Bob Gates tells Obama's Ukraine critics to tone it down

Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates listens during a forum discussion at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies on October 22, 2013 in Washington. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

While Republicans continue to indict President Obama's handling of the crisis in Ukraine as weak, indecisive, or otherwise incompetent, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged the president's critics on Sunday to hold their tongues at least until the crisis abates.

"In the middle of a major international crisis, that some of the criticism, domestic criticism of the president ought to be toned down, while he's trying to handle this crisis," said Gates, who led the Pentagon under Mr. Obama and his Republican predecessor, former President George W. Bush, during an interview on "Fox News Sunday."

Gates said it is unlikely that the president would have been able to prevent Russia's military incursion into Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, either by moving more assertively to counteract Russia's influence in other global flash points or by increasing defense spending.

"My own view is, after all, Putin invaded Georgia when George W. Bush was president. Nobody ever accused George W. Bush of being weak or unwilling to use military force, so I think Putin is very opportunistic in these arenas," Gates explained. "I think that...even if we had launched attacks in Syria, even if we weren't cutting our defense budget, I think Putin saw an opportunity here in Crimea, and he has seized it."

The former defense secretary also predicted that Crimea, a province of Ukraine strategically situated on the Black Sea, would permanently slip into Russia's orbit as a result of the crisis.

Gates has defended Mr. Obama from critics of his foreign policy in the past, but if the comments from other Republicans on Sunday are any indication, his plea to leave politics at the water's edge will likely go unheeded.

The softest criticism came on "Face the Nation" from former Secretary of State James Baker, who avoided characterizing Mr. Obama's response as "weak" but allowed that the president's "inconsistent" reaction to past foreign entanglements could have invited the crisis in Ukraine.

Most were far less diplomatic. As usual, it fell to former Vice President Dick Cheney to deliver the harshest assessment of Mr. Obama's record.

"I think there's no question" Russian President Vladimir Putin believes Mr. Obama is weak, Cheney said on "Face the Nation." "He has seen the so-called 'reset policy' that's led to giving up on the ballistic missile defense, for example. We have created an image around the world, not just for the Russians, of weakness, of indecisiveness."

Other Republicans took up Cheney's "weakness" argument with gusto. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the president's response to the Syrian civil war and the attack in Benghazi betrayed a hesitancy that Russia is now exploiting.

"A critical reason for Putin's aggression has been President Obama's weakness -- that Putin fears no retribution," Cruz explained on ABC's "This Week." "Their policy has been to alienate and abandon our friends and to coddle and appease our enemies. And so Putin -- you better believe Putin sees in Benghazi four Americans are murdered and nothing happens. There is no retribution. You better believe that Putin sees that in Syria, Obama draws a red line and ignores the red line."

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., faulted the administration for naivete, saying the president should have been more clear-eyed in his dealings with Russia.

"I think up to date, we thought it was a different century and the administration thought well, if we -- you know, if we just act nice, everyone will act nice with us," Rogers said on ABC's "This Week." "And that's just, unfortunately, not way that Putin and the Russian Federation sees the rest of the world."

And even Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has broken with his party in the past by advocating a smaller American footprint abroad, said the president's lack of "strength" had invited chaos.

"I'm a great believer in a strong national defense," Paul said on "Fox News Sunday." "In fact, what Ronald Reagan said in about one sentence sums up real a lot of what I believe. He said to our potential adversary, he said, 'Don't mistake our reluctance for war for a lack of resolve.' People knew that with Ronald Reagan. They still need to know that with the United States, and part of the problem is I think this president hasn't projected enough strength and hasn't shown a priority to the national defense."

  • Jake Miller

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