Leon Panetta, Obama's CIA Director and Secretary of Defense has just released his memoirs, in which he complains about mistakes Obama made by not listening to his advice. He follows in the footsteps of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who also criticized their former boss.
The books by Panetta and his former colleagues raise two issues: one procedural and another substantive. On the procedural front there is the question of timing. Normally, high level national security officials should not release their tell-all memoirs while their former boss is still in office. Even Donald Rumsfeld, who had been fired by Bush, waited until President Bush had left office. Releasing a book early might be a good marketing strategy but it is gauche.
Moreover, Gates, Clinton and Panetta have compounded their lack of decency by publicly criticizing their former boss while he was still in office, even before releasing their books. In September 2013, both Gates and Panetta publicly criticized President Obama's decision to go to Congress for authorization to launch missile strikes against Syria. Recently, in an interview with Jeff Goldberg, after the release of her book, Secretary Clinton criticized President Obama for not having a coherent national security strategy and not arming the "moderate" Syrian rebels back in 2011.
Beyond the unseemly and unprofessional behavior of writing a book while the person to whom they owe their place in history is still in office, there is the matter of substance. In his book, Panetta argues that the White House misplayed the Iraqi troops talks and that if we had left a small troop presence there (he gave no number), we "could have effectively advised the Iraqi military as how to deal with Al-Qaeda's resurgence and the sectarian violence that again engulfed the country." Panetta is wrong on both counts. First, Obama did not set the deadline for U.S. troops to leave. The deadline was set by an agreement that was ratified by the Iraqi Parliament at the end of President Bush's tenure in office. Second, DOD's own lawyers and the Iraqi Chief Justice argued that any follow on agreement would have to be ratified by the Iraqi Parliament, which even Panetta agreed would have been difficult, given the internal politics of Iraq. Did he expect the president to use his leverage to get Malaki to ignore the democratic processes our troops fought and died to put into place?
Moreover, Panetta himself forcefully defended Obama's decision in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee as Secretary of Defense. In response to a question from Senator John McCain, Panetta said that the idea that the administration didn't push the Iraqis hard enough to accept a residence U.S. force was "simply faulty."
Finally, what exactly would keeping U.S. troops in Iraq have accomplished? U.S. troops could not have prevented Maliki from taking action against his Sunni rivals. U.S. troops could not have stopped Maliki from using the Iraqi Army as a political patronage tool, putting his loyal deputies in top positions and making it into a sectarian force. Even when the United States had more than a hundred thousand troops in Iraq, they were not able to rein in Maliki. For example, between 2006 and 2008, U.S. military lawyers and commanders pressed Maliki to execute a warrant to arrest Lieutenant General Mahdi Al Gharawi, who was accused of running secret prisons and torturing prisoners. Maliki, however, promoted him and placed him in charge of Nineveh Province, where Mosul is located -- a post he abandoned when ISIS invaded.
Panetta's second criticism of the president concerns the way he handled Syria's civil war. He faults the president for not arming the Syrian rebels in 2011 and for not attacking Syria in retaliation for the regime's use of chemical weapons in 2013. Both of these claims fall short. Panetta overlooks the fact that in 2011, when deciding whether to arm the "moderates" in Syria, Obama had to consider how effective the group would be as a fighting force and whether the arms would fall into enemy hands. Obama correctly decided that it would have been reckless to provide them with sophisticated weapons like the ones we gave to the Iraqi military. As President Obama recently told Thomas Friedman, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has "always been a fantasy." Can you imagine how militarily effective ISIS would be if they had gotten sophisticated weapons, including MANPADS, a couple of years ago?
Similarly, criticizing Obama for seeking Congressional authorization is ironic and it is somewhat surprising for someone who spent sixteen years in the House of Representatives. Panetta voted on President Bush's request to start the First Gulf War, and as a Committee Chairman was very jealous of Congress' war prerogatives. Moreover, asking for permission from the people's representatives before starting another military action in the Middle East is in keeping with our constitutional principles. Unlike in Libya, where the coalition forces had UN approval, Obama had to seek authorization from Congress.
Panetta's final substantive criticism of Obama concerns the sequester and the size of the defense budget. According to Panetta, he found himself a lonely figure lobbying Congress and making speeches warning that the Pentagon's cuts would hurt national security. His argument is flawed.
The cuts would not hurt national security. The Budget Control Act (BCA) returns defense spending in real terms to where it was in FY 2007, the next to last year of the Bush administration. This budget is 40 percent higher than it was in 2001. Moreover, Panetta allowed the Pentagon to use the war funding budget as a slush fund to add billions of dollars to the regular defense budget. For example, Panetta let the Army pay for 50,000 troops with war money. Finally, Panetta exaggerates the impact of the BCA, claiming that it would mean reducing the Army to its smallest level since before World War II. However, this is flatly wrong. The 1940 Army included the forerunner to the modern Air Force, the Army Air Corps. Even if today's Army declines to 420,000 troops, the 324,820 people of the Air Force would make the combined strength of the Army and Air Force far larger than the 1940 Army. Moreover, given technological advances, comparing the size of the Army today and in 1940 is irrelevant.
If Panetta felt that the president was indeed jeopardizing national security by his actions, he owed it to himself and the country to resign. Writing a book trash-talking the president shortly after leaving office is tacky and unprofessional.
Lawrence Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.
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