Former Defense Sec. Robert Gates: Few good options in Syria, Ukraine

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates painted a bleak picture for two of the Obama administration's top foreign policy crises, saying there are few options available to the U.S. in either Ukraine or Syria.

Gates, who is now the chancellor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., helmed the Defense Department for four and a half years under both President Obama and former President George W. Bush. He has served in eight different administrations, also serving as the director of the CIA under President George H.W. Bush, and worked closely with four or five presidents, in his estimation.

In an interview with Face the Nation's Bob Schieffer, he described Mr. Obama's position in Ukraine as "a tough spot" where the U.S. has "few tactical options" and "no real military option."

"In the short term, there's not a lot we can do," Gates said. He suggested that Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine is a "done deal," but that the U.S. should work to bolster other countries on Russia's border.

"I don't think [Russian President Vladimir Putin] will rest until there's a pro-Russian government in Kiev or a federated Ukraine where the eastern part of the country, for all practical purposes, looks to Russia," Gates said. "I'm very worried about the Baltic states. I'm not worried about Putin sending troops in... Russia has essentially an economic stranglehold on those countries. And so my worry is that he will begin to exercise that influence and I think one of the contingents he thinks we, in the West, need to be thinking about is what kind of an economic safety net can we create for the Baltic states...so they have a choice other than knuckling under to Russia."

Putin's actions are born out of a longstanding desire to restore the glory and power of the Russian empire that collapsed along with the Soviet Union, causing a humiliation that the Americans have long underestimated, Gates said.

The situation in Syria is similarly complex, and one where Gates says he doesn't see a diplomatic solution.

"This is one of the sad stories of the president's foreign policy. And I think last fall was a real low point, where we went in the space of a week from saying, 'Assad must go,' to 'Assad must stay,' in order to fulfill the agreement sponsored by Putin to get rid of the chemical weapons that Assad had used against his own people," Gates said. "I think we got distracted and lost our perspective."

Although he said that Syrian President Bashar Assad will have a hard time resuming control over the entire nation, Gates said, "if winning means remaining as president of Syria, I think he is winning."

"I think there was a chance for the administration to do something that, and others in the region, to do something early on in the civil war," Gates added. "I think Assad was back on his heels and a significant amount of assistance at that time might have made a big difference. Now I think it's very difficult."

Despite the number of challenges confronting Mr. Obama around the globe, Gates maintains that the biggest threat to U.S. national security is "the two square miles that encompasses the Capitol building and the White House."

"If we can't get some of our problems solved here at home, if we can't get our finances in a more ordered fashion, if we can't begin to tackle some of the internal issues that we have, if we can't get some compromises on the Hill that move the country forward, then I think these foreign threats recede significantly into, as far as being a risk to the well-being and the future of this country," he said.

Gates added that the gridlock in Washington "absolutely" hurts the nation's credibility abroad as countries like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea all look for signs of waning U.S. leadership as an opportunity to shift the global balance of power.

Part of the problem, he said, is that the U.S. has spent the last several years withdrawing from wars that haven't ended in clear-cut victories, but there have been no other opportunities to assert American leadership on other fronts.

"[Former President Richard] Nixon and [Former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger I think don't get the credit they deserve for diverting attention from our loss in Vietnam by their initiatives with the Soviet Union and China in the early 1970s," he said. "Unfortunately, there aren't opportunities like that right now. And the more the only message people hear is that we're coming home and we're going to do nation building at home, the more they wonder whether we will be there for them if they're needed, if we're needed."

Despite areas of disagreement with President Obama, Gates maintains the two had a "very good relationship" in which they were candid with one another. "I began to disagree with some of the decisions in early 2011. I didn't agree with the way we handled President Mubarak in Egypt. I didn't agree with intervening in Libya. And we began to have some differences over the defense budget, but he always treated me well and with a great deal of courtesy. He was probably more patient with me sometimes than I deserved," Gates said.

As for whether he's ever thought about running for president?

"Absolutely not," Gates said. "Two words: instant divorce."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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