Friendly fire: Panetta lat­est to turn on Obama

Ex-CIA di­rec­tor says pres­i­dent ‘avoids the bat­tle’

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY DAVE BOYER

Un­like Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, for­mer De­fense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panetta prob­a­bly won’t be set­tling his dif­fer­ences with Pres­i­dent Obama with a hug.

Mr. Panetta this week be­came the lat­est for­mer top ad­viser to train some po­lit­i­cal friendly fire on Mr. Obama, un­leash­ing a dev­as­tat­ing cri­tique of the pres­i­dent’s short­com­ings as a leader and de­scrib­ing him as some­one who “avoids the bat­tle, com­plains and misses op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

In in­ter­views to pro­mote a new mem­oir, the for­mer Demo­cratic con­gress­man, CIA di­rec­tor and Pen­tagon chief also took is­sue with Mr. Obama’s mil­i­tary strat­egy, say­ing the pres­i­dent harmed U.S. cred­i­bil­ity by draw­ing a “red line” against Syria’s use of chem­i­cal weapons and then fail­ing to back it up with mil­i­tary force when Syria crossed that line in 2012.

“It was dam­ag­ing,” Mr. Panetta told Ya­hoo News. He said Mr. Obama “sent a mixed mes­sage, not only to [Syr­ian leader Bashar As­sad], not only to the Syr­i­ans, but to the world. And that is some­thing you do not want to es­tab­lish in the world: an is­sue with re­gard to the cred­i­bil­ity of the United States to stand by what we say we’re go­ing to do.”

Spe­cial­ists on the pres­i­dency say it’s un­usual, but not un­prece­dented, for a high­level pres­i­den­tial ad­viser to crit­i­cize his old boss pub­licly while the pres­i­dent is still in of­fice. Mr. Obama has now been the tar­get of crit­i­cism from for­mer aides rang­ing from Mrs. Clin­ton, his first-term sec­re­tary of state, and for­mer bud­get di­rec­tor Peter Orszag to for­mer De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert Gates and even long­time po­lit­i­cal ad­viser David Ax­el­rod.

Stephen Hess, an an­a­lyst at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion who served in four ad­min­is­tra­tions, said it’s es­pe­cially strik­ing to hear the crit­i­cism com­ing from an aide with Mr. Panetta’s stel­lar rep­u­ta­tion as a “truth-teller.”

“This is a guy who con­ducts him­self with dig­nity and honor,” Mr. Hess said. “He’s not a motormouth Joe Bi­den by any means. Boy, it must hurt when some­one like Panetta says those things.”

His­tory does pro­vide some ex­am­ples of other Cab­i­net mem­bers with a book to sell tak­ing shots at their pres­i­dents. For­mer Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Paul O’Neill bashed Pres­i­dent George W. Bush after he was pushed out of the ad­min­is­tra­tion for not be­ing a team player. Mr. O’Neill wrote in a book that Mr. Bush was so un­in­ter­ested dur­ing Cab­i­net meet­ings that he was like a “blind man in a room­ful of deaf peo­ple.”

For­mer Bush coun­tert­er­ror­ism ad­viser Richard Clarke crit­i­cized Mr. Bush for fail­ing to pay enough at­ten­tion to the threat posted by al Qaeda be­fore 9/11. And for­mer Bush press sec­re­tary Scott McClel­lan wrote a book in 2008, just a few months be­fore Mr. Bush left of­fice, that was harshly crit­i­cal of the pres­i­dent.

Mr. Hess also said sev­eral for­mer aides of Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt turned against him after they quit his ad­min­is­tra­tion in dis­gust, although such ex­am­ples are in­fre­quent. Gen. George McClel­lan, fired by Abra­ham Lin­coln as head of the Union Army, was so crit­i­cal of his boss’s han­dling of the Civil War that he ran un­suc­cess­fully against him in the 1864 elec­tion.

But Mr. Panetta’s crit­i­cisms are strik­ing in their scope and tim­ing, com­ing weeks be­fore the midterm elec­tions and in the midst of Mr. Obama’s ef­forts to hold to­gether a frag­ile coali­tion to fight the Is­lamic State mil­i­tants. His com­ments about the new war come on the heels of re­marks by Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pub­licly break­ing with Mr. Obama last month and telling Congress U.S. ground troops might be nec­es­sary against the ter­ror­ist group.

The White House is try­ing to down­play Mr. Panetta’s com­ments, with White House press sec­re­tary Josh Earnest say­ing Mr. Obama was “proud” to have Mr. Panetta serve in his Cab­i­net.

