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October 10, 2014

Panetta’s ‘Worthy Fights’ Over Obama’s Ego

In memoir, former defense secretary offers a telling view of the president.

Leon Panetta’s memoir, “Worthy Fights,” is causing a big stir in Washington and beyond. Panetta was a major player in the president’s national security team as CIA director and then defense secretary. The release of his book couldn’t be more timely, and the way it’s being received by the White House and the media couldn’t be more telling of the current state of affairs in the Obama administration.

When Panetta came to the administration, he already had a well-established career in Democrat politics. He had served eight terms in Congress before Bill Clinton recruited him in 1993 to run the Office of Management and Budget. Panetta then became Clinton’s chief of staff, taking on the job of bringing order to the political free-for-all that was the White House during the second half of Clinton’s first term. After that, he spent time doing what politicos often do when they leave office – he established a policy group, lectured and did some teaching. Then he was tapped by Obama to head the CIA in 2009, and two years later, he became Pentagon chief, wrapping up his service shortly after the beginning of Obama’s second term.

For those of us who see Obama’s foreign policy for the malfeasance that it is, Panetta’s grocery list of national security screw-ups doesn’t come as a surprise. What’s interesting is how he tries to walk a tightrope of offering praise for the president while skewering him at the same time. Panetta takes pains to hail Obama’s keen intellect, as so many who have served with the president often do, but his recollections actually go on to refute that flattery.

Panetta recounts through several episodes that the president lacks the passion of a leader and repeatedly exhibits “a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause.” Wouldn’t someone with a keen intellect recognize that leadership is crucial to achieving his goal? And, if he believed in his ideas, wouldn’t he be willing to actively defend them with logic rather than petulant political attacks on the opposition?

Iraq is a prime example of Panetta’s account of Obama’s poor leadership. He details how Obama basically sabotaged that country’s future by letting his desire to fulfill a campaign pledge – get America out of Iraq – cloud the basic fact that America’s military presence was integral to keeping the country together. The White House was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq,” Panetta said, “that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”

Furthermore, Panetta wrote, “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.” His stance, he said, “reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs.” So Obama’s “keen intellect” won out over his knowledgeable advisers.

Indecision combined with deliberately setting unrealistic expectations for Iraq’s fragile government essentially sunk the status of forces agreement that the U.S. was trying to hammer out with then-Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki. Obama pleased his constituents, but Panetta argues the end result was “a vacuum in terms of the ability of that country to better protect itself, and it’s out of that vacuum that [ISIL] began to breed.” (Someone else warned about that too.) Now we’ve got boots back in the air, fighting what Panetta says should be a “long and sustained battle.”

Panetta’s motives aren’t pure. He’s obviously out to sell books, and he may even be angling for a position (secretary of state?) in a Hillary Clinton administration. But Panetta has also captured from the inside what we’ve been saying about Obama all along – essentially that the president is a narcissist who ignores wise advice in pursuit of his own ideological agenda. In Iraq, that’s proved disastrous. And it’s worth hammering home.

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