- The Washington Times
Tuesday, October 7, 2014

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.

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“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 gonna do.”

Specialists on the presidency say it’s unusual, but not unprecedented, for a high-level 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.”

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“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.”

Reluctance and reticence

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 that 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,” 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.”

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