,” Gates said.
The next Tate Lecture featuring Biographer Robert A. Caro will be in McFarlin Auditorium on Oct. 29 at 8 p.m.