Thursday, October 9, 2014

Worthy Fights

“Worthy Fights” is Panetta’s addition to the Cabinet bookshelf, and it’s very readable, with the  descriptions of personalities and events that distinguish this genre at its best.

Panetta confides that he thought 44 was wrong on some key decisions, just as Gates and Clinton did in their memoirs. Which makes one reader ask: Why did these officials continue to serve a president with whose policies they often seemed to disagree? Retrospective candor is fine, but wouldn’t it have been better to speak out at the time and perhaps even resign on principle? The country would have been poorer without their service, but we need officials who will tell the truth publicly, in real time, before they make the book deal.

Panetta’s summa came in 2009, when 44 tapped him for the unlikely role of CIA director. The new president understood that the agency needed a skilled politician to rebuild its standing, and Panetta was an inspired, if surprising, choice. He quickly allowed himself to be co-opted by the agency’s prickly career officers (who excel at that, and at tormenting directors who refuse the chalice). He then went on a jihad against the CIA’s enemies, starting with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had made the mistake of calling Panetta a liar. She never did that again. Panetta recounts the “ugly struggle” with Dennis Blair, the retired admiral who, as director of national intelligence, was Panetta’s nominal boss and mistakenly thought he could impose the chain of command on a veteran Washington infighter.

Panetta’s CIA career reached its peak with the discovery and assassination of Osama bin Laden in his lair at Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011. It’s an extraordinary story, and it has never been told better than here. Panetta was rock-solid at the final hour, telling the president, “If we don’t do it, we’ll regret it.” But 44 was decisive earlier on, advising in early March, after he decided on the airborne assault, “We need to move very quickly.”

Panetta’s account of his 18 months as defense secretary is almost an anticlimax after the CIA chapters. The Pentagon was, as Panetta might say, just too damned big. The intelligence agency, by contrast, was a secret family that engaged his heart and mind. It’s interesting that the two signature CIA directors over the past 30 years have been Panetta and George Tenet — both hot-blooded personalities so different from the archetypal Ivy League WASPs of the agency’s founding generation.

What has already made news is Panetta’s criticism of 44. It clearly troubled Panetta, who loved his time in Congress, that 44 “was believed not to have found his time as a senator very rewarding and to be disdainful of Congress generally.” He writes that 44’s “decision-making apparatus was centralized in the White House” far more than that of any other administration he had seen, reducing the importance of Cabinet posts.

The comments on Iraq and Syria are blistering. As Panetta saw it, the White House was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw [in 2011] rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.” 44’s departure left Iraq to its sectarian misleaders and prefigured the disastrous explosion this year of the Islamic State.

As for Syria, Panetta says that 44 “vacillated” on his “red line” pledge to take military action against chemical weapons in 2013. He writes, “The result, I felt, was a blow to American credibility.”

Panetta says he admires the president as “a realist and a pragmatist,” qualities the two men share. But he observes that 44’s penchant for “playing it cool” has a severe downside: “On occasion he avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.” From Panetta, who comes across in this book as a man who has never shirked a fight he thought was right, that’s a harsh critique.

Pic - "Panetta is a scrappy, profane, devout, Italian-All American, Catholic mensch."