October 10, 2014
On Actions Taken, or Not
‘Worthy Fights,’ by Leon E. Panetta
by Michiko Kakutani (10-06-14)
The most interesting news in former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s memoir, “Worthy Fights,” concerns his disagreements with the Obama White House over Syria, Iraq and the budget crisis — disagreements that have been outlined in recent interviews and in testimony before Congress.
Still, Mr. Panetta elaborates on such subjects here, and these passages — in what is otherwise an often opaque and evasive book — shed light on the distressing events now unfolding in the Middle East as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, rolls through large sections of Syria and Iraq. They also illuminate decisions made by the Obama administration, which, in the view of Mr. Panetta and many military observers, contributed to (or at least failed to help inhibit) these sobering developments.
Mr. Panetta also writes that he advocated leaving a small American force to help preserve “the fragile stability” that was “barely holding” Iraq together in 2011. This position was shared by members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military commanders in the region, he writes. But “the president’s team at the White House pushed back.”
Those “on our side of the debate,” Mr. Panetta goes on, “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.” And “without the president’s active advocacy,” he says, a deal failed to emerge with Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, then the Iraqi Prime Minister, to keep a modest number of American troops there.
To this day, Mr. Panetta says he believes “that a small, focused U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with Al Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country.” Instead, the last American troops left in December 2011, and at the start of this year, trucks flying the black flag of Al Qaeda rolled into Falluja and Ramadi, where American soldiers fought and died in some of the war’s bloodiest battles.
It is in these sections of the book, dealing with Iraq, Syria and presidential leadership (or its lack), that Mr. Panetta is most plain-spoken and impassioned. In other chapters, he writes more as the genial congressman he was for 16 years, dispensing a mix of reminiscence and spin, as well as boilerplate accounts of his work toward a balanced budget as director of the Office of Management and Budget and as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. From 2009 through mid-2011, he served as the Obama administration’s first C.I.A. director, overseeing the American operation that led to the death of Osama ben Laden.
In this book, Mr. Panetta skims over crucial Defense Department issues, including systemic problems in veterans’ hospitals, and a military stretched thin during two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is even more evasive when it comes to discussing the C.I.A., often rationalizing or sidestepping troubling questions about the agency’s use of “enhanced interrogation” during the Bush years and its growing reliance, under President Obama, on drone warfare and targeted killings.
Having once accused the Bush administration of turning the country into “a nation of armchair torturers,” Mr. Panetta — who had little background in intelligence or military affairs — was initially greeted with suspicion by the agency when he arrived. But, as Mark Mazzetti, a national security correspondent for The New York Times wrote in his incisive book, “The Way of the Knife,” Mr. Panetta quickly “became a C.I.A. champion, beloved by many at Langley but criticized by others who said that, like so many C.I.A. directors before him, he had been co-opted by the agency’s clandestine branch.”
Though President Obama overruled him, Mr. Panetta argued against declassifying and releasing internal memos detailing the early Bush-era interrogation methods that he had once publicly condemned.
In “Worthy Fights,” Mr. Panetta writes that “it seemed wrong to me to ask a public servant to take a risk for his country and assure him that it was both legal and approved, then, years later, to suggest that he had done something wrong.” He also takes issue with critics who have questioned the utility of what he calls “unsavory techniques,” asserting that “harsh interrogation did cause some prisoners to yield to their captors and produced leads that helped our government understand Al Qaeda’s organization, methods and leadership.”
In this book’s pages, there is no substantial exploration of the intelligence lapses that contributed to the Obama administration’s failure to anticipate the Arab Spring or understand its fallout in Egypt, Libya and Syria.
Nor is there any real analysis of why the White House seems to have been caught off guard by the Islamic State’s swift advance and the collapse of the Iraqi Army. These developments took place after Mr. Panetta left government, but readers cannot help wishing he had weighed in here on the debate over whether this was primarily a problem with intelligence or a problem with policy-making in the White House.
While he neglects such important matters in “Worthy Fights,” Mr. Panetta does take time to argue that James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence — who misled a congressional hearing when he said that the National Security Agency was not gathering data on millions of Americans — “may be the perfect person to serve” in that “difficult position,” praising him as “deft and scrupulous.”
When it comes to the Obama administration’s proclivity for trying to centralize decision-making in the White House, Mr. Panetta echoes observations made by journalists (like James Mann, the author of “The Obamians”) and other administration insiders, like his predecessor at the Pentagon, Robert M. Gates (in his candid memoir, “Duty”).
Here, Mr. Panetta writes that the centralization of authority in the White House meant that cabinet members and agency heads “were rarely encouraged to take their own initiative or lobby for priorities,” and senior officials “who knew the most about certain subjects were excluded from important public debates, skewing the conversation in ways that sometimes did the administration’s policies a disservice.”
It was believed “among those close to him,” Mr. Panetta adds, that the President had not found his “time as a senator very rewarding” and tended “to be disdainful of Congress generally.” Mr. Panetta says he never “witnessed that disdain directly, but I did pick up evidence of it within his senior staff.”
Mr. Panetta also has some sharp things to say about Mr. Obama’s presidential leadership, rebuking him for his policy flip-flops on Syria. First, Mr. Panetta notes, Mr. Obama indicated he was leaning toward limited military action after concluding that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had unleashed a devastating chemical attack against their own people (action that Mr. Obama had earlier warned was a “red line”); then he backed off, “agreeing to submit the matter to Congress,” which was, “as he well knew, an almost certain way to scotch any action.”
In Mr. Panetta’s view, this was “a blow to American credibility,” sending “the wrong message to the world”: “The power of the United States rests on its word, and clear signals are important both to deter adventurism and to reassure allies that we can be counted on.”
Echoing a complaint frequently heard within the Beltway, Mr. Panetta also laments what he regards as the president’s sometimes passive or disengaged approach to governing. He argues that Mr. Obama’s failure to lead Congress out of the sequester standoff is a prime example of his “reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause.” At times, Mr. Panetta writes, Mr. Obama “avoids the battle, complains and misses opportunities,” giving “his opponents room to shape the contours of his presidency.”
As for the ben Laden raid, Mr. Panetta’s description not only lacks the visceral detail and immediacy of “No Easy Day” — a firsthand account of the raid by Matt Bissonnette (a.k.a. Mark Owen), a member of the SEAL team that took down the Qaeda leader — but also declines to give us a palpable sense of what was going on during the raid at Langley and the White House.
Mr. Panetta does, however, have a favorite joke, which he says he never had a chance to deliver before in public: “Looking back on my career, I’ve been a Republican, a congressman, and White House chief of staff, and a defense secretary. Come to think of it, I’ve done everything that Dick Cheney has done. Except the guy I made sure got shot in the face was Osama ben Laden.”