Panetta: Obama has "lost his way"

A few months ago, Hillary Clinton tried rolling out a memoir to bolster her credibility as a national political figure, and repeatedly fell on her face while simultaneously not saying much of anything in the book that wasn’t thinly-disguised campaign gruel. Perhaps she should have just invested in Leon Panetta’s memoir instead. Panetta, who’s not running for any office — yet — has managed to speak out forcefully and with commitment about his tenure in the Obama administration, and has made his book a must-read. He’s better press for Hillary than she is for herself in this interview with USA Today’s Susan Page:

For Bill Clinton, history will remember that he “always kept fighting back” to get things done, even while battling impeachment. “Whether it was Democrats or Republicans, you know, he found a way to be able to do some things, to be able to accomplish some things that were important.”

He makes a similar observation about Hillary Clinton, saying she would be a “great” president. “One thing about the Clintons is, they want to get it done,” he says, in words that draw an implicit contrast with Obama. “When it comes to being president of the United States, it’s one thing to talk a good game. It’s another thing to deliver, to make things happen.”

And Barack Obama’s legacy?

“We are at a point where I think the jury is still out,” Panetta says. “For the first four years, and the time I spent there, I thought he was a strong leader on security issues. … But these last two years I think he kind of lost his way. You know, it’s been a mixed message, a little ambivalence in trying to approach these issues and try to clarify what the role of this country is all about.

“He may have found himself again with regards to this ISIS crisis. I hope that’s the case. And if he’s willing to roll up his sleeves and engage with Congress in taking on some of these other issues, as I said I think he can establish a very strong legacy as president. I think these next 2 1/2 years will tell us an awful lot about what history has to say about the Obama administration.”

Well, that’s certainly convenient, but hardly surprising. Panetta has had a long and fruitful relationship with the Clintons, so it’s no surprise that he speaks well of them both. The problem for Barack Obama is that Panetta was his choice to run the CIA and then the Department of Defense. Panetta did both jobs well enough to earn bipartisan praise, perhaps most surprisingly in his first job, given his status as an outsider with no practical experience with intelligence except as an occasional customer. That gives Panetta a lot of credibility to opine on matters of national security, and perhaps in no area more than what happened in Iraq between 2008 and 2011.

In this interview, Panetta undermines one of Obama’s central conceits — that he had al-Qaeda “on the run” and the war won:

Americans should be braced for a long battle against the brutal terrorist group Islamic State that will test U.S. resolve — and the leadership of the commander in chief, says Leon Panetta, who headed the CIA and then the Pentagon as Al Qaeda was weakened and Osama bin Laden killed.

“I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war,” he says, one that will have to extend beyond Islamic State to include emerging threats in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere.

Weakened? No doubt, at least for a while. But they were only “on the run” to the extent that this administration (and the previous one) chased them. Obama has done well to keep up the pressure in the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan with drone strikes, but the group has emerged elsewhere to little notice until now. That has been Andrew McCarthy’s point on the so-called “Khorasan Group” attacked by the US in the first series of strikes on Syria. That may have been their name, or our name for them, but they were also “core al-Qaeda” (to use the terminology of this administration) and commissioned to start building the same kind of attacks on America that culminated in the 9/11 plot. Panetta’s correct that this will be a long war, not just something for a second-term campaign slogan, and simply killing a leader or two won’t mean victory.

In that sense, Obama doesn’t need to worry, as he’s not running for office again. But Hillary might need to worry if her long-time friend starts sounding a lot more credible and a lot more competent than she does, even if he does keep saying nice things about her. The contrast between the two book tours is rather striking.