Home » current events, politics, Politics & History

Unwise Counsel

By (December 1, 2014) No Comment

Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace
By Leon Panetta
Penguin, 2014

worthyfightsLeon Panetta’s new memoir has funny anecdotes. There was the time Congresswoman Barbara-Rose Collins changed her mind about Bill Clinton’s crime bill. “I asked what I could do for Collins,” Panetta writes,

and she informed me that Jesus had spoken to her in a dream the night before.

“Really?” I asked calmly, as a few of my colleagues did their best to compose themselves. “What did Jesus say?”

“He told me I should consider supporting the president,” she answered, then added, “I think God will allow me to support this bill if I get a casino for my district.”

“I’m glad to hear that Jesus is flexible,” I responded…

There was the time Senator Bob Kerry snuck out of a controversial budget vote to watch What’s Love Got to Do With It? There was the time Panetta first walked into the office of General David Petraeus. The general, who was not least among his own admirers, had made the room into a personal shrine, and “Every inch of flat space in his office was covered with a military challenge coin he had received. Every bit of wall was covered with a picture of him flying in a helicopter, wearing shades, surveying his battlefield—Iraq, or wherever—below.” Modestly revealing, understatedly humorous, they are the most enjoyable parts of Worthy Fights. There are maybe five such moments.

All of the figures above are retired—disgraced, in Petraeus’ case. That doesn’t seem to be a coincidence. Panetta does not have fun at the expense of contemporaries, even Republicans. In fact, he doesn’t have very much to say about people at all. The men and women who people his book are stock characters without character flaws. No one is corrupt; everyone’s a patriot.

Panetta, for instance, is Italian, Catholic, and brandishes a “salty” tongue. You can’t forget this because he tells you a hundred times. He fancies himself the avuncular, tough but lovable type, and we’re supposed to find this endearing—not dispiriting, which is the word that comes to mind when you realize a man who thinks in tired stereotypes has spent forty years wielding power.

Apparently it’s not so important what a person does, only that they have character, and maybe good intentions. Take John Brennan. He held several top positions in the intelligence community during the second Bush Administration and was originally considered for Panetta’s position as director of the CIA in 2009. President Obama dropped the idea over outside concerns about his record on torture and rendition. As Panetta recalls:

[Brennan] had been considered for the CIA job but withdrew because some senators questioned whether he had effectively countenanced rough interrogations or rendition during the Bush years. In fact, John had opposed some aspects of those policies internally, but the prospect of liberal senators rising up in opposition to Obama’s first nomination to head the CIA was enough to persuade him to back off, clearing the way for my nomination…As we talked, I was struck by Brennan’s lifelong commitment to public service as well as his great abilities….John made clear that my focus had to be on terrorism and that there were, despite the criticisms, dedicated professionals at the CIA who deeply cared about the safety of the country.

Notice how “opposed some aspects” doesn’t answer whether or not he “effectively countenanced” torture and abduction, words Panetta refuses to use here; neither does Brennan’s resume or his “commitment to public service.” The latter, though, provides a convenient hinge for Panetta to segue into the patriotism of the “dedicated professionals” at the CIA, as if the presence of virtuous intention is sufficient grounds to judge the virtue of action.

Once appointed, Panetta objected to the prosecution of any CIA personnel for torture, and he continues to deny that CIA agents went beyond the Bush Administration’s already loose guidelines, documents whose release he fought as well. The documents saw the light, but no one has and ever will be prosecuted for the torture and death of detainees. When Panetta left to run the Pentagon two years later, John Brennan succeeded him.

Just as Panetta writes himself as a cliché, many of the people he writes about become clichés, and most of his ideas are clichés, too. Political memoirs are often badly written, so in a sense this is no surprise. The genre, however, is a deformed species of apologetic literature, and the way in which these former leaders go about justifying themselves is usually revealing in other ways. George W. Bush’s Decision Points was like its author: Manichean and self-righteous, yet fundamentally insecure. Dick Cheney’s memoirs were contemptuous and not a little sinister. Donald Rumsfeld’s were combative and condescending, quarreling in end notes about semantic minutiae. Worthy Fights, like its author, is stultifyingly conventional, cozy in its Washington milieu, grinding on for page after page of received wisdom and unexamined assumptions about people and the role of American power in the world.

