Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized the Obama administration for its "red line" policy against Syrian chemical weapons, calling it a "serious mistake."
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Gates said he routinely warned commanders in chief against making ill-defined threats that would corner them into taking military action.
"I always used to say to presidents, 'If you cock the pistol, you gotta be willing to fire it," Gates told the Journal.
Barack Obama said in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war in Syria represented a "red line" the U.S. would not tolerate. The U.S. and U.N. documented the use of chemical weapons in 2013, following multiple highly publicized but unconfirmed reports.
Obama deployed ships to the region last summer with the capability to launch missiles. The tense standoff ended following a deal to disarm the Bashar Assad regime of its weaponized chemicals brokered by the Russians.
"One should be extremely careful about preventive war," Gates told the Journal on Thursday. That kind of war depends on a high accuracy of intelligence sources, he said, citing the leadup to the Iraq war as an example of the infallibility of such information.
"Frankly, we shouldn't have that much confidence that we can get it right," he said.
Gates has been speaking with multiple media outlets this week following the release of his new book, "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War." It offers rare criticism of a sitting president by one of his former Cabinet staffers. Gates, who was appointed by President George W. Bush and retained by Obama, blasts the current administration for what he considers weak policies toward the war in Afghanistan.
In a separate interview with BBC Radio, Gates said Thursday that Britain could not remain a "full partner" of the U.S. if it continues with planned military cuts.
The British army is expected to shrink by 20,000 troops down to 82,000 by 2020 in line with steep cuts imposed by Prime Minister David Cameron. It also will not, for the first time since World War I, have a functioning aircraft carrier. A newly designed carrier is being built, but will not be in service by 2020.
"[The U.K.] won't have full-spectrum capabilities and the ability to be a full partner as they have been in the past," Gates said, according to the Associated Press, adding that he thinks Cameron "has got it wrong."