“Any­body in any ad­min­is­tra­tion who serves in prom­i­nent po­si­tions like that has to make a decision about how and when and whether to talk about their ex­pe­ri­ence serv­ing the pres­i­dent of the United States,” Mr. Earnest said Mon­day. “I’ll leave it to oth­ers to judge the con­clu­sion that Sec­re­tary Panetta has reached about shar­ing his ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The ex­pe­ri­ence of serv­ing un­der Mr. Obama was pro­foundly frus­trat­ing, judg­ing from Mr. Panetta’s com­ments. He said Mr. Obama has “kind of lost his way” and too of­ten “re­lies on the logic of a law pro­fes­sor rather than the pas­sion of a leader.”

By not press­ing the Iraqi gov­ern­ment to leave more U.S. troops in the coun­try in 2011, Mr. Obama “cre­ated a vac­uum in terms of the abil­ity of that coun­try to bet­ter pro­tect it­self, and it’s out of that vac­uum that [the Is­lamic State] be­gan to breed,” Mr. Panetta told USA To­day.

In his book, Mr. Panetta writes that Mr. Obama’s lack of lead­er­ship was to blame for al­low­ing the Syr­ian-based ter­ror­ist group to surge deep into Iraq.

“My fear, as I voiced to the pres­i­dent and oth­ers, was that if [Iraq] 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. Iraq’s sta­bil­ity was not only in Iraq’s in­ter­est but also in ours,” Mr. Panetta wrote.

He said he pushed for an agree­ment that would keep a larger mil­i­tary pres­ence after the U.S. troop with­drawal, but the White House re­sisted, cit­ing in part the re­sis­tance of the Iraqi gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad.

“To my frus­tra­tion, the White House co­or­di­nated the ne­go­ti­a­tions but never re­ally led them,” he wrote in his new book, “Wor­thy Fights.” “Of­fi­cials there seemed con­tent to en­dorse an agree­ment if State and De­fense could reach one, but with­out the pres­i­dent’s ac­tive ad­vo­cacy, [Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Nouri] al-Ma­liki was al­lowed to slip away. The deal never ma­te­ri­al­ized. To this day, I be­lieve that a small 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.”

Mr. Panetta also said in an in­ter­view this week that the pres­i­dent’s “most con­spic­u­ous weak­ness” is a “frus­trat­ing ret­i­cence to en­gage his op­po­nents and rally support for his cause.”

Mr. Earnest dis­agreed with as­sess­ment.

“The pres­i­dent has demon­strated … in a rather pub­lic fash­ion over the last sev­eral weeks his suc­cess in lead­ing the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to con­front some of the very dif­fi­cult chal­lenges of our time,”

that Mr. Earnest said, cit­ing the pres­i­dent’s suc­cess in forg­ing an in­ter­na­tional coali­tion to fight Is­lamic State mil­i­tants and to com­bat the Ebola epi­demic in West Africa.

Mr. Ax­el­rod, a Chicago oper­a­tive who helped to launch Mr. Obama’s rise in pol­i­tics, of­fered rare crit­i­cism this week by say­ing “it was a mis­take” for the pres­i­dent to tell vot­ers that the midterm elec­tion is a ref­er­en­dum on his agenda.

“I’m not on the bal­lot this fall,” Mr. Obama said in a speech last week. “But make no mis­take, th­ese poli­cies are on the bal­lot. Ev­ery sin­gle one of them.”

Repub­li­can Se­nate can­di­dates seized on the remark in cam­paign ads in an ef­fort to link Demo­cratic op­po­nents to Mr. Obama in states such as Ken­tucky and Kansas, where the pres­i­dent is es­pe­cially un­pop­u­lar.

This sum­mer it was Mrs. Clin­ton putting some dis­tance be­tween her­self and her for­mer boss, telling a jour­nal­ist, “Great na­tions need or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ples, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple.” It was a re­buke of what aides pri­vately called the guid­ing phi­los­o­phy of Mr. Obama’s for­eign pol­icy, and her remark was widely viewed as a cal­cu­lated ef­fort to dis­tin­guish her from the un­pop­u­lar pres­i­dent be­fore she launches her own highly an­tic­i­pated pres­i­den­tial bid in 2016.

Mrs. Clin­ton laughed off the episode by say­ing that she and Mr. Obama would mend fences by “hug­ging it out” at a party they both at­tended on Martha’s Vine­yard in Au­gust. They did talk, and hug, at the event.

After leav­ing the White House in 2010, Mr. Orszag, the for­mer OMB head, said of his ten­ure un­der Mr. Obama: “Many of my men­tors warned me that de­spite the ‘no drama’ Obama cam­paign, once in of­fice this White House would in­evitably be like oth­ers — and pos­si­bly worse. And un­for­tu­nately that’s ex­actly what hap­pened.”


Past and present Obama ad­vis­ers Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair­man Gen. Martin E. Dempsey (left), for­mer Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton and for­mer De­fense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panetta have pub­licly aired their griev­ances with Pres­i­dent Obama.

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