At some point this week, as Leon Panetta gave interview after interview hawking his memoir Worthy Fights, members of the White House staff must have wondered which is the greater threat to President Obama’s political fortunes: ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or the former secretary of defense and CIA director.
“I don’t know what the hell went into that decision,” Panetta said Tuesday night at the 92nd Street Y.
Panetta happened to be slamming Obama’s reversal of an August 2012 declaration that the United States would respond militarily if Syrian president Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people and crossed the notorious “red line”; Obama instead announced that he wouldn’t order air strikes until he heard from Congress--an institution that “has a hard time figuring out what time of day it is,” Panetta said.
But he could have been talking about any number of allegedly wrongheaded moves Obama has made since Panetta retired from the Pentagon in February 2013.
“I think it was one of the most serious failings in terms of foreign policy. Why? Because when you’re Commander-in-chief, President of the United States [and you say] ‘We’re going to draw a red line’,” Panetta continued, “the credibility of the United States is on the line.”
Obama’s temporizing and indecision “sent a very terrible message to the world, not only to the Syrians but to others in the world, the Putins of the world,” Panetta went on, “the kind of message that only influences those who are our enemies in the world.”
Under supportive questioning from his “good friend” Andrea Mitchell, the host of a weekday program on MSNBC and NBC News’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, the 76-year-old Panetta pumped up the volume of his complaints against his former boss in what has amounted to his “I Told You So” book tour.
In other slaps at Obama and his minions--the third White House he’s worked for since Richard Nixon’s presidency--the former California Republican-turned-Democrat pretty much blamed the president for:
*Failing to secure a “status of forces agreement” with the Iraqi leadership that would have permitted eight to ten thousand U.S. troops to remain in Iraq and prevent the chaos which “created a breeding ground for what we now know as ISIS.”
*Passively allowing a dysfunctional Congress to dominate the agenda instead of rolling up his sleeves and engaging with his political adversaries. “Teddy Roosevelt said that when you’re facing a tough decision, the best thing you can do is make the right decision,” Panetta lectured. “The next best thing you can do is make the wrong decision. And the worst thing you can do is nothing at all.” Panetta attributed the last stance to his former boss.
*Letting domestic and international events push him this way and that--or, as Panetta put it, ”governing by crisis instead of by leadership.”
Panetta’s book is only the latest in what must seem to Obama a barrage of ungrateful critiques by former employees--former defense secretary Bob Gates and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton among them--and this week Vice President Joe Biden launched a none-too-veiled counterattack.
“I’m finding that former administration officials, as soon as they leave, write books, which I think is inappropriate,” Biden told an audience at Harvard. “I’m serious. I do think it’s inappropriate. At least give the guy a chance to get out of office.”
Panetta--who served as Bill Clinton’s budget director and White House chief of staff as well as a member of Congress--was possibly returning the favor when he made it loud and clear at the 92nd Street Y that he believed Hillary Clinton would make a better president than Biden.
Biden “is a very decent guy, is capable and bright [and] qualified,” Panetta said tersely.
On the other hand, he was positively effusive about the former first lady and New York senator. “There is no doubt in my mind that she knows what it takes to ensure that that the United States remain the strongest country in the world.” He also drew a contrast between the Clintons and Obama. “Their mentality is they’ve gotta get things done…She understands that you don’t just stand back and give up. You get in and fight for what you want for this country.”