After resigning as secretary of defense last year, Leon E. Panetta watched with growing dismay at what he perceived as a president losing his way. Instead of asserting American leadership on the world stage, Mr. Panetta concluded, President Obama was vacillating and overly cautious.
“He was concerned about the frustration and exhaustion of the country having fought two wars,” Mr. Panetta observed in an interview on Monday. The president, he said, nursed “the hope that perhaps others in the world could step up to the plate and take on these issues.” As a result, he added, “there was a kind of a mixed message that went out with regard to the role of the United States.”
Typically frank, occasionally feisty and finally free of the constraints of clearing opinions with the White House, Mr. Panetta is re-emerging with a blunt account of his time in the Obama administration. In a new memoir to be published on Tuesday, Mr. Panetta draws a largely respectful portrait of a president who made important progress and follows a “well-reasoned vision for the country” but too often “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.”
In an interview at his home with Capital Download, USA TODAY’s video newsmaker series, Panetta says Obama erred:
• By not pushing the Iraqi government harder to allow a residual U.S. force to remain when troops withdrew in 2011, a deal he says could have been negotiated with more effort. That “created a vacuum in terms of the ability of that country to better protect itself, and it’s out of that vacuum that ISIS began to breed.” Islamic State also is known as ISIS and ISIL.
• By rejecting the advice of top aides — including Panetta and then-secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — to begin arming Syrian rebels in 2012. If the U.S. had done so, “I do think we would be in a better position to kind of know whether or not there is some moderate element in the rebel forces that are confronting (Syrian President Bashar) Assad.”
• By warning Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own people, then failing to act when that “red line” was crossed in 2013. Before ordering airstrikes, Obama said he wanted to seek congressional authorization, which predictably didn’t happen.
The reversal cost the United States credibility then and is complicating efforts to enlist international allies now to join a coalition against the Islamic State, Panetta says. “There’s a little question mark to, is the United States going to stick this out? Is the United States going to be there when we need them?”
[. . .]
In the book’s final chapter, however, he writes that Obama’s “most conspicuous weakness” is “a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause.” Too often, he “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.” On occasion, he “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.”
Still more (via InstaPundit), which indicates that contrary to Obama administration statements–and those of likely presidential candidate Hillary Clinton–there was no effort on the part of the administration to work with the Iraqi government in order to construct a Status of Forces agreement that would have allowed American troops to remain in Iraq. Of course, longtime readers of mine know this already, but it is nice to see that the point has been made anew. Would that more media outlets pick up on it. Here is some of Panetta’s actual commentary on the matter:
We had leverage. We could, for instance, have threatened to withdraw reconstruction aid to Iraq if al-Maliki would not support some sort of continued U.S. military presence. My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S. Iraq’s stability was not only in Iraq’s interest but also in ours. I privately and publicly advocated for a residual force that could provide training and security for Iraq’s military.
Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press that position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs. But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.
… To my frustration, the White House coordinated the negotiations but never really led them. Officials there seemed content to endorse an agreement if State and Defense could reach one, but without the President’s active advocacy, al-Maliki was allowed to slip away. The deal never materialized….
Of course, it ought to go without saying that Panetta’s criticism should be part and parcel of the 2016 presidential campaign. When Hillary Clinton runs for president–and I think that we all know that Hillary Clinton will run for president–she will cite her foreign policy experience as a major reason for why she ought to be elected, and she will cite the supposed foreign policy successes of the Obama administration in order to try to convince voters that Clinton would make a great leader of the free world.
Panetta’s narrative interferes with those claims, which I guess is why partisans on the port side of the political divide are so busy trying to diminish the credibility of that narrative–going so far as to claim that Panetta’s willingness to publish a book while President Obama is still in office demonstrates a certain lack of loyalty. Funny; these same people weren’t making these same claims when Paul O’Neill and Scott McClellan published books attacking George W. Bush and his administration.