Leon Panetta: Traitor, Patriot – Or Something Else!

The publication of Leon Panetta’s memoir Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace has created the predictable but completely misguided reaction among media pundits of all partisan stripes. Panetta, of course, is a former congressman and long-time Washington insider who most recently served as President Obama’s CIA director and Secretary of Defense. In his memoirs, he recounts a number of instances in which he disagreed strongly with the President, including decisions regarding military support for Syria, cuts to the Pentagon budget and keeping troops in Iraq. While praising the President’s intellect, Panetta also suggests that too often the President “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”

What are we to make of Panetta’s critique? To some Panetta’s book is the latest indication of “stunning disloyalty”  exhibited by former Obama administration officials who have penned memoirs that are often quite critical of the President they once worked for. In addition to Panetta, card-carrying members of this group of turncoats include Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, each of whom published memoirs after leaving the Obama administration. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank acknowledges that previous presidents have been the subject of criticism from former aides, but he argues that taken collectively, these recent memoirs along with public criticism from other former Obama aides represents a “level of disloyalty [that] is stunning… .”

To some of Obama’s liberal defenders, this disloyalty tell us more about the President’s critics than they do about the President. In this vein, Michael Cohen issued this withering critique of Panetta, who he accuses of both incompetence and hypocrisy: “In Panetta’s obsessive focus on the politics of national security, his fetishization of military force and his utter lack of strategic vision, what is also evident is the one-dimensional foreign policy thinking that so dominates Washington—and which Panetta has long embodied.”

But others suggest that taken collectively, the memoirs by former Obama aides are best viewed as warnings issued by sincere patriots who are willing to risk personal attack in service of a larger cause. In this vein, Ed Rogers suggests: “Perhaps Panetta, Gates and Clinton are telling those who still serve in government that President Obama’s biases and instincts need to be challenged. The few adults left in the administration should not roll over, and the Republican opposition needs to be constantly vigilant in order to try to shape a more protective American national security posture. Maybe Panetta, Gates and Clinton are putting loyalty to a country at risk ahead of deference to the president who appointed them.”

Here is another thought. Maybe pundits should stop telling us what Panetta’s memoirs really say, and instead just take his words at face value and put them in some historical context. Taken as a whole, Panetta’s memoirs tell us that on important policy issues, he disagreed with the President. Surprise! These disagreements are the portions of his memoirs that have received the most media play. However, on many other issues – mostly not discussed in the media – Panetta thinks the President got it right.

Believe it or not, this is not unusual – Presidents and their aides often disagree. What most pundits do not understand is why these disagreements happen. Rather than reflecting disloyalty, the disputes are more often rooted in the differing vantage points occupied by the President and his department heads. In this regard where you sit really does determine where you stand. Why do Gates, Clinton and Panetta think the President “lost his way” (to use Panetta’s words) on national security issues? Maybe because from their perspectives – ones largely focused on keeping the U.S. safe from external attack – Obama seems unduly cautious. There’s nothing disloyal in making that argument – as aides with national security portfolios, it is their job to push the President on these issues when they think he gets it wrong. But Obama occupies a different, broader vantage point – one that must balance national security concerns with other issues affecting his ability to lead, such as public support for his policies and the political costs associated with engaging in another extended military conflict that may involve boots on the ground and all that entails. Understandably, these domestic concerns may weigh far more heavily on him as President than they do on the secretaries of State and Defense and the CIA director – none of whom have a domestic constituency.

Ironically, Cohen’s criticism of Panetta is spot on – but not in the sense Cohen intends. Cohen writes, “For Panetta, principles appear to be determined by wherever he happens to be sitting at any given moment.” That’s exactly right – and that’s how it should be. Leon Panetta’s concerns while serving as Clinton’s budget director should not be the same concerns he has while heading the CIA. And Barack Obama’s concerns as President must be broader than Panetta’s – or Gates’ and Clinton’s. This is not to say their criticisms of the President’s policies in the war on terror are illegitimate, or should not be heard. It is to say that they should be understood as emanating from individuals who occupy a particular position and policy portfolio whose focus is – and must be – more narrow than the President’s.

