Americans should be braced for a long battle against the brutal terrorist group Islamic State that will test US resolve -- and the leadership of the commander in chief, says Leon Panetta, who headed the CIA and then the Pentagon as Al Qaeda was weakened and Osama bin Laden killed. "I think we're looking at kind of a 30-year war," he says, one that will have to extend beyond Islamic State to include emerging threats in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere.
Panetta: '30-year War' and a Leadership Test for Obama Susan Page / USA TODAY
CARMEL VALLEY, Calif. (October 6, 2014) -- Americans should be braced for a long battle against the brutal terrorist group Islamic State that will test US resolve -- and the leadership of the commander in chief, says Leon Panetta, who headed the CIA and then the Pentagon as Al Qaeda was weakened and Osama bin Laden killed.
"I think we're looking at kind of a 30-year war," he says, one that will have to extend beyond Islamic State to include emerging threats in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere.
In his first interview about his new book, Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace, Panetta argues that decisions made by President Obama over the past three years have made that battle more difficult -- an explosive assessment by a respected policymaker of the president he served.
Even before it's published Tuesday by Penguin Press, the 512-page book has provoked rebukes at the State Department and by Vice President Biden. But Panetta says he was determined to write a book that was "honest," including his high regard for the president on some fronts and his deep concern about his leadership on others.
In an interview at his home with Capital Download, USA TODAY's video newsmaker series, Panetta says Obama erred:
• By not pushing the Iraqi government harder to allow a residual US force to remain when troops withdrew in 2011, a deal he says could have been negotiated with more effort. That "created a vacuum in terms of the ability of that country to better protect itself, and it's out of that vacuum that ISIS began to breed." Islamic State also is known as ISIS and ISIL.
• By rejecting the advice of top aides -- including Panetta and then-secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- to begin arming Syrian rebels in 2012. If the US had done so, "I do think we would be in a better position to kind of know whether or not there is some moderate element in the rebel forces that are confronting (Syrian President Bashar) Assad."
• By warning Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own people, then failing to act when that "red line" was crossed in 2013. Before ordering airstrikes, Obama said he wanted to seek congressional authorization, which predictably didn't happen.
The reversal cost the United States credibility then and is complicating efforts to enlist international allies now to join a coalition against the Islamic State, Panetta says. "There's a little question mark to, is the United States going to stick this out? Is the United States going to be there when we need them?"
Showing leadership in the fight against ISIS is an opportunity "to repair the damage," he says. He says it's also a chance for Obama to get a fresh start after having "lost his way."
On Friday, the terrorist group released a video that showed the beheading of a fourth Westerner, British aid worker Alan Henning, and threatened to execute American hostage Abdul-Rahman (formerly Peter) Kassig next.
Panetta's behind-the-scenes account of events during Obama's first term, including the internal debate over helping Syrian rebels, is consistent with those in memoirs published this year by Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, whom Panetta succeeded as Defense secretary.
But Panetta's portrait of Obama is more sharply drawn and explicitly critical.
He praises the president for "his intelligence, his convictions, and his determination to do what was best for the country." He notes that Obama has faced bitter opposition, especially from congressional Republicans. He credits him with scoring significant progress in fighting terrorism and righting the economy.
In the book's final chapter, however, he writes that Obama's "most conspicuous weakness" is "a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause." Too often, he "relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader." On occasion, he "avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities."
In the interview, Panetta says he thinks Obama "gets so discouraged by the process" that he sometimes stops fighting.
An example: The budget deal that included automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. Even though nearly everyone agreed privately that they were bad policy, Panetta says he found himself a lonely figure actively opposing them by lobbying Congress and making speeches warning that the Pentagon cuts would harm national security.
The book was the target of a veiled rebuke Thursday by Biden. "I'm finding that former administration officials, as soon as they leave write books, which I think is inappropriate," Biden told students at Harvard. "At least give the guy a chance to get out of office."
