Former Obama Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is charging that stronger White House leadership in negotiations with the Iraqi government might have prevented the rise of the Islamic State.
Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Nov. 16, 2013. (AFP/Frederic J. Brown)
Panetta wrote in his forthcoming book that he expressed “frustration” in describing debates between the White House, which he described as “eager to rid itself of Iraq,” and officials with the departments of State and Defense who wanted to leave a security force in the country for a longer period of time.
“Officials there seemed content to endorse an agreement if State and Defense could reach one, but without the president’s active advocacy, al-Maliki was allowed to slip away,” Panetta says in the book, “Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace,” written with Jim Newton.
An excerpt from the book was published on Time magazine's website ahead of its release next week.
Panetta, who started in the Obama administration as the director of the CIA, writes in the book that “it was clear to me and many others that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability then barely holding Iraq together.”
Obama administration officials have blamed former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for not agreeing to provide legal protection to the U.S. military that remained behind for security and training. The administration also blamed Maliki for fomenting sectarianism.
Panetta said both counts were true of al-Maliki, but he said the U.S. had plenty of leverage to use in negotiating a status of forces agreement to give legal protections to the U.S. soldiers.
“My fear, as I voiced to the president and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S.,” Panetta says.
Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy advocated directly with the White House for a residual force in Iraq, which Panetta said the Joint Chiefs also preferred.
“But the president’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated,” Panetta writes. “Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”
Panetta is the second former Obama defense secretary to write a memoir critical of the administration. Robert Gates, a Republican who ran the Pentagon overlapping the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of the Obama administration, was critical on several fronts in his book, "Duty," earlier this year.
But this criticism could prove more stinging given Panetta is a Democrat with a political past, having been elected to the U.S. House before serving as President Bill Clinton’s budget director and White House chief of staff.
“To my frustration, the White House coordinated the negotiations but never really led them,” he writes, later adding: “The deal never materialized. To this day, I believe that a small U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with Al Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country.”
The excerpt concludes: “In my view, the ISIS offensive in 2014 greatly increases the risk that Iraq will become Al Qaeda’s next safe haven. That is exactly what it had in Afghanistan pre-9/11. After all we have done to decimate Al Qaeda’s senior leadership and its core, those efforts will be for naught if we allow it to rebuild a base of operations in the Middle East.”