The history of the modern presidency is littered with the memoirs of often disgruntled former aides who, having left their position, are determined to tell their side of the story. Nor is it surprising that those who have left an administration before its conclusion are typically the most critical of the President’s policies – that’s often why they left! Indeed, a roll call of presidential aides who penned critical kiss-and-tell memoirs – many published while the President they served was still in office – would fill a small library; off the top of my head I can recall reading memoirs by Raymond Moley (FDR), Joe Califano (Carter), Don Regan (Reagan) and Paul O’Neill (Bush).  This is only the tip of the memoir iceberg of course. These are not, for the most part, memoirs penned by traitors or super patriots. They are instead reflections of public servants who tried very hard to fulfill the responsibilities entrusted to them by virtue of their positions – and in so doing often clashed with their president.  Too often the media portrays these as differences based on personality clashes, or struggles for power.  In truth, however, they are the inevitable byproduct of  governing in a constitutional system of separated institutions competing for shared powers in which those heading these institutions occupy different vantage points, and thus have different concerns.

Senator Obama – Meet The Big Man: President Obama!

“The notion that as a consequence of that authorization, the president can continue down a failed path without any constraints from Congress whatsoever is wrong and is not warranted by our Constitution,”Remarks in 2007 by Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama criticizing President Bush’s decision to increase U.S. military forces in Iraq based on a 2001 congressional authorization.

If we gauge a president’s success by his ability to achieve campaign promises, there is no doubt that in foreign policy President Obama has fallen far short of the mark. As research by Middlebury College student Danny Zhang of presidential candidate Obama’s public remarks reminds us, Obama’s foreign policy agenda included two fundamental tenets: he would wind down U.S. military involvement in Iraq, and he would return to a more collaborative and bipartisanship conduct of foreign affairs – one more nearly in accord with the Constitution.

Arguably neither tenet has been met. It is now clear that Obama will almost certainly bequeath to his successor an anti-terror military campaign in Iraq and Syria intended to destroy the Islamic State (IS) that even the most optimistic projections suggest will last years, and with uncertain odds of success.  And rather than consult with Congress, Obama has justified his current air campaign against IS on the Bush-era 2001 authorization by Congress to use military force against terrorists who attacked the United States – the very premise he rejected on the presidential campaign trail while a U.S. Senator.

It is tempting to conclude from this record that candidate Obama was naive, if not duplicitous. But I have no doubt that he sincerely believed his rhetoric – as did most of those who voted for him. He likely did believe that, as he indicated to the Boston Globe “[t]he President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” As I have often said, however, governing is far different than campaigning. The reason why President Obama’s foreign policy seems to have largely followed his predecessor’s blueprint is because the nature of the strategic threats to the United States has not changed across the two presidencies. Nor has the president’s constitutionally-based responsibility to protect the nation from attack. That combination of similar threats and a shared vantage point made it almost certain that President Obama’s foreign policy would not deviate markedly from George W. Bush’s – a point some of us have made before.

Indeed, arguably Obama’s biggest foreign policy mistake occurred when he did try to deviate from his predecessor’s blueprint by ordering a full U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq. One can debate what precipitated the U.S. troop pullout; Obama’s supporters insist that Iraqi leader al-Maliki was unwilling to allow U.S. forces to remain under a strategy of force agreement that protected U.S. soldiers. More generally, as Obama argued in his recent 60 Minutes interview, it may be that the decision to withdraw was sound, but that the Iraqis then squandered the opportunity the U.S. left them: “When we left, we had left them a democracy that was intact, a military that was well equipped, and the ability then to chart their own course. And that opportunity was squandered over the course of five years or so because the prime minister, Maliki, was much more interested in consolidating his Shiite base.”

However, Obama’s former CIA director Leon Panetta is the latest ex-administration member to suggest Obama made little effort to overcome al-Maliki’s resistance to retaining a small U.S. military force in Iraq in order to stabilize the regime and provide security against terrorist attacks. In excerpts from his soon to be released book Worthy Fights, Panetta writes, “Those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”

Whatever the explanation, the reality now is that the U.S. is once again engaged in a military conflict in Iraq and Syria of indeterminate length and uncertain success. And, like his predecessor’s Iraqi war effort, Obama is trying to create an international “coalition of the willing” to help defeat IS. To date, however, the largely U.S.-led campaign of targeted air strikes has not appeared to have had much success in rolling back IS’s territorial gains. That leaves open the possibility that at some point the U.S. may have to increase its troop commitment beyond the nearly 2,000 now stationed in Iraq if Obama’s war aims are to be reached – a troop increase that many military experts suggest is inevitable.

