The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Leon Panetta: Obama has ‘lost his way,’ created ‘vacuum’ for Islamic State

In this Feb. 13, 2013 file photo, Leon Panetta speaks during his last news conference as defense secretary at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Corrected. Updated at 5:50 p.m.

It’s going to be a rough week for President Obama, thanks in part to his former CIA director and defense secretary, Leon Panetta, who in an interview published this morning said the president has “kind of lost his way.”

By not pressing the Iraqi government to leave more U.S. troops in the country, he “created a vacuum in terms of the ability of that country to better protect itself, and it’s out of that vacuum that ISIS began to breed,” Panetta told USA Today, referring to the group also known as the Islamic State.

The interview was the first of what inevitably will be a series as he promotes his book, “Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace,” which is sharply critical of Obama’s handling of the troop withdrawal from Iraq, Syria and the advance of the Islamic State.

In the book, Panetta writes that Obama has a “frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause” and too frequently “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.” Sometimes, he writes Obama “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.”

“I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war” that will also sweep in conflicts in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and Libya, he told USA Today’s Susan Page.

Such criticism is widespread among Republicans but mostly muttered privately by Democrats. Having it come from a stalwart Democrat such as Panetta — widely admired for his work in Congress, at the Pentagon and at the CIA — will sting and provide sure fodder for Republicans in the remaining weeks of campaigning before the midterm elections.

Indeed, it echoes the Republicans’ theme that Obama, at best, “leads from behind,” which they have used to back up their charge that the U.S. role in the world has diminished under Obama.

Panetta, in the interview, said he thought Obama got “so discouraged by the process” that he retreats from a fight.

He cited the budget deal that produced automatic spending cuts — the sequester. As USA Today paraphrased it: “Panetta says he found himself a lonely figure actively opposing” the cuts, lobbying Congress on his own and making speeches about how they would hurt national security.

Said Panetta: “He’s going to have to jump in the ring and fight it out for the next two years. My hope is that the president, recognizing that we are at kind of a critical point in his administration, will take the bit in his teeth and will say, ‘We have got to solve these problems.'”

Panetta served as Obama’s first CIA director and then as secretary of defense before retiring in February 2013.

Correction: An earlier version said Panetta was a “lifelong” Democrat. In fact, he was once a Republican and became a Democrat in 1971. An earlier version also incorrectly attributed quoted material from Leon Panetta’s book to the USA Today interview. This version has been corrected.