In his new book Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace, the former defense secretary harshly criticizes Obama’s handling of Iraq and Syria:
Mr. Panetta, who was C.I.A. director before taking over the Pentagon, recounted decisions that he disagreed with, including the withdrawal of all troops from Iraq in 2011, the failure to intervene in Syria’s civil war by arming rebels and the abrupt reversal of Mr. Obama’s decision to strike Syria in retaliation for using chemical weapons on civilians. Mr. Obama “vacillated” over the Syria strike and “by failing to respond, it sent the wrong message to the world,” he wrote. Had the president followed different courses, Mr. Panetta said in the interview, the United States would be in a stronger position as it now tries to counter the rise of the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He added that he believed the president has turned a corner and “is going a long way in terms of repairing some of the damage I think took place as a result of the credibility issue that was raised on Syria.”
Beinart finds the “credibility” argument about Syria silly:
Since he declared war on ISIS, the Obama administration has been recruiting other countries to join the United States. And whatever you think of the war itself, that diplomatic effort has been remarkably successful. Ten different Arab countries have agreed to participate in the anti-ISIS campaign. Even John McCain and Lindsey Graham have praised the administration’s coalition-building skills. All this illustrates the silliness of Panetta’s claim.
It was one thing to speculate a few months ago that Obama’s chemical-weapons about-face would make it harder for the U.S. to convince allies to join a military coalition the next time. But the next time is now here. Roughly a year after supposedly squandering America’s credibility by standing down on chemical weapons, Obama has mustered enough credibility to convince a bevy of Arab countries to help us bomb fellow Arab Muslims in the heart of the Middle East.
And Drum responds to Panetta’s assertion about working in the Obama admin, that “for the first four years, and the time I spent there, I thought he was a strong leader on security issues. … But these last two years I think he kind of lost his way”:
Think about this. Panetta isn’t even a super hawkish Democrat. Just moderately hawkish. But his basic worldview is simple: as long as Obama is launching lots of drone attacks and surging lots of troops and bombing plenty of Middle Eastern countries—then he’s a “strong leader on security issues.” But when Obama starts to think that maybe reflexive military action hasn’t acquitted itself too well over the past few years—in that case he’s “kind of lost his way.”
That’s the default view of practically everyone in Washington: Using military force shows strong leadership. Declining to use military force shows weakness. But most folks inside the Beltway don’t even seem to realize they feel this way. It’s just part of the air they breathe: never really noticed, always taken for granted, and invariably the difficult but sadly necessary answer for whichever new and supposedly unique problem we’re addressing right now. This is what Obama is up against.
Only in America are new 30-year wars spoken of so casually, the way other countries speak of weather changes. He added that the war “will have to extend beyond Islamic State to include emerging threats in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere.” And elsewhere: not just a new decades-long war with no temporal limits, but no geographic ones either. … At this point, it is literally inconceivable to imagine the U.S. not at war. It would be shocking if that happened in our lifetime. U.S. officials are now all but openly saying this. “Endless War” is not dramatic rhetorical license but a precise description of America’s foreign policy.
The lack of message discipline is puzzling, because Obama rewards and promotes loyalists. But he’s a cerebral leader, and he may lack the personal attachments that make aides want to charge the hill for him. Also, as MSNBC reporter Alex Seitz-Wald tweeted in response to a question I posed, Panetta, Gates and Clinton didn’t owe their careers to Obama. Clinton was a rival, Gates was a Bush holdover, and Panetta is a Democratic eminence grise. Loyalty didn’t trump book sales — or Clinton’s need to distance herself from Obama before a presidential run.
(Photo: Leon Panetta delivers remarks at Gaston Hall of Georgetown University February 6, 2013 in Washington, DC. By Alex Wong/Getty Images)