The Buzz

Leon Panetta’s Worthy Fight?

President Barack Obama has a lot on his plate: a U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; the Ebola outbreak in West Africa; the stalemate in Ukraine; terrible poll numbers; sincere doubt among the American people on his presidential leadership abilities; and the fact that his party is likely to lose control of the Senate in November.  So the president must not have been pleased when his former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director, Leon Panetta, added on to the pile with some very harsh criticisms about the Obama administration’s foreign and national security policies.  

In his memoir (Worthy Fights) released on October 7, Panetta writes like the straight-shooter, candid public servant that he’s been known for throughout his career—a resume that included a stint in the Nixon administration, a Democratic congressman representing California for 16 years, President Bill Clinton’s budget director and chief of staff, and Obama’s pick to lead the Pentagon during a time of straining defense resources and automatic budget cuts.  According to multiple reviews that have been published about the book (I haven’t read the memoir yet), Panetta is direct in both what President Obama got wrong and what he got right.  Panetta calls Obama a highly intellectual and analytical person who weighs all of the costs and unintended consequences before making a decision, and describes him as a “strong leader on security issues” during his first term.

It was the next two years, Panetta says, when Obama “lost his way,” as he put it to USA Today’s Susan Page in an exclusive interview touting the book’s release.

Panetta has a set of complaints similar to those that Robert Gates, another Obama Defense Secretary, wrote about in his own memoir, Duty.  Obama, for one, didn’t seem to value the advice of his cabinet officials as much as he could have—particularly when important national security priorities were under discussion.  The National Security Council largely called the shots on matters of foreign policy, and when agency heads like the CIA, Pentagon, or State Department gave recommendations to the president, they were were often overruled.  “There was nothing wrong with that,” Panetta writes, “but that did have the effect of reducing the importance of the Cabinet members who actually oversaw their agencies.”

Comments like these, of course, should be taken for what they are: relatively uncontroversial, common griping from cabinet officials who would much rather have their recommendations endorsed by the president than thrown on the shelf for a later date.  What one can suspect the Obama administration does not appreciate, however, are criticisms from Panetta about the president’s policies and capacity as a Commander-in-Chief.

In perhaps one of the more personal digs at Obama’s leadership qualities as president, Panetta writes that Obama “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.”  These are precisely the types of statements that will make congressional Republicans and G.O.P. contenders for the 2016 presidential election giddy with excitement.  In fact, if given that quote without Panetta’s name attached, one would assume that it came from a Republican like Sen. John McCain or Speaker John Boehner—not by a longtime Democratic operative who served Obama for four years.

The same goes with another nugget, deployed in a story by Peter Baker of The New York Times, in which Panetta writes that Obama hoped “that perhaps others in the world could step up to the plate” as the United States sought to rebalance its role in the world.  This is a common talking point for Republicans, many of whom love to invoke the argument that the president is deliberately trying to lessen American’s commitments overseas so he can tackle the domestic, legacy-like issues.  Sen. Bob Corker and Sen. Lindsey Graham could just have easily used this kind of rhetoric for a press release.

Should we read anything into these specific quotes?  On the surface, they appear to show a wide and distinct disconnect between a president and his former Secretary of Defense—a gaping hole that Republican candidates will be eager to fill in an election year that has already been friendly to the party.

But, looking beyond the juicy remarks that journalists have used in their stories, it’s likely that the media storm brewing over Panetta’s memoir will pass sooner rather than later.  Robert Gates did some damage to the Obama foreign policy brand for a few weeks after his own book was published, yet no one really talks about it anymore.  At the time, Gates forced the White House to push back and defend the administration in the public eye (Vice President Joe Biden took the lead in that effort), but Obama’s legacy wasn’t severely harmed as a result.  Panetta’s Worthy Fights will likely follow a similar direction, even if White House officials are scrambling right now to produce a legitimate defense.

There’s only one big difference between the Gates and Panetta accounts: the latter was published during the height of a midterm election year.  Given the date of the book’s release—four weeks before election day—the respected, career Democrat may have inadvertently provided Republicans with more ammunition on the stump.