It begins at the beginning, when Panetta was born to immigrant parents in California. His early life is idyllic, gauzily rendered, a testament both to the promise of America and the book’s subject. He learns the value of hard work from his parents, discovers “a knack for politics” in his high school’s student government, and enrolls in the ROTC. He remembers being “captivated” by President Eisenhower, for telling reasons. “I didn’t think of him,” Panetta writes, “in terms of political philosophy so much as I admired his style of sturdy, comforting leadership.” During his college years, Panetta admired Kennedy in similar fashion, because “his charisma and charm, his sense of style and panache, his young wife and attractive children–all struck a hopeful chord in the country.”

Kennedy’s famous inaugural address, with its “ask not” call to service, also struck the young Panetta, fusing as it did “country and faith in a way that spoke directly to me.” Two years later his military deferment ran out and Panetta answered that call to service. Among his stateside obligations were rounding up soldiers who went AWOL, some of whom, he relates with dutiful solemnity, “never made it back.” Fifty years later, presiding over a ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial, he spotted “a few familiar [names on the wall], young men who gave their lives to a war that neither they nor their leaders fully understood.” Panetta has nothing else to say about the war and his role in it. He sounds serious (he knows he’s supposed to), but hard reflection and guilt appear beyond his ken.

After the army Panetta went to work for Senator Ted Kuchel, a maverick Republican who was ultimately voted out of office in 1968 because “integrity,” Panetta writes, “mattered more to him than survival. It was a lesson I would not forget.” Presumably, Panetta did not forget that lesson when he ran for Congress years later, and kept it close to his heart as he rose up to be chairman of the House Budget Committee, and carried it still further, into the Clinton Administration, where he was Budget Director and then Chief of Staff. Bland invocations of virtue are all that Panetta makes of his motivations in seeking office and power: he’s that rare Washington creature, utterly devoid of vanity or cunning and motivated to serve by higher callings and fuzzy feelings.

Leon_Panetta_congressional_photo_1977Panetta was a Democrat by the time he ran for Congress. Before that he was (still is, really) a moderate Republican in the Eisenhower mold: “socially liberal, fiscally conservative,” and committed to using American power abroad. “The party would change a great deal in later years,” he writes, “and I would eventually leave it, but I believe I remain faithful to those progressive ideals that once grounded Eisenhower Republicans.” Describing his tenure as Clinton’s Budget Director, he calls himself a “deficit hawk,” a familiar Washington appellation. Like much of what he says, it sounds like a social ideal, and his recollections of the history he helped to shape sound like the dull ring of consensus.

The conventional wisdom among Panetta and his friends is that Bill Clinton’s economic record has been vindicated—not only by the growth of the nineties but by the dispositive failure of the Bush Administration, which culminated in the ‘great recession’ of 2008. As Panetta summarizes, defending the priorities of Clinton’s first budget:

Unemployment was above 7 percent when Clinton became president; it was below 4 percent when he left. Poverty shrunk. Inflation barely budged, even though wages markedly increased. Even the rich, who paid higher income taxes as a result of that first budget, got richer in the 1990s, as investments and the markets skyrocketed. The Dow Jones Industrial average closed at 3,242 on the day Clinton became president; when he left, it was above 10,000….

Certainly no other work of those years had more profound effect on the wellbeing of more Americans.

Democrats still cling to the gospel that George W. Bush alone squandered Clinton’s economic achievements, and this is sort of true: Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were economically disastrous, and his tax cuts harkened back to Reagan-era trickle-down economics, the belief that cutting taxes for the rich will eventually benefit everyone else. But Clinton, coming in the wake of the Reagan and Bush administrations, was fighting a rearguard action to defend a handful of liberal priorities. He was not, as Panetta would have it, a revolutionary.

The historian Sean Wilentz calls the last quarter of the 20th century the “Age of Reagan.” He was referring to the atmosphere of national politics, but if the “great recession” confirmed anything, it was that Reagan set the terms for economic debate, too. Clinton preferred to maintain or raise tax rates for the nation’s wealthiest and balance the federal budget, but he also believed, as Reagan did, that less regulation and furtive Wall Street trading would spur economic growth that would make its way downhill to the rest of the country. Clinton oversaw eight years of blanket deregulation, especially in the telecommunication and financial sectors, but luckily for him the fallout was still hiding down the road.

Panetta ignores the legacy of Clinton’s economy beyond the year 2000 (he simply calls the record “sterling”), but even the statistics he trumpets are misleading. The faux populism of “Even the rich… got richer” suggest an even distribution of the economic benefits, but he does not mention that while productivity increased, real wages, adjusted for inflation, remained stagnant during the Clinton era, as they did for the decade before and the decade after. The rich, though, grew much richer, as they did for the decade before and the decade after.

