When Harry Truman apocryphally said, “if you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog” he might have had someone like Leon Panetta in mind. Not content with letting Republicans pummel his old boss, President Obama’s former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense released a new memoir this week that attacks Obama for “losing his way” on foreign policy, for sending “mixed messages” to allies and enemies alike and for failing to use military force more promiscuously in protecting US interests in the Middle East.
There is more here, however, than just DC-style situational loyalty. In Panetta’s obsessive focus on the politics of national security, his fetishization of military force and his utter lack of strategic vision, what is also evident is the one-dimensional foreign policy thinking that so dominates Washington—and which Panetta has long embodied.
None of this should come as a surprise. When Panetta became CIA director in 2009, he was demonstrably unqualified for the job. He had no background in foreign policy, intelligence or national security. His most apparent and highly-touted skill was that he understood his way around bureaucratic Washington.
At both Langley and the Pentagon he became a forceful advocate for—or, some might say, bureaucratic captive of—the agencies he ran. As CIA Director he pushed back on efforts to expose the agency’s illegal activities during the Bush Administration —in particular, the use of torture (which he had once decried).
At DoD he ran around with his hair practically on fire denouncing cuts to the defense budget in out-sized, apocalyptic terms. The “catastrophic,” “draconian” cuts would initiate a “doomsday mechanism” and “invite aggression,” he claimed and always without specific examples. Ironically, when Panetta was chairman of the House Budget Committee in the early 1990s, he took the exact opposite position and pushed for huge cuts to the defense budget.
For Panetta, principles appear to be determined by wherever he happens to be sitting at any given moment.
However, his irresponsible threat-mongering and his constant stream of gaffes and misstatements (like the claim that the US was in Iraq because of 9/11 and that the war was worth it) masked a stunningly narrow and parochial foreign policy vision. It wasn’t just that Panetta was saying crazy things. As his new memoir shows, he apparently believed them.
Take, for example, Panetta’s now oft-repeated position on troop withdrawals from Iraq in 2011, a move that as Secretary of Defense he praised but now three years later labels a failure. While Panetta acknowledges that the adamant refusal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to maintain a troop presence in Iraq was a key impediment, he has a brilliant after-the-fact solution: the US should have just turned up the heat on Maliki.
According to Panetta, the US could have simply said that we would withdraw both reconstruction and military aid to Iraq until Maliki bent to America’s will. That Panetta thinks that threatening and demeaning the Iraqi leader was a worthy step to make in order to maintain a US force that the Iraqis clearly didn’t want is remarkably short-sighted. Panetta seems utterly uninterested in the question of what happens if Maliki called the US bluff or, if he said yes, how would that affect the long-term relationship between the US and Iraq. For Panetta, the only thing that mattered in 2011 was maintaining a residual US military force in the country, which he says—without much in the way of evidence—would have helped prevent the rise of ISIS.
Panetta is fond of such retrospective certainty. He asserts that if the US had backed Syrian rebels militarily it would have built up a moderate counter-weight to ISIS. He also labels the president’s failure to use force against Syria when it crossed Obama’s “redline” and used chemical weapons against his own people a damaging “blow to American credibility.” According to Panetta, “the power of the United States rests on its word, and clear signals are important both to deter adventurism and to reassure allies that we can be counted on.” The implication is that if the US had merely bombed Assad, those clear signals would have been sent and received by enemies and allies alike.
Of less concern to Panetta are not only the potential negative consequences from using force but also the actual diplomatic agreement negotiated by the US to completely destroy all of Syria’s chemical weapons. While he gives a perfunctory nod to this “important accomplishment” in his memoir, he complains that “hesitation and half-steps have consequences.”
As for what those specific consequences are, other than vague platitudes about credibility and signals: your guess is as good as mine. For Panetta, the act of using force is seemingly more important than the actual tangible result achieved by using force.
