In their early days, American tabloids often ran stories called “kiss and tell.” These were devoted to sensational confessions and juicy revelations by Hollywood starlets—and sundry other gold-diggers—about their dangerous liaisons with rich and powerful men, including movie moguls. Over the years the genre was adopted by others with some degree of name-recognition, who took to publishing their memoirs in the hope of making a fast buck. Today, in most bookshops, in the West at least, whole shelves are devoted to the genre overlapping with biographies and autobiographies.
[inset_left]Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and PeaceBy Leon Panetta (with Jim Newton) Penguin Press, 512 pagesNew York, 2014[/inset_left]
However, one category of “famous names,” consisting of senior political and military officials, observed a certain restraint in jumping on the gravy train. The idea was that a senior official should wait years before spilling the beans, so to speak. Some antediluvians still stick to that tradition (for example, John Dean, an official in the Nixon White House has just brought out his “revelations,” after more than 40 years). Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and secretary of defense under President Barack Obama, does not belong to that category. A year after he left the administration, he has come out with hefty volume of memoirs written with the help of Los Angeles Times star reporter Jim Newton.
Panetta is not alone in his unusual move. Before him, Hillary Clinton, Obama’s first secretary of state, and defense secretary Robert Gates, had published memoirs, each in her or his own way puncturing the Obama myth. Of the three books, Mrs. Clinton’s is the most cautious in bashing Obama. This may be due to electoral calculations because Mrs. Clinton is clearly preparing to seek the presidency next year and knows she might need Obama’s help. Gates’ book, already reviewed in this paper, is the most outspoken and yet the least surprising because its author, a lifelong Republican, had never been a fan of Obama. That leaves Panetta’s book as being the most outspoken and the most damaging to Obama since the author is an iconic figure of the Democrat Party with five decades of experience from the Jimmy Carter presidency to the Obama era.
As far as I am concerned, the best part of the book is about Panetta’s family history as a narrative of a family of poor Italian peasants arriving in the New World in search of the “American dream.” The poor peasant boy was able to study up to the highest academic level, win a seat in the US Congress, and join the elite of decision-makers, something still rare in many countries including in advanced Western democracies. Panetta also offers a glimpse of how Washington’s byzantine political machine, built around the Congress, the Senate and the White House, works.
The least interesting part is that of Panetta’s brief passage through the CIA, if only because the ex-director has tried to conceal rather than make any revelations. As expected, he makes much of the coincidence of his directorship with the “execution” of Osama Bin Laden in the latter’s hideout in Pakistan. But since Obama has already claimed that laurel for himself, Panetta can’t insist on his own role. After all, the man who shot Liberty Valance in John Ford’s classical Western was not the man who got the credit.
Not surprisingly, the part of the book likely to attract most attention consists of Panetta’s tenure as secretary of defense. He clearly shows that Obama is unfit to be Commander-in-Chief in any normal sense of the term. Indecisive, not to say fickle, Obama is incapable of focusing on any issue long enough to understand it. He is like a butterfly, jumping from one flower to another, each time making some noise and then forgetting the visit.
Panetta also portrays Obama as a man who, being intellectually lazy, compensates the shortcomings in his analyses with a generous dose of rhetorical flourish.
Obama likes to dance around the issue, always hoping that things will sort themselves out. Panetta cites several examples of this, most notably on the burning issues of Syria, Iraq and the Middle East in general. Rightly, he points out that Obama deliberately sabotaged an agreement between Washington and Baghdad to keep a few thousand American troops in Iraq as a vote of confidence in the future of the newly liberated nation. The president did not want Iraq to succeed, perhaps because that would have amounted to a delayed justification of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, something that Obama had opposed from the start.
Panetta is also critical of Obama’s handling of the Syrian crisis, especially his finger-pointing threats against Bashar Al-Assad followed by humiliating retreat. In other words, to a great extent Obama is responsible for the mess the Middle East finds itself in today. Obama was “fully informed” of the rise Jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq but dismissed them as “junior university” activists. He vetoed a joint plan by the Pentagon and the State Department to help build the Syrian opposition’s military capabilities as “pure fantasy.”
There are at least two questions that might trouble us with regard to Panetta’s fascinating and highly readable work. The first is that one might find it surprising that Panetta, like Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, did nothing to persuade or, if necessary, force Obama to change course. They remained loyal to him, repeating his eloquent but hollow clichés, until the very last moment. We must assume that even in private discussions they did not deem it politic to challenge the president and pull him back from the abyss of his errors.
The second question is, perhaps, more important: How do we know that Obama does not have a grand strategy to end the United States’ global leadership which he might regard as unnecessary, unprofitable and ultimately self-defeating? After all, in 2008 half the American electorate voted for him partly because of his promise to fashion a lower profile for the US. And what if, Obama secretly believes that by intervening in international affairs in a big way, the US has done more harm than good?
Obama is not the Manchurian candidate, as his most ardent critics claim. But he remains a mystery. Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and, now, Leon Panetta have recorded aspects of that mystery without getting to the heart of it.