Former CIA Director Ret. Gen. David Petraeus expressed skepticism about the feasibility of Russia's proposal to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons to an international coalition, but added that in a complicated and dangerous situation, "The Russian gambit is worth a try."
Petraeus, the former commander of coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, discussed the Syrian war as well as democracy in the Middle East and the balancing of security and civil liberties during a talk at Duke Wednesday, the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
When Petraeus asked the ROTC and former and current military members in the audience at Page Auditorium to stand, more than a third of the audience rose to be applauded. (See short video here.)
In a discussion with Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy, Petraeus said the United States must respond to evidence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons in the conflict. While approving of this week's diplomatic initiative, Petraeus cautioned that implementing the proposal will be challenging.
Syria has more than "one thousand tons of chemical weapons and precursor materials at more than 40 plus sites," Petraeus said. "These things are lethal to transport," especially in a war zone, he said. The Syria conflict is a complicated situation, with many factions involved, including a large Kurdish population and other minority groups. There is the possibility of Al Qaeda establishing a stronghold in the country and of extremist elements gaining control of the chemical weapons, he said.
Feaver pointed out that Wednesday was also the one-year anniversary of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, which happened when Petraeus was still CIA director. "Why haven't we found the perpetrators?" Feaver asked.
Petraeus responded that after the regime change in Libya, the militias were not disarmed and the country doesn't "have a government that controls the territory." When you don't have real partners on the ground, "the traditional methods don't work."
When asked about the war in Afghanistan, Petraeus said, "Afghanistan does not equal Iraq," pointing out that Iraq had oil resources and, by the time the United States left, their own security forces numbering nearly a million. In Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, widespread corruption and minimal rule of law presented different challenges. After driving out the Taliban, the goal was to create the necessary structures for security and government.
"We will leave forces behind. It's inescapable, if we don't want it to crumble, that we will continue to provide support," he said. When the Russians left, Afghanistan functioned for a few years until Moscow withdrew the last of its support. "After spending $110 billion a year, a few billion for security is a bargain," he said.
During an audience Q&A session, Petraeus declined to go into detail about such topics as drone strikes. He did say that security leaks by former NSA worker Edward Snowden did put the U.S. security community at risk by exposing intelligence-gathering tactics.
Alluding to President Obama's speech the night before about Syria, in which he said America cannot be the world's policeman, Petraeus said there is still a need for U.S. leadership. The idea that "China will eclipse the U.S. is not credible," he said. With continuing revolutions in technology, energy and human capital, we are "on the verge of new North American decades," he said.
The event was made possible by the Ambassador Dave and Kay Phillips Family International Lecture series. It was co-sponsored by the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy, the Sanford School of Public Policy, Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Office of Global Strategy and Programs.