Nowhere is this mindset of war as a presentational tool more evident than Panetta’s discussion of the 2009 surge in Afghanistan. While Panetta says the focus on the Taliban, rather than al Qaeda, was misplaced and he complains that the military actively tried to box in Obama on troop levels … he says that there was no reason for the decision on the surge to have taken so long.
“For him to defy his military advisers on a matter so central to the success of his foreign policy and so early in his presidency would have represented an almost impossible risk,” says Panetta. Translation: the surge was a bad idea, but the politics of national security demanded that Obama send American troops to fight a war that Panetta in his memoir calls “not a ringing success.”
Ironically, in his public appearances Panetta has been forcefully stating that a commander-in-chief must keep all options on the table—an implicit criticism of Obama’s refusal to put troops on the ground to fight ISIS. But in Afghanistan, the one option that Panetta appears to believe we should not have had on the table was defying the military and not surging, which is nothing if not an interesting twist on the principle of civilian control of the military. For Panetta, “all options” means only one thing—use of force.
Here, Panetta could not be more explicit. He says President Obama was a “strong leader on security issues” in his first term and cites as evidence Obama’s support for CIA military operations and the fact that he was “tough on terrorism.”
Now, however, Panetta believes that the president has “lost his way” because since then because he’s shown greater “ambivalence” about using military force. If Obama is willing to “roll up his sleeves” on ISIS he can restore that strong legacy. For Panetta, might always equals right.
Panetta likes to present himself an “honest,” “straight-talking,” aw-shucks kind of guy—the son of Italian immigrants who has lived the American Dream. But in reality he is the quintessential example of how Washington corrupts. Principles are conditional and where you sit is where you stand; politics trumps policy, even bad policy that puts American lives at risk; military force is a magic elixir not only in solving international problems but in burnishing one’s public image (though it appears for Panetta that this mainly applies to Democrats); it’s also the most important criteria in how you judge a president’s national security decision-making and his or her requisite strength.
During a recent interview on CNN, Panetta took a break from bashing the president who appointed him to two Cabinet offices to offer one of those platitudes that long-time DC denizens love to state without a moment of introspection. “Logic doesn’t work in Washington,” he said.
You can say that again.
By: Michael Cohen, The Daily Beast, October 8, 2014
There are few things the political press loves more than an intra-party squabble, so it wasn’t surprising that when Hillary Clinton gave an interview to The Atlantic about foreign policy that offered something less than fulsome support for everything Barack Obama has done, it got characterized as a stinging rebuke. The Post’s Chris Cillizza described her “slamming” Obama. The New York Times said the “veneer of unity…shattered.” “Hillary slams Obama for ‘stupid’ foreign policy,” said an absurdly misleading New York Post headline (she never called anything Obama did “stupid”).
If you actually read the interview, you’ll see that Clinton actually didn’t “slam” Obama (even Jeffrey Goldberg, who conducted the interview, overstates the disagreement in his report on it). She was careful not to explicitly criticize the administration, even when she was articulating positions that differed from what Barack Obama might believe. But there were clear indications that Clinton will be staking out a more hawkish foreign policy than the president she served as Secretary of State, on issues like Iran and Syria.
That isn’t because of some cynical calculation, or because she wants to “distance” herself from a president whose popularity is currently mediocre at best. It’s because that’s what she sincerely believes. If people didn’t have such short memories, they wouldn’t be surprised by it. Hillary Clinton has always been a liberal on social and economic issues, but much more of a moderate (or even a conservative) when it comes to foreign policy.
