Four of the best years of my life were spent working for California's Jerry Brown, during his first turn as governor. Among my most vivid memories of those days were private sessions, usually late at night, where a few of us staffers would engage with the governor in a lively discussion about certain policies or people. At almost every meeting, after making some especially candid comment, Gov. Brown would suddenly point his finger at one of us and warn: "And don't put that in your book!"
I understood his paranoia. For any politician, it's hard to be totally honest around staffers when chances are one of them is merely collecting material for the next tell-all memoir. But Jerry didn't have to worry about me. I had no intention of writing a book about my experience for one simple reason: I considered it a privilege to serve so close to the governor and felt I would be betraying both my job and the man who gave me that job by spilling secrets.
Clearly, Leon Panetta never felt the same sense of loyalty. In "Worthy Fights," a memoir of his days as CIA director and secretary of defense, out this week, he says President Obama has "kind of lost his way," and sharply criticizes him for his governing style and policy decisions concerning Iraq and Syria, which, perhaps, should not be all that surprising. Obama's not the first president Panetta has dumped on. Then a young Republican, Panetta actually penned his first memoir 43 years ago, after serving as civil-rights chief under President Richard Nixon. In "Bring Us Together," he accused President Nixon of being "blind" to major problems and presiding over a White House with a "lack of principles."
Advertisement - story continues below
But if Panetta was right about Nixon, he's wrong about Obama on at least two counts. First, he joins a growing chorus of Monday morning quarterbacks in Washington, led by Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who blame Obama for the rise of ISIS. If only Obama had left 5,000 residual troops in Iraq as I recommended, Panetta contends, echoing McCain, we wouldn't have to deal with ISIS today. This simply ignores reality.
The truth is, Obama also wanted a reserve of American troops to remain in Iraq, but Prime Minister al-Maliki refused to grant them immunity from local Iraqi law. Without that protection, it was impossible to leave American soldiers in the country. That was not only President Obama's position at the time, it was Panetta's, too – as he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Nov. 15, 2011: "If you're going to engage in those kinds of operations … you absolutely have to have immunities … I was not about to have our troops go there in place without those immunities."
Was Panetta not telling the truth to Congress, or did he change his mind before writing his memoir? In either case, what Panetta, McCain and others seem to forget is that instability in Iraq today is not because Barack Obama didn't leave 5,000 troops there in 2011, but because George W. Bush invaded Iraq in the first place, in a war based on a pack of lies about weapons of mass destruction.
Panetta also criticizes Obama for not arming the moderate opposition in Syria, as he and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advocated. But, again, it's second-guessing at best to conclude that handing out weapons to any untrained, unvetted, unorganized group of Syrians would have prevented the emergence of ISIS. Who knows where those weapons would have ended up? Probably the same place the weapons we gave to a trained, vetted and organized group called the Iraqi military ended up: in the hands of ISIS.
Advertisement - story continues below
If there are questions about the substance of Panetta's criticism-laden memoir, there are also questions about its timing. For Obama, coming as he tries to forge an international coalition against ISIS, it could not be worse. For Republicans, coming just before the midterm elections, it could not be better. House and Senate Republican candidates already quote Panetta as their new anti-Obama poster boy. Fox News has made him a saint.
Of course, Panetta, a dedicated public servant, is free to say anything he wants, anytime he wants. But there was no need to drop the hammer on Obama now. Out of common courtesy, if not loyalty, he should have waited until Obama was out of the White House. Or at least until afterthe midterms. "Et tu, Brute?"