Panetta has somewhat less to say about social policy during the Clinton era. He seems as concerned with the politics of policy as he is with its results. Welfare reform and three-strikes sentencing laws were good politics. On the former (the odiously named Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act), he believes that,

Clinton’s extraordinary capacity for empathy led him to deplore some of the personal ramifications of welfare—the shame that many felt for having to receive it. He would often argue that those most offended by welfare were those forced to rely on it.

It difficult to fathom how, say, a working mother of three could be offended by welfare. Perhaps he means “shamed,” which is just slightly less condescending. In any case, this was the new consensus among the old white men of Washington. Just as Democrats conceded the wisdom of Republican nostrums for the economy, so they conceded the terms of the debate on the size of government (“the era of big government is over,” Clinton famously said) and welfare, and by implication the idea that welfare is a mainly a problem for minorities who are disinclined to work. (This is, after all, the same Bill Clinton who flew down to Arkansas during the 1992 primaries to preside over the execution of a mentally disabled black man.) It’s true that welfare reform achieved a reduction in welfare rolls, but most of those who left the program remained in poverty. And the American economy kept giving: the families who were thrown off the welfare rolls are the same families who lost the most in the great recession. Or, as Panetta puts it, speaking at great remove from society he once helped to run, “President Clinton defied some of his own party’s most enduring orthodoxy—from welfare to free trade to crime—and the result was a stronger economy and a new vision for politics.”

The last quote comes near the end of the book, and is meant to compare Clinton favorably to Barack Obama. Worthy Fights has gotten a lot of press for its criticisms of the President. Carefully timed leaks of choice excerpts seeded the ground for a book tour and scores of television interviews, where Panetta held forth on the shortcomings of Obama’s style: in the main, a failure to lead and a disdain for the flesh-pressing of everyday politics.

There was a silly debate in the mainstream press about whether Panetta should be voicing any dissent at all. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post thought “this level of disloyalty was stunning,” while Ron Fournier echoed Dan Balz in calling the book a “public service,” but none of them are making sense. Dissent is not just appropriate but necessary to check government power, and the sooner it comes the better, but dissent is only a “public service” if the dissenter has something valuable to say, and Panetta does not.

What he does have is a limp hash of familiar beltway truisms: Obama should have left a residual force in Iraq after 2011, should have armed the Syrian rebels sooner, should have reached out to Congress to break the legislative gridlock that has plagued the capitol for the last six years.

Yet Obama himself avoids being victimized by the author’s two-dimensional style. Panetta describes him as someone who too often “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader,” but the president remains an elusive figure, as he is for many Americans. One gets the sense that they speak different languages, and that Panetta never got as much access as he wished.

Perhaps that is what lies at the root of the tired complaint that Obama isn’t friendly enough to Congress. Panetta has a lot of friends in both houses, and this is what they say to each other and to the press. But it is difficult to see how a friendlier president could have encouraged the Republicans to compromise on immigration, health care, or the debt ceiling, when the GOP openly declared before he even took office that they were going to oppose any and every thing he did. Even the stimulus package, which Obama grudgingly loaded with tax cuts, received no Republican votes.

It’s also difficult to see, given the self-interested and shortsighted nature of the politicians of the Republican Party, how they might have dealt any other way with the rise of the Tea Party, which receives cursory attention from Panetta. The grassroots hatred for Obama is somewhat similar to the inchoate rage which plagued Clinton (who was accused of dozens of crimes, including murder), but the difference is that in the 90’s the Republicans could claim with some justice that they had forced concessions in the terms of debate—they could claim a cultural victory. But demographics leave no doubt as to where America is heading today: it is becoming a less white and more tolerant society, and Obama, with his brown skin and Muslim name, has become change’s avatar. Obama didn’t negotiate well with Republicans because he wasn’t Clinton, as Panetta implies; he didn’t negotiate well because there was no one to talk to.

Obama’s passivity takes the blame for the chaos in Iraq and Syria, too. According to Panetta,

we should not undermine the progress we’d made by simply walking away… I returned from Iraq and Afghanistan convinced that we had made strong progress in both places, and that we could leave those countries in better shape than we found them—if only we could consolidate our gains, strengthen the capabilities of their governments, and maintain a sizable force in both places to continue to train and advise the militaries.

This is as specific as Panetta thinks he should be. He believes Obama never really wanted to negotiate a “sizable” residual force in Iraq, and chose to drop the idea at the first sign of resistance from the Iraqi government. Here Panetta may have a point, but for him the logic of remaining in Iraq, arming the Syrian rebels, and projecting force in general, turns on vague notions like resolve, strength, and credibility. He does not engage, to take but one example, with the idea that staying in Iraq or arming the Syrian rebels could make things worse. Indeed, some of the few caches of weapons that America has transferred to “moderate” Syrian rebels have already fallen into the hands of ISIS, and the American-led bombing campaign seems to be recruiting as many terrorists as it is killing.

