Promoting the release of his new book, “Worthy Fights,” former Secretary of Defence and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Leon Panetta has embarked on a media tour full of criticism of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.
Panetta’s criticism has been squarely aimed at the president’s handling of the situation in Syria and Iraq over the past few years.
He has painted Obama’s decision not to enforce his own “red line” against the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad as a mistake that hurt U.S. credibility. And he’s said Obama has made decisions that have created a vacuum for the rise of extremists like the group calling itself the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL).
“It was damaging,” Panetta told Yahoo’s Katie Couric of Obama’s decision to draw a “red line” over Assad’s use of chemical weapons and then back away from action.
It “sent a mixed message, not only to Assad, not only to the Syrians, but to the world,” said Panetta, who served as Obama’s CIA director from 2009-11 and secretary of defence from 2011-13. “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.”
Panetta took over as US secretary of defence about six months before the US pulled all of its troops out of Iraq, a move Obama’s critics say is at least partly responsible for the growth of extremism in the country over the next two-plus years. Panetta joined those critics, saying he’s of the opinion that as few as 8,000 to 10,000 could have made a difference.
“I don’t think there’s any question that, had we left 8,000, 10,000 troops there, plus our intelligence operations, plus a strong diplomatic presence, that that would have had an impact,” Panetta told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
In April, ISIS began a sweeping offensive in northern Iraq, gaining swaths of territory and eventually prompting the US to intervene. The US is also striking the group’s targets in Syria, and a coalition of partners is confronting the group along with the US in Iraq.
Panetta placed most of the blame at the feet of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite leader he said was mostly responsible for the governmental dysfunction and rise of sectarianism. But he said the US pulling out troops “created a vacuum” and shifted US attention away from the region while extremist groups were building up their operations.
“I think when we stepped out of Iraq, in many ways, we created this vacuum in which not a lot of attention was paid to what was happening in Iraq or what was happening in Syria with the extremists who were developing a base of operations there,” Panetta told NBC. “That combination, plus obviously not getting all of the intelligence that we should have had on it, I think is what produced the ISIS that we’re confronting today.”
Not the first
Panetta is just the latest former Obama administration official to heap criticism on the president after his or her exit. Both former Secretary of Defence Bob Gates and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have also used their memoirs to condemn elements of Obama’s foreign policy. (Clinton’s point man on Syria, Fred Hof, and former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford have also chimed in.)
In her memoir, “Hard Choices,” Clinton, who is viewed as the likely Democratic frontrunner for president in 2016 if she decides to run, took aim at Obama’s ultimate decision not to arm and train moderate elements of the Syrian opposition.
“[T]he risks of both action and inaction were high. Both choices would bring unintended consequences. The Presidents’ inclination was to stay the present course and not take the significant further step of arming rebels. No one likes to lose a debate, including me. But this was the President’s call and I respected his deliberations and decision,” Clinton wrote.
Earlier this year, Gates reserved his strongest criticism for Vice President Joe Biden, who he said has been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
Like with Clinton and Gates, the White House pushed back on Panetta’s barbs earlier this week. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that “as a general matter,” Obama was “proud” to have Panetta serve in his administration. But Earnest also rebutted Panetta’s criticism and defended Obama, and called into question Panetta’s timing in his book release.
“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,” Earnest said. And I’ll leave it to others to judge the conclusion that Secretary Panetta has reached about sharing his experience.”
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