Nor has President Obama appeared to heed candidate Obama’s advice, as exemplified in the opening quote to this piece, to conduct foreign policy in a more collaborative, bipartisan and constitutionally-acceptable manner. In fact, as noted above, Obama has cited the Bush-era authorization of military force as the legal basis for the current bombing campaign against IS. Critics contend that this smacks of presidential imperialism. In truth, however, Obama’s actions are consistent with those of his predecessors’, almost all of whom have sought to protect the presidency’s ability to fulfill its constitutional prerogative to defend the nation from attack. As Madison argues in Federalist 51, this effort to defend the presidency as an institution is both expected and desirable: “But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” Under Madison’s reasoning, it is Congress’ role to push back against this assertion by Obama of prerogative power.  However, as I noted in this previous post, many congressional Republicans are applauding Obama’s newfound militarism while most Democrats do not want to take on their own president heading into a midterm election.

We should not be surprised, then, that as President, Obama more closely resembles President George W. Bush than he does Senator or candidate Obama. In the modern era, the United States – as the sole superpower – no longer has the luxury of choosing whether to take the lead in foreign affairs. That is a burden that cannot be removed, no matter how much Americans may yearn for – and candidates may promise – a return to normalcy. And the President, as the embodiment of national sovereignty, simply cannot delegate this leadership role to any other political actor.

In his study of American government Woodrow Wilson wrote, “The President is at liberty, both in law and in conscience, to be as big a man as he can.” In the modern era, however, as presidency scholar Richard Neustadt reminds us – and as President Obama has discovered – the president “nowadays cannot be as small as he might like.”

Senator Obama – meet the big man: President Obama.

Bombing ISIS: A New Imperial Presidency?

“The Constitution,” the eminent political scientist Edward Corwin famously declared, “is an invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy.” I was reminded of Corwin’s assessment when reading Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman’s recent New York Times op ed piece, in which Ackerman castigates President Obama’s justification for his decision to  initiate military action designed to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State (ISIS). For Ackerman, Obama’s willingness to authorize air strikes without congressional approval smacks of “imperial hubris”, and “marks a decisive break in the American constitutional tradition.”

It does nothing of the sort, of course. To be sure, Ackerman makes a compelling case that the Obama administration’s use of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) as the basis for taking military action against ISIS (and more recently against the Khorasan terrorist group as well) stretches credulity. The 2001 AUMF, you will recall, is the joint resolution passed by Congress in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks that authorized “the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.” As Ackerman persuasively argues, “[I]t’s preposterous to suggest that a congressional vote 13 years ago can be used to legalize new bombings in Syria and additional (noncombat) forces in Iraq…. Not only was ISIS created long after 2001, but Al Qaeda publicly disavowed it earlier this year. It is Al Qaeda’s competitor, not its affiliate.” Presumably Ackerman would also dismiss administration attempts to utilize the 2002 joint congressional resolution that authorized the president to “use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq” as an additional justification for bombing ISIS.

But Ackerman’s legal objections miss the point. The question is not whether a close textual reading of the 2001 or 2002 congressional resolutions support their use as the legal basis for airstrikes against ISIS – it is whether the Obama administration has the political support to make the case that they do. In short, the debate is over whether the public, as channeled through their elected representatives, supports Obama’s course of action – bombing ISIS – and not as Ackerman would have it, over Obama’s justification for his course of action. And this is exactly Corwin’s point. In a constitutional system in which foreign policy powers are shared, the relative effective influence exercised by the President and Congress in the foreign policy domain depends on how well each can enlist public support, as channeled through elected officials, for their preferred course of action. The Constitution, and subsequent statutes, only sets the parameters of this debate – it doesn’t determine the winner. This is why the Courts historically have refused to adjudicate conflicts between the two branches regarding the extent of the President’s war making powers, and why the War Powers resolution – beyond its notification requirements – has been of little help in resolving these disputes. Historically, Congress and presidents have differed over when, and whether, the War Powers resolution is applicable but neither side has so far been willing to precipitate a constitutional crisis by pushing their interpretation to the limit.

