May 13 (Bloomberg) -- Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates backed the Obama administration’s handling of the 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, saying that had he headed the Pentagon at the time he wouldn’t have approved sending a small force into Libya as some critics suggested.
Gates said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program yesterday that sending a single aircraft or a small number of special forces into Libya “without knowing what the threat is, without having any intelligence, would have been very dangerous.”
The Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Behghazi, Libya, killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Republicans have said the Democratic Obama administration manipulated the characterization of the day’s events, saying the White House and State Department played down for political reasons the link to terrorism and warnings from intelligence agencies before the attacks.
Ambassador Thomas Pickering, co-chairman of the State Department accountability review board on the Benghazi attacks, said he and retired Admiral Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded after their review that “there was no way any military activity could have been put in place to deal with that particular question.”
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday, Pickering said the review focused on security issues, not on what administration officials said about the attacks after they occurred and what sparked them.
Asked on CNN’s “State of the Union” about why former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wasn’t questioned, Pickering said the review concentrated on “where the decisions were made” about security. Those decisions didn’t go up to Clinton’s level, Pickering said.
Also speaking on CNN yesterday, Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said that while the allegations of a cover-up about the terrorism link in the Benghazi attacks are “serious” and merit further investigation, she doesn’t think the issue rises to the level of possible impeachment of President Barack Obama. Other Republican lawmakers have suggested it could.
Gates said on the CBS program that he thought U.S. involvement in Libya was a mistake, and he also believes it would be a mistake to get involved in Syria, where a civil war has raged for more than two years.
“Caution, particularly in terms of arming these groups and in terms of U.S. military involvement, is in order,” Gates said. “Anybody who says ‘it’s going to be clean, it’s going to be neat, you can establish safe zones,’ well, most wars aren’t that way.”
Gates began serving as Defense secretary under Republican President George W. Bush in November 2006 and continued in the post under Obama. He left the job in June 2011.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” said he thinks the U.S. should increase support for Syrian opposition forces by arming them and using air power against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“You can go in and give them a safe zone and you give them the weapons they need and the help they need, and stop this unconscionable slaughter,” McCain told ABC.
McCain’s comments follow reports that Assad is making gains in his bid to stay in power in clashes with rebels that have killed an estimated 70,000 people since March 2011, according to United Nations estimates.
McCain said the assistance could be given without committing ground troops to the conflict. “No American boots on the ground,” he said.
Assad’s government maintains a military advantage and his inner circle appears to be cohesive, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 18. No opposition group has been able to unite the diverse factions behind a strategy for replacing the regime, Flynn said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told members of the Armed Services Committee April 17 that U.S. military action supporting Syrian opposition forces is an “option of last resort” that could entangle the U.S. in a lengthy conflict.
Gates said on CBS that the U.S. had misjudged the uprisings in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring.
“Syria, Libya, both artificial creations of colonial powers putting together historically adversarial groups, religions and sects -- for us to think we can influence or determine the outcome of that, I think is a mistake.
“There are no institutions in any country in the Middle East, in any Arab country, that provide a basis for enduring freedom or democracy,” Gates said. “There is no rule of law. There are no civil institutions. And there is no history along these lines.”
Asked if he thought the Iraq war begun by the Bush administration was a mistake, Gates replied: “I think that what we know, in terms of the fact that they did not have weapons of mass destruction, will always taint the fact that we went to war in Iraq.”
Gates also said he worries about an increased risk of escalation between North and South Korea stemming from the inability of new leadership in the North’s communist regime to recognize that the South Koreans are no longer willing to tolerate aggression.
The changes in both countries create “an environment in which the next provocation could result in an escalation and the situation getting out of control.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Sara Forden in Washington at email@example.com