The vice president disputed whether it would have made a difference if US aid had been given earlier to Syrian rebels, and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki denied that a deal to allow a residual force in Iraq could have been reached in the face of resistance by then-prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
It is surely no surprise to Panetta that his assessment is drawing White House ire. He provides fodder for the blistering partisan critiques of Obama's leadership by Republicans, and he is considerably more candid about his misgivings than is typical in memoirs by former officials about the presidents they served, especially while they are still in office.
"Look, I've been a guy who's always been honest," Panetta says. "I've been honest in politics, honest with the people that I deal with. I've been a straight talker. Some people like it; some people don't like it. But I wasn't going to write a book that kind of didn't express what I thought was the case."
Panetta also argues that there is time for Obama to change tactics and recover -- and that it is imperative he do so.
Congressional leaders, Democratic and Republican, share the blame for the dysfunctional state of affairs in Washington, he says, but he adds they might well respond to stronger and more engaged presidential leadership.
"He's going to have to jump in the ring and fight it out for the next two years," Panetta says. "My hope is that the president, recognizing that we are at a kind of critical point in his administration, will take the bit in his teeth and will say, 'We have got to solve these problems."
'THE AMERICAN STORY'
Panetta's resume gives his words weight. He has held top jobs in Congress and the executive branch, dealing with both domestic and national security issues, and emerged with his reputation for competence and good humor intact.
"In many ways, my story is the American story," he says when asked why he wrote the memoir. "I'm the son of Italian immigrants, and they really believed that by coming to this country they could give their children a better life, and the reality is, I kind of lived that life."
At first a moderate Republican, he worked in the Nixon administration before being pushed out after aggressively enforcing civil rights laws. He changed parties, was elected to nine terms in the House from California as a Democrat and served as chairman of the House Budget Committee. Clinton appointed him Budget director, then moved him to White House chief of staff to impose order in what had been a chaotic operation. After the 2008 election, Obama tapped him as CIA director, then named him to head the Pentagon.
At the end of Obama's first term, Panetta headed home to California, where he and his wife, Sylvia, have founded the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, based at California State University-Monterey Bay -- an institution he helped establish in his congressional district when Fort Ord closed.
Now 76, he lives in the comfortable, casual house his father built in 1948, on a 12-acre ranch dotted with the walnut and elm trees planted then. In one corner of the living room is the Baldwin grand piano his parents gave him for his 12th birthday. (His musical prowess raised his mother's hopes that he would become a concert pianist, though his father at one point advised dentistry as a career.) Framed family photos are everywhere.
His 12-year-old golden retriever, Bravo, trails him indoors and out.
Sitting in the living room, Panetta briefly assesses the legacies of the three presidents he has served.
For Richard Nixon, history will "probably be a little kinder to him later on," given his achievements in opening relations with China, protecting the environment and other issues. "But the problem is that once a president resigns because of scandal, I think that'll always darken his view in history."
For Bill Clinton, history will remember that he "always kept fighting back" to get things done, even while battling impeachment. "Whether it was Democrats or Republicans, you know, he found a way to be able to do some things, to be able to accomplish some things that were important."
He makes a similar observation about Hillary Clinton, saying she would be a "great" president. "One thing about the Clintons is, they want to get it done," he says, in words that draw an implicit contrast with Obama. "When it comes to being president of the United States, it's one thing to talk a good game. It's another thing to deliver, to make things happen."
And Barack Obama's legacy?
"We are at a point where I think the jury is still out," Panetta says. "For the first four years, and the time I spent there, I thought he was a strong leader on security issues. ... But these last two years I think he kind of lost his way. You know, it's been a mixed message, a little ambivalence in trying to approach these issues and try to clarify what the role of this country is all about.
"He may have found himself again with regards to this ISIS crisis. I hope that's the case. And if he's willing to roll up his sleeves and engage with Congress in taking on some of these other issues, as I said I think he can establish a very strong legacy as president. I think these next 2 1/2 years will tell us an awful lot about what history has to say about the Obama administration."
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