From the moment Clinton began forging her own distinct political identity in her run for Senate in 2000, it was clear she was a hawk on foreign affairs and defense, placing herself in the right-leaning half of the Democratic party. She wasn’t looking to slash military spending or avoid foreign interventions. Look at how the National Journal ranked her on foreign affairs during her time in the Senate (the NJ rankings are idiosyncratic, but they have the benefit of examining foreign affairs distinct from other issues):
- 2001: 28th most liberal senator
- 2002: 28th most liberal
- 2003: 15th most liberal
- 2004: 42nd most liberal
- 2005: 30th most liberal
- 2006: 36th most liberal
- 2007: 19th most liberal
- 2008: 40th most liberal
When Clinton ran for president in 2008, the primary issue distinction between her and Barack Obama was that she had supported the Iraq War, while he had opposed it. There was no issue that made more of a difference in the primaries. Even as Secretary of State, while carrying out the President’s policies, in private she counseled more aggressive moves. As Michael Crowley wrote in January, “As Secretary of State, Clinton backed a bold escalation of the Afghanistan war. She pressed Obama to arm the Syrian rebels, and later endorsed air strikes against the Assad regime. She backed intervention in Libya, and her State Department helped enable Obama’s expansion of lethal drone strikes. In fact, Clinton may have been the administration’s most reliable advocate for military action.”
As we move toward the campaign, it’s likely that liberals are going to start finding reasons to be displeased with Clinton on foreign policy. In the Atlantic interview, for instance, they discuss the Gaza situation at some length, and she practically sounds like a spokesperson for the Netanyahu government, putting all the blame for the conflict and all the casualties squarely on Hamas, while refusing repeated opportunities to say Israel has done anything wrong at all.
Over the next two years there will probably be more situations in which Clinton winds up to the right of the median Democratic voter. That would be more of a political problem if she had a strong primary opponent positioned to her left who could provide a vehicle for whatever dissatisfaction the Democratic base might be feeling. But at the moment, there is no such opponent. Her dominance of the field may give her more latitude on foreign affairs — not to move to the right, but to be where she always was. Neither Democrats nor anyone else can say they didn’t see it coming.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, August 12, 2014
When George W. Bush was inaugurated president of the United States on January 20, 2001, the unemployment rate stood at 2.4 percent. By the time Dubya completed his second term in office on January 19, 2009, the unemployment rate at risen to 7 percent. When Dubya took office in 2001, he was left with a budget surplus of $127.3 billion. When he completed his second term, he left a budget deficit of $1.4 trillion. The US national debt was $5.7 trillion on January 19, 2001. After eight years of Dubya, the debt was $10.6 trillion.
The US was at peace on January 20, 2001. After eight years of Dubya, the US was involved in two overseas wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that had cost US taxpayers nearly $1 trillion. The bigger of the two — Iraq — was launched based on mistaken, manipulated, or concocted information (or some combination of the three), and had resulted in the deaths of approximately 4,200 US military personnel and somewhere between 100,000 to 500,000 Iraqi civilians.
America’s image abroad took a serious plunge under Dubya, primarily because of Iraq. International surveys of tens of thousands of people taken by the Pew Research Center’s Pew Global Attitudes Project during those years consistently found extremely low opinions of Dubya and the US due to the war in Iraq, particularly among Muslims. The revelations of atrocities committed by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison and abuses by contracted security firms like Blackwater certainly didn’t help. Oh, and the little matter of holding prisoners at Guantanamo and… more torture.
Both wars were carried out in retaliation for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The attacks, which took place during Dubya’s first year, resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people and at least $10 billion in material damage.
A muscular foreign policy? Well, yeah… if you consider taking on third-rate powers like Iraq and Afghanistan “muscular.” Dubya couldn’t do much against Russia when it invaded Georgia in 2008, nor against Iran’s nuclear program. Also impotent to prevent the military rise of China. Some things just can’t be helped — not even if you’re a superpower.
The stock market? When Dubya took office in 2001, the Dow Jones stood at $10,587.59, the S&P 500 at $1,342.54, the NASDAQ at $2,770.38. Eight years later, the Dow was at $7,949.09, the S&P at $805.22, and the NASDAQ at $1,440.86. Those represented drops of 25 percent, 40 percent, and 48 percent, respectively.
