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Trudy Rubin: Obama, heed Panetta’s message

Leon Panetta has taken a lot of heat for publicly dumping on Barack Obama’s foreign policy while the president is still in the White House.

Where’s his loyalty? the critics ask, as Panetta makes the publicity rounds for his new memoir, “Worthy Fights,” which says tough things about Obama’s past policies on Syria and Iraq. Shouldn’t Panetta, who served as CIA director and defense secretary during Obama’s first term, have zipped his lip until his former boss left office?

Absolutely not.

Panetta – a child of Italian immigrants who believes deeply in America’s promise – is trying to nudge Obama to adopt a more engaged style of governing; he rightly believes this is the only way Obama can break through the paralysis in Washington and exert more forceful foreign policy leadership in the future.

So let us hope: from Panetta’s lips to Obama’s ear.

“We are living in a world more dangerous than I’ve seen in 50 years,” Panetta told political analyst Dick Polman in a recent book conversation at the Free Library of Philadelphia. “Obama really thought he’d like to turn a page after 10, 11, 12 years of war. The problem is that if the U.S. isn’t leading the world, no one else will.”

I sat down with Panetta at the library to discuss his thoughts on Obama’s mistakes in Syria and Iraq and how Obama should lead from here on in.

Iraq. Panetta thinks the United States could and should have gotten an agreement with former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to keep a limited troop presence in the country. He and his team thought “we could work out some kind of diplomatic notes,” or memorandum of understanding (MOU), that would have permitted U.S. troops to remain (under a status-of-forces agreement signed in 2008).

An MOU would have avoided the necessity of obtaining a vote of approval from the Iraqi parliament, which Maliki said was politically impossible. Panetta says the Pentagon brass would have been satisfied with a diplomatic solution, but the White House insisted that a parliamentary vote was necessary to guarantee immunity for U.S. troops.

As Panetta pointed out, Maliki and U.S. officials worked out an arrangement to cover about 1,400 U.S. troops now in Iraq without a vote. “That indicates there was a possibility, with enough pressure (in 2011), we could have worked out that kind of approach,” he said. He added that his experience with Maliki, both as CIA director and as secretary of defense, was that the Iraqi leader eventually came around “if you came at him at the highest levels, meeting with him, pressuring him.”

Obama took a different approach. “I think from the beginning he made a decision he wasn’t going to do what George Bush did,” Panetta said, meaning to talk every week with Maliki. Panetta also felt that White House staff never mounted “the kind of full-court press that could have produced a different result.”

Panetta believes deeply that a continued U.S. troop presence in Iraq, say of 10,000 troops, would have made a critical difference, keeping the pressure on Maliki to retain Sunni officials and tribal leaders in government, rather than alienating them, which pushed some into the arms of ISIS. It could also have prevented Maliki from replacing competent generals with political hacks, who fled in the face of the ISIS assault.

Syria. In the summer of 2012, Panetta, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA chief David Petraeus, and the chairman of the joint chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, all recommended that the United States arm and train vetted rebel groups. Obama declined.

“David Petraeus argued at the time,” said Panetta, “that they had identified moderate elements they thought they could train and equip. I felt it was important to try to influence what was happening there in order to make a difference. Otherwise, chaos would reign.”

Ironically, Obama is trying to do now what he refused to do then, when there were many secular and senior Syrian army officers who had defected and might have provided leadership. “It would have been far better to have started this two years ago,” says Panetta.

The most important lessons Panetta draws concern future presidential leadership – and the need for Obama to engage on a region he wanted to avoid. “This cannot be something which (Obama) pays attention to . . . periodically,” says Panetta. “It will have to be very concentrated leadership in which he focuses on this issue every day as to what happens and what the strategy is.”

Panetta also stressed that ISIS is a very resilient enemy, “which means we have to be smart enough and flexible enough to adjust our strategy.” He believes the president should pay attention to the advice of his secretaries of state and defense and Dempsey (an indirect dig at Obama’s tendency to draw foreign policy advice mainly from White House advisers).

“We are in a limited war against an unlimited enemy,” Panetta said, which will require a long-term strategy and a president who communicates fully and effectively with the public and Congress.

The message of Panetta’s critique is clear: America needs a leader who is ready to fight for a foreign policy he believes in. The White House may take offense, but that’s a message Obama needs to hear.

Trudy Rubin’s email is trubin@phillynews.com.

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