On Sunday, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen told NBC’s Meet the Press that the media had “blown way out of proportion” a supposed rift between President Barack Obama and his military commanders over the administration’s plan to roll back ISIS. Those comments, however, did little to combat the notion that Obama and those in the defense establishment do not see eye-to-eye on the threat posed by the Islamic State.
It is not merely the military who are subtly expressing their concerns over Obama’s handling of the crisis in the Middle East. Obama’s former secretary of defense and director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, came out Sunday night and sharply criticized the president for failing to address the crisis in Syria earlier. He said that Obama ignored his national security advisors when he failed to arm the Syrian rebels and pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq; actions which led to the rise of ISIS.
“I really thought that it was important for us to maintain a presence in Iraq,” Panetta told CBS News host Scott Pelley. “The decision was that we ought to at least try to maintain 8,000 to 10,000 U.S. troops there, plus keeping some of our intelligence personnel in place, to be able to continue the momentum in the right direction.
“And frankly, having those troops there I think would’ve given us greater leverage on [former Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki] to try to force him to do the right thing as well,” Panetta noted.
Turning to Syria, Panetta said that he had always backed providing some rebel groups with arms.
“The real key was how can we develop a leadership group among the opposition that would be able to take control? And my view was to have leverage to do that, we would have to provide the weapons and the training in order for them to really be willing to work with us in that effort,” the former Obama administration official added.
Pelley observed that Obama’s national security team was “virtually unanimous” on the need to arm Syrian rebels – advice the president ignored. Panetta kindly conceded that Obama was concerned over where those weapons provided to Syrian rebels might end up, but the former CIA director summed his own position as, “You have to begin somewhere.”
“I think that would’ve helped,” Panetta said of the aborted plan to arm moderate opposition in Syria. “And I think in part, we pay the price for not doing that in what we see happening with ISIS.”
The former spy chief closed by observing that ISIS is not a threat the United States can afford to ignore or treat lightly. “I think they’re as dangerous, as fanatical, as, as terrorist as Al Qaeda was,” he said. “They have a large number of foreign fighter with foreign passports that make them particularly dangerous to the safety of this country.”
In early August, Clinton told The Atlantic that Obama’s failure to support moderate Syrian rebels with lethal aid led to the rise of ISIS. Panetta is the first high-ranking former administration official to back her interpretation of events. As the situation in the region grows more desperate, something suggests that these will not be the last former Obama officials to insist they always disapproved of the president’s handling of the Middle East.