WASHINGTON – Disloyal or not, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has delivered a root-and-branch critique of President Barack Obama’s approach to the Middle East.
In his new book, “Worthy Fights,” and in surrounding interviews, Panetta contends that the White House was “eager to rid itself of Iraq”; that in 2011 an agreement to preserve American influence in that country was allowed to “slip away”; that this outcome endangered Iraq’s “fragile stability”; and that he warned the White House this might result in “a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S.” Panetta argues that aiding Syrian rebels in 2012 would have allowed America to “know whether or not there is some moderate element in the rebel forces” and that Obama’s failure to act in 2013 after the Syrian regime crossed his chemical weapons red line “sent a mixed message, not only to [Bashar al-] Assad … but to the world.” During the last two years, Panetta argues, Obama “lost his way” on security issues.
Panetta emerges as a public official who was often right and often ignored. He was the consistent loser in a running, heated, internal administration policy debate on the Middle East – which can happen to someone who serves at the president’s pleasure. But the manner in which he lost raises additional questions about the organization of the White House and the leadership of the president.
Panetta and others have testified to a highly centralized process in which decisions are generally sucked into the White House. This is the continuation of a long-term trend: the concentration of executive authority in the Executive Office of the President (his immediate staff in the National Security Council, the Office of Management and Budget and other White House offices) rather than in government departments (State, Treasury, etc.).
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But the Obama White House seems to have intensified this tendency. Senior figures such as Panetta and Defense Secretary Bob Gates were kept on short leashes by relatively inexperienced members of the White House staff, with the resentment eventually spilling out in memoirs.
This approach is designed to tighten control of the decision-making process and tamp down risk. It might work for an organization of 300 people. But the federal government is vast and the White House staff is small. A river is forced through a water pipe. Since the senior staff can focus on only a few matters at a time, some urgent issues (witness Ebola) get attention late. And a centralized decision-making process (as most executives will tell you) can easily become a bubble. A narrow pipe tends to exclude contrary, inconvenient information.
Panetta also (politely) raises questions about the quality of Obama’s leadership – speaking aloud what many congressional Democrats and administration officials will only whisper to reporters on deep background. While praising Obama’s intelligence and good intentions, Panetta describes a reticent, lawyerly, even passionless leader who has disdain for his opponents without the motivation to engage them.
My own view is not quite so polite (though I do not doubt the intelligence and good intentions part). The foreign policy translation of the leadership traits that Panetta describes is endless deliberation often resulting in grudging, time-limited, scaled-down action (such as in the Afghanistan surge) or a more natural choice to avoid or defer action. For nearly three years in Syria, the administration had no apparent strategic design. American policy was the accumulated result of avoiding decisions that involved risk and hoping that events would take a more favorable turn.
Obama’s decision not to enforce his chemical weapons red line in 2013 should be remembered as the embodiment of his leadership approach. The president followed his natural inclination toward inaction, even at a serious reputational cost to America. He justified it, remarkably, by pointing to American war weariness (an argument that is apparently no longer convenient). And the final decision, by all accounts, was made by two people – the president and his chief of staff – on the South Lawn of the White House.
All presidential leadership traits, of course, are judged in light of outcomes. If the Middle East were at peace, Obama’s lawyerly process might appear brilliant. But the outcome we’ve actually seen is directly related to the reticent, insular leadership style Obama has often exhibited. Problems in the Middle East do not improve like wine with time; they rot like meat.
You go to war, however, with the president you have. And all should hope he finds his way.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.