“One should be extremely careful about preventive war,” Gates said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal published Wednesday.
President Obama said in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a “red line” that would prompt a military response from the United States.
A military strike in the country seemed imminent last year after the Obama administration accused the Syrian government of launching a chemical attack near Damascus.
Obama deployed ships to the region last summer, ready to launch missiles. However, he scrapped the war plan as it met fierce opposition in Congress. A diplomatic agreement was eventually reached and Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile by mid-2014.
Gates noted that military action depends on accurate intelligence, and the United States “shouldn’t have that much confidence that we can get it right.”
“I always used to say to presidents, ‘If you cock the pistol, you gotta be willing to fire it,’” the former defense secretary said.
“American people are frankly sick of war,” Gates said, stressing that a military strike on Syria would have been a mistake. But, he added that the Obama administration should “have done more in terms of both overt and covert assistance” to the militant groups fighting to topple the government.
Syria has been gripped by violence since March 2011. According to statistics released by the United Nations, more than 100,000 people have been killed and millions displaced due to the turmoil.