Leon Panetta was on board with the Obama administration from the start, first as CIA director, then trading in his spy gear to take over at the Pentagon in 2011.
Now, less than 20 months after leaving the administration, Panetta has written a book about his life, with an emphasis on his time with the administration. His account of the White House in Worthy Fights is unflattering, but you don't need to read the book to know it — Panetta has spent the better part of the last week telling anyone who will listen how bad President Barack Obama is at his job.
The White House is punching back. In a report in Politico, unnamed administration officials accuse Panetta of "trying to rewrite history," saying he's misrepresenting his own positions on some of the most difficult issues faced by the Obama administration.
Obama should have armed the moderate Syrian rebels.
"The real key was, how can we develop a leadership group among the opposition that would be able to take control? And my view was to have leverage to do that, we would have to provide the weapons and the training in order for them to really be willing to work with us in that effort."
He aligns himself with Clinton, again, in an interview with USA Today:
[Obama rejected] 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."
And to CNN, where he skips by, without explanation, a pretty significant caveat:
"I mean, it's understandable," Panetta said, explaining Obama's argument that the weapons could get into the wrong hands. "But at the same time, if we're going to influence the rebel forces, if we're gonna try to establish a moderate element to those forces, so that they can, in fact, provide leadership not only to confront [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad, but also to help us in terms of a political transition, that it was important to provide this kind of assistance in order to have some leverage over what they — they — they were gonna do."
"Hillary was really telling the truth when she said she wanted to arm Syrians, but I don't know anyone who remembers that Panetta was particularly vocal about that. He raised more questions about it than advocated it," an administration official told Politico.
Obama's decision to leave Iraq led to the rise of IS.
Panetta has been especially vocal in criticizing the administration for failing to strike a deal with the Iraqis that would have kept a few thousand American troops on the ground in Baghdad. He thinks this left a power vacuum, exploited by Islamic State extremists, as told to CNN:
"What I'm saying is that [former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki was the kind of leader that you had to constantly put pressure on to direct him in the right direction," he said. "We had, with Iraq -- made a commitment with regards to military assistance, F-16 fighter planes, other types of military aid, that I think if we had said, 'Look, you know, if you're not gonna give us — the agreement that we need to maintain our forces there, you know, we may not provide this kind of assistance."
The White House, he said, needed to do more "to try to push him" ...
"I do think that if we had had a presence there, it might not have created the kind of vacuum that we saw develop in Iraq."
The administration official told Politico that, at the time, Panetta was an ardent defender of the White House's policy, telling a skeptical Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2011, "This is about negotiating with a sovereign country, an independent country. This was about their needs. This is not about us telling them what we are going to do for them or what they are going to have to do for us."
To the extent Panetta did push for an agreement to keep Americans in Iraq, Politico notes that "he spoke of smaller numbers of perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 troops, which would not likely have been enough to stabilize Iraq in the face of ISIL's advances."
Obama should have bombed Syria in 2013 and is doing it wrong now.
Panetta, speaking in New York City, said Obama's decision not to enforce his "red line" — the Syrian government's use or intent to use chemical weapons — cost him his international credibility.
Panetta slammed Obama over his decision not to go after Assad after his regime launched a devastating chemical weapons attack on his own people last summer.
"I don't know what the hell went into that decision," Panetta said. "He should have, instead of walking around the garden, walked into the National Security Council."
"We sent a very terrible message to the world" by not taking action, he added.
Panetta also said the White House shouldn't rule out a ground war in Syria:
Panetta said the U.S. would probably need special forces on the ground in Syria to root out ISIS. "Presidents of the United States need to keep all options on the table. You do not want to tell the enemy what you're not going to do," he said, to applause.
Politico's White House sources again point to Panetta's own indecision on the issue.
Obama ignored evidence about Benghazi.
Panetta said he told Obama the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, were "the work of terrorists" right away. He told Fox News:
On the night of the Benghazi attacks, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he told President Barack Obama that it was the work of terrorists.
Panetta said that he told the president "there was an attack by terrorists" in part two of an interview tonight with Bill O'Reilly ...
O'Reilly pressed Panetta on Susan Rice's statements to the media that Benghazi was a spontaneous attack, not terrorism.
"I thought those talking points, frankly, were not on point [...] there was no question in my mind that it was a terrorist attack," Panetta said.
He then went on MSNBC, where he described an argument he said he had with then-CIA Director David Petraeus.
"I didn't have any specific information, but the fact was that when you bring grenade launchers to a demonstration, there's something else is going on. From the very beginning I sensed that this was an attack, a terrorist attack on our compound. I remember saying to him look, based on the weapons that I see and the nature of the attack, I think this was a terrorist attack. He said look, the information we are getting from intelligence sources is that it really was a demonstration. I said you know, David, I don't see it that way. I think we are dealing with what in effect, with a group of terrorists who took advantage of the situation in order to go after our people."
Panetta attributes his criticism of the administration to a sense of loyalty. A White House official responded to Politico: "That's an incredibly patronizing statement. That isn't loyalty. It's a reinvention of history. It doesn't comport with reality. I can't see how this helps the administration's foreign policy."
Obama has lost the will to lead, and maybe never had it.
From USA Today, on Obama's "most conspicuous weakness," which Panetta describes in the book as "a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause."
He also weighed in with more on Obama's capitulation process:
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.
In response, administration officials pointed Politico to an interview Panetta gave to Charlie Rose in 2013, after he'd left the administration. Panetta said that he found Obama "decisive in the end and he's willing to come down and make a decision."
So what is Panetta's angle here?
Another theme of the press tour has been Clinton's readiness to take on the presidency — Panetta told USA Today she'll be "great" at the job — so, for the 76-year-old, this all shapes up less like a swan song for Obama and more as a job interview.
As for Obama, going by the quotes above, he may be regretting letting Panetta into his White House in the first place.