USA Today reports: Americans should be braced for a long battle against the brutal terrorist group Islamic State that will test U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
Whenever American politicians and pundits make Churchillian statements about the need for or the testing of American resolve, it’s hard to take these words seriously.
If, as Leon Panetta predicts, the fight against ISIS will require a 30-year war, rather than suggest that this will test American resolve, an honest assessment would surely conclude that the U.S. is incapable of making this kind of commitment.
But more than this, to say that this nation is incapable of making a 30-year commitment of any kind, is a much more damning critique than to point to the limits of U.S. military power.
Another way of describing this deficit in American resolve is to say that as a culture, America lacks the capacity to focus on the interests of the next generation.
The price of wanting to have it all and have it now, is that immediate gratification always comes at someone else’s expense. We steal the future.
If the fight against ISIS or any other grandiose undertaking is engaged in the name of defending the American way of life, I don’t think that’s a worthy cause — indeed, I’d say it’s a huge part of the problem.