WASHINGTON (CBS DC) — Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates believes the U.S. has very few options in two of the Obama administration’s biggest foreign policy pressure points in Ukraine and Syria, adding that the U.S. needs to solve its domestic problems before it can exert power on the world stage.

Speaking with CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” the former head of the Defense Department under both Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush said that Obama is in a “tough spot” in Ukraine.

“In the short term, there’s not a lot we can do,” Gates told CBS News’ Bob Schieffer. He noted that Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine is a “done deal,” and that the U.S. has “no real military option” in addition to “few tactical options.”

Gates reiterated that much of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy moves are rooted in Russia’s superpower past.

“I think the key to understanding Putin is the past. Vladimir Putin is all about lost empire, lost glory, lost power,” said Gates, noting that when Putin said the Soviet Union’s collapse was one of the largest 20th Century catastrophes, he meant it. “I don’t think [Russian President Vladimir Putin] will rest until there’s a pro-Russian government in Kiev or a federated Ukraine where the eastern part of the country, for all practical purposes, looks to Russia,” Gates said.

Gates added that the U.S. has “underestimated” the “humiliation” felt at the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Russian empire.

“I think what we’re seeing is Putin reasserting Russia’s place as a superpower and a force to be reckoned with around the world,” Gates told CBS News.

Gates also called the president’s handling of the Syrian crisis last fall “one of the sad stories” of his foreign policy efforts, adding that he doesn’t see any tactical or diplomatic solution at this point.

“And I think last fall was a real low point, where we went in the space of a week from saying, ‘Assad must go,’ to ‘Assad must stay,’ in order to fulfill the agreement sponsored by Putin to get rid of the chemical weapons that Assad had used against his own people,” Gates said. “I think we got distracted and lost our perspective.”

Gates criticized political gridlock in Washington, saying that if “we can’t get some of our problems solved here at home,” then the “future of this country” itself will become a larger issue than foreign policy matters.

Gates continued, “I think the greatest national security threat to this country at this point is the 2 square miles that encompasses the Capitol building and The White House.”


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