White House

Former top Obama aide Panetta takes a few swings at the president

Now former-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, February 7, 2013 (Pete Marovich/MCT)
Now former-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, February 7, 2013 (Pete Marovich/MCT) MCT

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta criticizes his former boss in a new memoir, saying President Barack Obama too often “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”

Panetta faults Obama for not pushing more aggressively to leave a residual troop force in Iraq, which Panetta says could have helped prevent the Islamic State from emerging into the threat it poses today from Iraq and Syria.

Such a presence “could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al Qaida’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country,” he wrote.

Panetta also faults Obama for not ordering strikes against Syria in 2013 after warning that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” for the president. Instead, Obama opted to seek a diplomatic alternative.

“The result, I felt, was a blow to American credibility,” Panetta wrote. “When the president as commander in chief draws a red line, it is critical that he act. . . . By failing to respond, it sent the wrong message to the world.”

Panetta, who also served under Obama as CIA director, notes that invading Syria would have meant the loss of lives, but he warns that “hesitation and half-steps have consequences as well and those remain to be determined.”

The book, “Worthy Fights,” is the latest by a former administration official to call into question Obama’s leadership. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a memoir earlier this year accused Obama of losing faith in a troop surge he had ordered in Afghanistan and that it was ultimately “all about getting out” of the country.

And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her accounting of her time as secretary of state, sought to put up some distance between herself and Obama. In a recent interview, she dismissed Obama’s foreign policy as focused on avoiding mistakes overseas that could lead to military involvement, and she faulted him for not taking her advice to arm the Syrian rebels.

Vice President Joe Biden called the venting by former administration officials “inappropriate” while Obama is still in office, but the practice is not unheard of. Ronald Reagan saw it become a “full-fledged literary genre” in his second term, People magazine wrote in 1988, adding that Reagan was the “first president in the nation’s history to suffer – while still in office – such opportunistic vivisection by former associates.”

Authors want to publish while the issues are still headline news, said Stephen J. Wayne, a Georgetown University professor specializing in presidential leadership.

“Every president I can think of has had these written,” Wayne said. “They’re sort of a tradition. You get it out while people remember and while what they say is deemed relevant to contemporary times.”

Panetta’s claims point to disagreements that should occur at the White House, Wayne said.

“The last thing you want is group-think mentality,” he said.

Panetta’s roles in the Obama administration capped a long and influential career in Washington, where he rose to become one of those prominent figures crucial to both parties who are always in demand and move easily in and out of top government positions. He served 16 years on Capitol Hill as a congressman from California and became a powerful player on budget issues. He then served under President Bill Clinton, first as director of the Office of Management and Budget, and then as his White House chief of staff.

His book is not entirely critical of Obama. He calls Osama bin Laden’s death the result of “years of work and a brave call by the president,” and he writes that Obama “overcame bitter opposition to make important progress in many areas, from fighting terrorism to righting the economy.”

And Panetta in interviews this week pushed back at suggestions that his criticism was premature, saying that he didn’t want to “put history on hold” and that Obama could learn from his mistakes.

“Frankly, he’s beginning to do that in terms of how he’s approaching ISIS,” Panetta told MSNBC on Tuesday, citing the launch of airstrikes and the administration’s plan to keep as many 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t talk about the mistakes that are made in order to make sure that we never do that again.”

ISIS is an acronym used to describe the Islamic State terrorist group.

Even as Obama takes some heat from within his own circle and party, former President George W. Bush has largely stayed out of the fray. He told Fox News last week that he didn’t believe it was good for the presidency or the country “to have a former president bloviating and second-guessing.”

Still, he said he agreed with assessments that the U.S. should have left a force of 10,000 to 15,000 troops in Iraq.

Obama, who ran for office campaigning against the war, has blamed the total withdrawal of American forces on Iraq’s government, for refusing to grant remaining U.S. troops immunity from prosecution for crimes.

And White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who said Obama was “proud” to have Panetta serve in his administration, pushed back against the criticism, saying the “leadership that the president has demonstrated over the last several weeks” – in pulling together an anti-Islamic State coalition – “is entirely consistent with the leadership that the president has shown over the last six years.”