The dysfunction between President Obama and his military commanders and advisers has long been evident, it just hasn’t been public. The constant vacillations on key policy decisions, the frequent gaffes (that weren’t always meant as such), and the inability to answer decisively what U.S. policy is have been clear signals of the friction going on behind the closed doors of the Oval Office.
Only recently has that frustration spilled out into the public. Earlier this year Robert Gates, who served as President Obama’s Secretary of Defense, published a scathing memoir in which he questioned Obama’s leadership, decision making and foreign policy team.
Gates wrote that he was offended by the “controlling nature of the Obama White House, and its determination to take credit for every good thing that happened while giving none to the career folks in the trenches.” He said that the White House was “by far the most centralized and controlling” of any he had seen “since Richard Nixon.” And Gates expressed special contempt for Vice President Joe Biden, who he called “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
He also chided the administration for breaking promises, alleging that “agreements with the Obama White House were good for only as long as they were politically convenient. And argued that domestic politics factored into “virtually every major national security problem” the president faced.
Of course, Democrats rushed to the president’s aid and were quick to label the book as little more than the grumblings of a disgruntled former Republican who couldn’t coexist with a Democrat-led White House.
But now comes Leon Panetta, who ran for office as a Democrat in the early 70s, became House Budget Committee chairman, served as the director of the Office of Management and Budget under Bill Clinton, was later named Clinton’s chief of staff, and was tapped by Obama to run the CIA before becoming Secretary of Defense. In other words, he’s seen it all during his time in Washington, and he has some harsh words for President Obama.
Panetta’s criticisms are wide ranging.
President Obama often let politics trump policy decisions. For instance, Panetta rightly warned the president against withdrawing troops from Iraq, but the White House pushed back because it was “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.” As a result, the president “lost his way” and created the power vacuum that allowed the rapid rise of ISIS.
The President was also too cautious with exerting American leadership.
The president, Gates writes, held out “hope that perhaps others in the world could step up to the plate and take on these issues.” But that didn’t happen, especially in the case of Syria, which led to a “mixed message, not only to Assad, not only to the Syrians, but to the world.” The lack of clarity has been a boon to our extremist adversaries and demoralizing to moderate rebels in the region.
And President Obama was also too disengaged.
“That is not a failing of ideas or of intellect,” Panetta writes. “He does, however, sometimes lack fire. Too often, in my view, the president relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.
None of the criticisms leveled by Gates or Panetta are new. These distinguished public servants only give face to the complaints that have trickled out from the cracks in the White House. The question, as the Washington Post’s Dan Balz writes, is whether the president and his team will “take to heart the critique from someone who has served both this president and the country loyally for many years.”
Sadly, given the egotistical and thin-skinned responses we’ve seen in the past from this administration, it’s difficult to imagine that they’re ready or able to change.