The Great Recession in the US, which occurred during Dubya’s seventh and eighth years (2007-2008) in office, triggered a worldwide financial crisis — the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and resulted in the collapse of numerous large financial firms in the US and around the world. It threatened the very viability of the international financial system.
During Dubya’s seventh and eighth years, Americans lost a total of $16.4 trillion in household wealth. In 2008 alone — Dubya’s last year — more than 1 million Americans lost their homes, and the foreclosure process had begun on another 2 million Americans.
Health care costs? Under the Dubya years, health insurance premiums doubled. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average cost of employer-sponsored premiums for a family of four was $6,000 per year in January 2001. Eight years later, the average cost had risen to $12,680. It’s no wonder that the number of Americans with healthcare insurance dropped by 7.9 million under Dubya. Some 13.7 percent of Americans were uninsured in January 2001. Eight years later, the figure had risen to 15.4 percent.
Oh, Americans have such short memories — made only worse by how pathetically poor many choose to be informed. This is perhaps best reflected in the immensely entertaining poll recently taken by Quinnipiac University on June 24-30. The poll surveyed 1,446 people and asked them to rate US presidents since World War II. The result? Barack Obama was found to be the worst president since WWII. Right.
It brings to mind a gag quote I found online a couple of years ago. It was accompanied by a photo of Dubya. Went like this: “I screwed you all. But thanks for blaming it on the black guy.”
Bill Clinton perhaps put it best when he described the Republican Party’s position toward Obama: “We left him a total mess. He hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.”
By: Marco Caceres, The Huffington Post Blog, July 8, 2014
“President Obama Is No Bush”: Obama Has Accomplished Far Too Much In The Face Of Far Too Much Adversity
If anyone had said five years ago that President Obama’s popularity rating would nosedive to the dreadful level of George W. Bush’s ratings the last years of his presidency, they’d be fitted for a strait-jacket. Obama’s popularity ratings at that point had soared past 70 percent and there was the firm consensus that his numbers would stay comfortably high and that no matter how rocky things got during his tenure, they could never bottom out to Bush’s abysmal numbers.
The recent CNN/ORC International poll seems to show that the worst has happened and that Obama’s popularity rating now is virtually identical with Bush’s low rating. The added insult is that Bush seems to be getting more popular with his numbers on the uptick. There are two ways to look at this. One is that Bush had sunk so low in popularity ratings by the time he left office that he had nowhere to go but up and that it’s easy for the public to wax nostalgically about and to even find a few good things to say and think about an ex-president years removed from office than a president who sits in the office. This is made even easier by the constant barrage from the GOP’s inveterate Obama bashers playing up Bush’s alleged accomplishments while relentlessly pile driving Obama’s supposed failures.
That’s the other way to look at Obama’s drop. In the backwash of now defrocked former House Majority leader Eric Cantor’s ouster from Congress, it’s worth remembering Cantor was a prime ringleader of the now infamous dinner meeting the night of Obama’s first inauguration in January 2009. Their sole goal was to figure out everything they could do to dither, delay and flat out obstruct any and every initiative and piece of legislation, as well as key nominees, that Obama pushed, while savagely harassing and defaming his key appointees, most notably Attorney General Eric Holder and former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius.
This was the front door assault plan. The GOP’s backdoor strategy was to wink and nod at the dirty smear campaign from the coterie of right wing talk show hosts, bloggers and web sites that lambasted Obama with an avalanche of subtle and outright racist digs, barbs, taunts and harangues. The dual strategy had one aim and that was to make him a failed one term president, and failing that, a failed presidency. The added key to making that work was to play up to the hilt any and every real or perceived stumble. The NSA spy debacle, the lingering anger over Benghazi, the AP leaks, the worry over the Affordable Health Care Act website glitches, and the Bergdahl-Taliban prisoner swap, and now the militant Islamist insurgency in Iraq are prime examples.
