Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday said President Obama damaged U.S. credibility, when he decided not to take military action against Syrian leader Bashar Assad, despite drawing a "red line" against the use of chemical weapons.
“It was damaging,” Panetta, who is promoting a new book generating headlines for its criticism of the White House, told Yahoo News.
But after making the threat, "the credibility of the United States is on the line,” Panetta argued.
"It was important for us to stand by our word and go in and do what a commander in chief should do," he added.
After U.S. intelligence assessed that Assad had used chemical weapons in Syria's civil war — killing an estimated 1,400 people — Obama requested that Congress provide authorization for airstrikes against the regime. Lawmakers were poised to refuse that request before Russia brokered a deal by which Assad agreed to turn over his full chemical weapons stockpile to avoid U.S. strikes.
Panetta said that by agreeing to the deal, Obama “sent a mixed message, not only to Assad, not only to the Syrians, but [also] to the world."
“And that is something you do not want to establish in the world, an issue with regard to the credibility of the United States to stand by what we say we're gonna do," Panetta said.
On Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that "as a general matter," Obama was proud to have Panetta serve in his administration. But Earnest also rejected criticism of the president's leadership abilities.
"The president has demonstrated, I think in a rather public fashion over the last several weeks, his success in leading the international community to confront some of the very difficult challenges of our time," Earnest said, pointing to U.S. efforts on Ebola and combating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
"Time and time again, we have seen the president use that position to lead the international community and ensure that we are making the world a better place in a way that also furthers the core interests of American national security," Earnest added. "The president is proud of the record of leadership that he’s demonstrated."