Maybe President Obama should have asked his Cabinet secretaries to sign book-royalty agreements when they took their oaths of office, so he could share in the spoils. Too late now: Here’s Leon Panetta, former defense secretary and CIA director, publishing the third memoir by a top foreign policy official while Obama is still in office.
“Worthy Fights” is Panetta’s addition to the Cabinet bookshelf, and it’s very readable, with the frank descriptions of personalities and events that distinguish this genre at its best. There’s no point in writing a cautious memoir, after all; Panetta’s candor matches that of Robert M. Gates, his predecessor as secretary of defense, and he’s a good deal franker than former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is presumptively running for president and still has to be nice to people.
Panetta confides that he thought Obama was wrong on some key decisions, just as Gates and Clinton did in their memoirs. Which makes this 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.
One more general gripe before we get down to the substance of Panetta’s memoir: Who thinks of these titles? “Worthy Fights”? Come on. In the bland-title competition, that one tops Clinton’s “Hard Choices” and Gates’s “Duty.” These book monikers are as inviting as a summons to the dentist.
What makes Panetta’s engaging is that it’s suffused with the personality of the man himself. Panetta is a scrappy, profane, devout, Italian American, Catholic mensch. He movingly describes his “peasant” father, who came to America from Calabria, the toe of the boot of Italy; his grandfather, who carried young Leon on his shoulders through the streets of Monterey, Calif., where the family settled; a mother plucked from Calabria who worked at the family restaurant until 2 a.m. Panetta has never stopped being this man, rooted in family, culture and religion: When he’s facing a hard decision, by his own account, he reaches for his rosary beads and says a Hail Mary.
The essential, uncensored Panetta emerges vividly when he describes his appointment as White House chief of staff in 1994 for the “undisciplined, almost chaotic” President Bill Clinton. Panetta asks his genial predecessor, Mack McLarty, for an organization chart and is informed that no such document exists. “Man, I thought to myself, I really am in deep [sh--] now!”
Panetta’s political education was that of a pragmatic man of the center, another attribute that has never changed. He first registered as a Republican, came to work in Washington for a GOP senator and then served under President Richard Nixon. When he went back home to California’s central coast and ran for a House seat, he unseated a Republican.
As a Democratic congressman, Panetta distinguished himself on budget issues, where pragmatic compromise is essential. He took a seat on the House Administration Committee, he says, because he knew he could build alliances by handing out choice parking spaces. An instinctive dealmaker, he loathed the ideological Newt Gingrich, whom he describes here as “childish” and a self-important bully.
Panetta’s disciplined management style was the salvation of the inchoate Clinton White House. He describes Clinton as “ravenously intelligent” but verbose (“He could talk an issue into the ground”), with an almost fatal “lack of personal discipline.” The president’s character weakness exploded in the Monica Lewinsky affair and, after Panetta’s departure in 1997, in the impeachment mess of Clinton’s second term. Panetta, back in California, must have assumed his career was over.
But Panetta’s summa came in 2009, when Obama 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 Obama was decisive earlier on, advising in early March, after he decided on the airborne assault, “We need to move very quickly.”
I wish Panetta had acknowledged the terrible moral and human cost of one reported CIA gambit to confirm bin Laden’s presence at the compound: sending a doctor to collect a DNA sample under the pretext of a vaccination program. That operation, which reinforced suspicion of health-care workers in Afghanistan and Pakistan and helped allow a resurgence of polio there, should have occasioned some private time in the confessional, if a public acknowledgment was deemed too dangerous.
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 Obama. It clearly troubled Panetta, who loved his time in Congress, that Obama “was believed not to have found his time as a senator very rewarding and to be disdainful of Congress generally.” He writes that Obama’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.” Obama’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 Obama “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 Obama’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.
A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace
By Leon Panetta with Jim Newton
Penguin Press. 498 pp. $36