The GOP gloat that Obama is now no better than Bush in the public’s eye still falls appalling flat. Bush’s miserable record on the two greatest issues that matter the most to Americans are glaring proof of that. They are the economy and war. Bush hit the skids the second go round because of public souring on a failed, flawed and financially and human-draining war, and a financial collapse that had much to do with his disastrous two tax cuts that gave away the company store to corporations and the rich and sent the budget deficit skyrocketing. In glaring contrast, Obama’s fiscal and budgetary record shows steady joblessness drops, a deficit drop, and an unprecedented surge in the markets that ironically has made more millions for many of the corporate rich that pile onto the assault against Obama.
His wind down of the Iraq and Afghan war has been a special sore point for GOP hawks who never tire of telling all who’ll listen that this supposedly puts Americans at horrible risk from terrorism and war. It’s bunk. Obama simply fulfilled commitments that were already in place to disengage the American military in both countries — commitments that are supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans.
Bush can lay claim to none of these achievements.
But laying aside for a moment the silly notion that Obama is as bad as Bush, the brutal political reality is that past presidents have certainly had their share of second term woes. This was the case with Eisenhower, Nixon, of course, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton. This shouldn’t surprise. They were in office for a relatively long time. They run a big sprawling government with thousands of appointees and personnel. It is simply beyond the pale of one person to control every facet and decision their appointees and personnel make. Just as time can work for a second term president, it can also work against him, too. The longer he’s in office, it’s almost assured that some issue, event or catastrophe will happen that can mar a president’s image, and that he may or may not have any real control over.
Obama has accomplished far too much in the face of far too much adversity. To spin his plunging popularity numbers as if he’s a complete failure is to horribly mangle the comparison with the president who clearly was a failure.
By: Earl Ofari Hutchinson, The Huffington Post Blog, June 14, 2014
“Obama To Iraq, Your Problem Now”: Ultimately It’s Up To The Iraqis, As A Sovereign Nation, To Solve Their Problems
In his State of the Union address, in January, President Obama said, “When I took office, nearly a hundred and eighty thousand Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, all our troops are out of Iraq.” It was a boast, not an apology. The descent of Iraq into open civil war in the past week has not, to judge from his remarks on Friday, fundamentally changed that view. He did grant that it was alarming that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, “a terrorist organization that operates in both Iraq and in Syria,” had made what he delicately called “significant gains” in Iraq. (That is, it has taken control of more than one city.) He said that he wasn’t entirely surprised—things hadn’t been looking good in Iraq for a while, and we’d been giving the government there more help. “Now Iraq needs additional support to break the momentum of extremist groups and bolster the capabilities of Iraqi security forces,” he said. After all, as he put it, “Nobody has an interest in seeing terrorists gain a foothold inside of Iraq.” But there were limits: “We will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”
Speaking from the South Lawn, Obama argued that this was not just a matter of what the American people would accept, or the limits of our capacity to make sacrifices for humanitarian goals. It’s more that he doesn’t see the point. As he sees it, after all our investment of lives and money—“extraordinary sacrifices”—the Iraqis have not been willing to treat each other decently, and until they do our air strikes won’t help. “This is not solely, or even primarily, a military challenge,” he said, and went on:
Unfortunately, Iraqi leaders have been unable to overcome, too often, the mistrust and sectarian differences that have long been simmering there.… We can’t do it for them. And in the absence of this type of political effort, short-term military action—including any assistance we might provide—won’t succeed.… So the United States will do our part, but understand that ultimately it’s up to the Iraqis, as a sovereign nation, to solve their problems.
