So Leon Panetta’s “Worthy Fights” is now out, and the reviews are coming in. And let me just say that, as a published author, how many animals I’d sacrifice to get the New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani to describe my prose efforts to be “often opaque and evasive.”
Let’s be blunt: No one will read Panetta’s book because of the lucidity of its prose. Hell, no one outside of Kakutani, David Ignatius and other book reviewers will be likely to read all of Panetta’s book. No, the people of #ThisTown will skim the index, read the coverage to find out the juicy stuff, and then cluck about the president’s poor foreign policy instincts and the disloyalty of his former foreign policy advisers.
In these pages for example, Dana Milbank wonders at the “stunning disloyalty” of his former foreign policy principals:
George W. Bush got criticism from former advisers (Paul O’Neill, John DiIulio), as did Bill Clinton (George Stephanopoulos, Dick Morris), but this level of disloyalty is stunning, even though it is softened with praise for Obama’s intellect.
At the start of the year, Robert Gates, Obama’s first defense secretary,wrote a memoir full of criticism of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan, saying Obama made military decisions based on political considerations. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who also published a book this year, criticized Obama for rejecting her advice on Syria and mocked the “Don’t do stupid stuff” phrase used by administration officials to describe Obama’s doctrine.
The lack of message discipline is puzzling, because Obama rewards and promotes loyalists.
Some perspective might be in order here. It doesn’t strike me that either Gates or Panetta are being any more disloyal than the other memoir-writers that Milbank references. Remember, Paul O’Neill pretty much told Ron Suskind that the Bush administration was planning to go to war in Iraq from day one of his presidency, which is a far more incendiary charge than anything from these raft of memoirs. Hell, I’d wager that former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich and former George W. Bush press spokesman Scott McClellan were far nastier in their memoirs about the presidents that they served than any of Obama’s exes.
I’d wager that something simultaneously more anodyne and more structural is going on with these memoirs. At the prosaic level, the Obama administration has had somewhat more foreign policy churn than its recent predecessors. The Bush administration was noteworthy for having foreign policy principals serve for an extended period of time, which obviously delayed the time when their memoirs could appear. The Clinton administration had more turnover, but since no one in the history of man could get through all of Warren Christopher’s memoirs, there wasn’t much red meat to be had.
The more structural point is that you would probably have to go back to the Nixon administration to find a White House that was this centralized in its foreign policy decision-making. Indeed, for all the loose talk about Obama creating a “team of rivals” on the foreign policy side, the president continues to keep his own counsel when it comes to foreign policy, often to his detriment. If you’re a Cabinet officer in such an administration, this has to be extremely frustrating. In contrast, former treasury secretary Tim Geithner clearly had a lot of say over the administration’s post-Great Recession financial policies, and one will note that Geithner’s memoirs haven’t been mentioned in the same breath as Clinton, Panetta or Gates. It’s therefore not altogether stunning that the memoirs try to pin some blame on the guy who actually ran the foreign policy show (even though, as a wonk, I’d really like to see Panetta write just a bit more on how the CIA whiffed — and whiffed badly — on the Arab Spring).
Ironically, the very traits that apparently drove Panetta bonkers are likely to serve Obama well during this Age of Memoirs. As Kakutani observes:
Echoing a complaint frequently heard within the Beltway, Mr. Panetta also laments what he regards as the president’s sometimes passive or disengaged approach to governing. He argues that Mr. Obama’s failure to lead Congress out of the sequester standoff is a prime example of his “reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause.” At times, Mr. Panetta writes, Mr. Obama “avoids the battle, complains and misses opportunities,” giving “his opponents room to shape the contours of his presidency.”
But memoirs such as these are a feature, not a bug, of life in Washington in the 21st century — a fact that Obama surely knows. These books were cooked to be written like this the moment the president decided to be his own national security adviser during his first term. Grousing about them now doesn’t do anything but perpetuate the story for a few more media cycles.
Besides, the president probably needs to prioritize his focus on the current members of his administration who keep shooting their mouths off.
Am I missing anything?