The “war on terrorism” allows Panetta to tie all of his criticisms together at the end and boil everything down, lecture-circuit style, to one simple problem. America has forgotten how to lead:

Those who maintain that [the current] divisions are historic do so partly as an excuse. How can we be held responsible for inaction, they ask, when the country is divided as never before. The answer: The people of this country are more united than it seems on what is needed to secure their families and give their children a better life. It is the responsibility of leaders to lead America in that direction, not to score points or win reelection.

Because without leadership, there is crisis…

Rediscovering our gift for leadership won’t be simple… but that’s no excuse for trying.

Obama is “governing by crisis” now, as Panetta often says in interviews, but it is clear that what Panetta believes America is missing is not so much a coherent strategy but the appearance of strength: make serious threats to Russia and Iran, give more arms to rebels in Syria, send more troops into Iraq and Afghanistan, put more drones in the air.

This narrative of dithering is the conventional wisdom about President Obama in Washington today among most Democrats and Republicans, neocons and liberals, progressives and conservatives. But there is another interpretation of Obama’s long list of sins: his reluctance to engage in political niceties; his initial unwillingness to intervene in Libya, and then Syria, and now Iraq again; his tepid (as opposed to non-existent) criticism of Israel’s government; his desire to make a deal with Iran; his willingness to incorporate Republican ideas into his proposals; his decision to negotiate as the GOP held the economy hostage—all the things D.C. old-timers criticize him for doing.

As Panetta ruefully notes, Obama seemed determined to withdraw completely from Iraq, and seems to have strongly considered doing the same in Afghanistan. He appeared reluctant to enforce the ultimatum he belatedly delivered to Syria’s dictator, and before the rise of ISIS, showed little interest in arming Syria’s rebels. He displayed a similar reluctance to intervene in the bloody convulsions in Libya. In every conflict mentioned above, Obama’s first impulse seemed to be caution. In every case he gave in, and gave as little as he could, by increments, until he was in far deeper than he had ever intended to be. Sure enough, very little good has come of any of it.

Panetta can’t make sense of this pattern, of Obama’s willingness to do almost anything to keep the United States from committing ground troops to combat. It is hard not to see a thwarted idealism in the president, a man who came to office promising to extricate America from perpetual conflict and willing negotiate with the Republican party. It takes a massive, self-justifying ego to think you should lead the most powerful country in history, and it’s hard to fathom the notion that Obama never believed any of his rhetoric, that he never got caught up in the hopeful appeal that won him two elections. Panetta simply thinks Obama is not decisive. But what Obama really seems to lack is the will to incur the political costs of ignoring the wise old men of the capitol, the beltway chatter and the minatory warnings from his generals. So he bargains for time with bombing sorties and terrifying drone campaigns.


Lost in the media coverage of Panetta’s book is an important qualifier that Panetta frequently appends to his criticisms. Asked on Face the Nation about Obama’s recent air campaign against ISIS, Panetta said,

This is a strategy that is going to demand a lot of patience. I think the President has taken the right steps. We have got troops to try to help the Iraqis get their act together in terms of their security force. We are conducting these airstrikes. We are trying to train and arm the rebels in Syria. We have built a coalition force. But all of this requires great leadership on the part of the United States.

The president, in other words, is finally seeing the light: Obama recently announced another deployment of “non-combat” troops to Iraq, expanded the remit of U.S. forces still stationed in Afghanistan, and made a commitment to fund and arm the “moderate” elements of the Syrian resistance. These are policies that Panetta, Hillary Clinton (whom Panetta lauds effusively in his book), many of the president’s own advisers, and the majority of Congress have long argued for.

As the “war on terror” enters its fourteenth year, the battlefield continues to expand and “terror” shows no signs of conceding. The United States is bombing Islamic militants in at least six countries and carrying out covert operations in more. The front-runners for the presidential elections in 2016 promise to widen and intensify the conflict, to get things done in Congress, to demonstrate the “strength” and “leadership” that Panetta calls for at the end of his book. Six years into the Obama presidency, the rote logic of consensus, and the lazy assumptions of people like Leon Panetta, have maintained their chokehold on politics and policy. They are likely to do so for a very long time.

Greg Waldmann is the Editor-in-chief of Open Letters Monthly, and a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.