The Iraqis, from Obama’s perspective, have all too many problems that are not his. The hesitation here is the sense that the problems are ours, too: we did invade the country, setting off an upheaval in which, alongside American losses, an even greater number of Iraqis were killed. But the Administration, as Dexter Filkins has written, has been thoroughly frustrated with the government of Nuri al-Maliki, which is dominated by members of the country’s Shiite majority, and has moved against its Sunni population. It is not a simple matter, if it ever was, of the people we really like (and who like us) against the ones who don’t. (Try factoring in the role of ISIS in fighting the Assad regime, in Syria, and our possible shared interests with Iran in Iraq, and you’re left with a chalkboard of squiggly equations.) One question to emerge from our wars is our susceptibility to a certain sort of blackmail by regimes we support: without me, there is Al Qaeda and chaos. When Andrea Mitchell, of NBC, asked Senator John McCain, who had been railing against the Obama Administration’s decision to withdraw troops in Iraq, whether Maliki could really be persuaded to change his ways, McCain replied, “He has to, or he has to be changed.” How that would be accomplished was, as always in Iraq—a land we seem to associate with the granting of wishes—left unclear.
Obama talked about intensive diplomacy; he mentioned all the options his military planners were looking at, and suggested that he’d take his time looking at them. He called this moment a “wake-up call” for the Iraqi government: “As I said before, we are not going to be able to do it for them.” And then, in case anybody had missed the point:
We’re not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which while we’re there we’re keeping a lid on things and, after enormous sacrifices by us, as soon as we’re not there, suddenly people end up acting in ways that are not conductive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country.
Last year, Obama sat down for several interviews with David Remnick, the editor of this magazine, in which he made clear how profoundly he did not want to be dragged. Remnick wrote, of their conversation, “I pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Falluja, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too.”
Obama replied, “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” Given that ISIS now controls cities in Iraq and trenches are being built around Baghdad, “jayvee” may not have been the word that he was looking for; it strikes one as a severe underestimation. Looking at the rest of what Obama said, though, it seems that the analogy he was looking for was just out of the frame: “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.” It’s a matter of kind, not capacity: if Albert Pujols puts on a Lakers uniform, that doesn’t make him Kobe Bryant.
Speaking with Remnick, Obama applied that notion specifically to Iraq: “Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”
In other words, the horribleness of what is happening can be granted; so can the extreme Islamism of those horrible actors. That still doesn’t, per se, make it “a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.” (And those two elements—the threat and the wading—are clearly linked in the President’s calculations.) Obama, in his interview with Remnick, went on:
You have a schism between Sunni and Shia throughout the region that is profound. Some of it is directed or abetted by states who are in contests for power there. You have failed states that are just dysfunctional, and various warlords and thugs and criminals are trying to gain leverage or a foothold so that they can control resources, populations, territory… . And failed states, conflict, refugees, displacement—all that stuff has an impact on our long-term security. But how we approach those problems and the resources that we direct toward those problems is not going to be exactly the same as how we think about a transnational network of operatives who want to blow up the World Trade Center. We have to be able to distinguish between these problems analytically, so that we’re not using a pliers where we need a hammer, or we’re not using a battalion when what we should be doing is partnering with the local government to train their police force more effectively, improve their intelligence capacities.
“Failed states, conflict, refugees, displacement—all that stuff has an impact on our long-term security”; but brutally meandering wars, and all that stuff that goes with them, have an impact, too. When Remnick asked Obama if he was “haunted by Syria,” the President replied that he was “haunted by what happened,” but added, “I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war.” Last month, in a speech at West Point, “haunted” was the word Obama chose when talking about his surge of troops in Afghanistan: “I believe America’s security demanded those deployments. But I am haunted by those deaths. I am haunted by those wounds.”
It cannot be absent from the President’s calculations that, just two weeks ago, he had to accept the resignation of General Eric Shinseki—a man he clearly liked and admired, not least for his insistence, a decade ago, that the enterprise in Iraq would be a bit trickier than George W. Bush let on—because of the dysfunction of the Veterans Administration. We’d never got around to adapting the V.A. to the needs of young men and women whose lives had been shaped and, in too many cases, shattered by their service in Iraq and Afghanistan. All Obama could say was that he’d brought them home. That was all, really, he wanted to say.
By: Amy Davidson, The New Yorker, June 13, 2014