A former defence chief tells all
BARACK OBAMA worries a lot about the unintended consequences of action by America, the last superpower. Yet there is a flip-side to that doctrine, as a former top official makes clear in a new memoir: inaction can leave a vacuum.
In “Worthy Fights”, Leon Panetta, who served Mr Obama as CIA chief from 2009-11 and as defence secretary from 2011-13, describes a “supremely intelligent” president who nonetheless did real harm by vacillating and withholding his full support when it was needed.
Mr Panetta, who is 76, is not the first Obama hand to write a tough memoir. But his account will sting. As a chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, he writes wistfully of his old boss’s willingness to endure political pain to do big deals.
Three failures stand out in Mr Panetta’s account. Controlling Obama aides left him “frustratingly alone” as he tried to defend the Pentagon’s budget from indiscriminate cuts imposed by a feckless Congress. Second, without Mr Obama’s “active advocacy”, a deal to leave a troop presence in Iraq was allowed to “slip away”, though–Mr Panetta believes–American advisers could have helped Iraqi commanders fight the rise of the Islamic State. Finally, Mr Panetta echoes, from the inside, a criticism levelled by foreign powers: that Mr Obama harmed American credibility by failing to enforce a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria.
The problem is not a lack of intellect, Mr Panetta concludes, but of “fire”. Mr Obama–perhaps because he has endured unprecedented attacks on his legitimacy, with opponents questioning his very birthplace–is “reticent” about engaging foes and rallying friends. He too often relies “on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader”.
Washington commentators have called Mr Panetta disloyal. That is missing the point. Mr Obama has two years in which to change. Mr Panetta is trying to tell him how to.
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