In determining who has the stronger case, then, regarding whether Obama can unilaterally authorize bombing ISIS, we would do well to spend less time parsing the wording of the Constitution and related texts, and focus instead on the politics of the matter. And politically, at this point, the evidence suggests that Obama’s interpretation will prevail – at least for now. This is because in the wake of the highly-publicized beheadings by ISIS of journalists, opinion polls show broad public support among Democrats, Republicans and Independents for targeted air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Given prevailing public opinion, it is unlikely that many members of Congress who are facing midterm elections in November are going to want an immediate debate regarding Obama’s authority to conduct airstrikes. Indeed, most Republicans who object to Obama’s strategy do so not because they oppose air strikes, but because they believe air strikes alone are not likely to achieve Obama’s stated objectives. Yes, there is some background grumbling among legislators regarding Obama’s willingness to act alone, but that grumbling is likely to remain muted until the results of the midterms are known.

At that point, however, if Republicans regain control of the Senate in November, and pad their current House majority, I have little doubt that they will use those political gains as leverage in order to force Obama to seek congressional support for continued military action – particularly if air strikes alone have not achieved their objectives. However, current polling suggests that any post-midterm Republican efforts to push Obama to widen U.S. involvement, including introducing “boots on the ground” against ISIS – an action that, so far, Obama has vowed not to take – may lack public backing. This may set up an interesting public debate regarding how much military involvement the public is willing to support in order to achieve Obama’s stated military objective of defeating ISIS.  Again, that debate is likely to turn on the politics of the issues – not legal interpretations of the President’s war-making authority.

My broader point is that too often pundits, and some of my political science colleagues as well, view unilateral presidential action as evidence of presidential imperialism or an imbalance of constitutional and statutory powers, when in truth it reflects congressional acquiescence, or even tacit support, for the president’s actions. Typically Congress does not acquiesce because its members have been cowed, or lack the requisite political authority to block the President. Members acquiesce because they think the President has the better argument, politically speaking. Moreover, despite all the talk about his predecessor’s allegedly imperial conduct, the fact is that George W. Bush sought, and received, congressional authorization for both the wars he initiated in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Rather than “a devastating setback for our constitutional order”, as Ackerman claims, Obama’s decision to move forward with military strikes while asking for Congressional support is in perfect keeping with our system of shared powers, and it reaffirms Corwin’s basic point. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, but when it comes to foreign policy the interpretation of that law is ultimately determined not by a close parsing of the constitutional text, or related statute, but by the effort of elected representatives to muster public support for their preferred foreign policy objective. In that ongoing struggle, the President, as a single actor, has certain advantages, including the ability, as Hamilton noted long ago, to act with “secrecy and despatch”. But history shows that Congress, if it musters the political will, has more than enough powers to bring any president to heel. Whether it will do so in this case depends in large part on what legislators hear from voters come November.

Pardon Me, Mr. President

In this week’s trip on the Wayback Machine, we commemorate an anniversary that went largely unnoticed last week in the media focus on Obama’s foreign policy: Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon. Forty years ago from last Monday, Ford issued the following proclamation granting a “full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed” during his time as President:

As Ford noted in his proclamation, he believed developing a case against the former President and bringing him to trial on civil charges would prove to be a prolonged and divisive spectacle that would delay the nation’s ability to heal the wounds inflicted by the Watergate scandal. Ford also thought Nixon, by being forced to resign, had already paid a steep price for his crimes. In his aptly titled memoir A Time To Heal, Ford recalls that he was surprised that the first question at his initial press conference as President “dealt with whether or not I thought Nixon should have immunity from prosecution.” Follow up questions were variations on the same theme. Ford, expressing disappointment that the reporters seemed uninterested in anything else, quickly realized that Nixon’s legal status would be front and center until it was resolved and that adjudicating Nixon’s guilt in a civil trial would likely be a very lengthy process lasting more than a year. “The story,” Ford concluded, “would overshadow everything else. No other issue could compete with the drama of a former president trying to stay out of jail.” And so, after consulting with five of his closest aides, Ford decided to issue the pardon. “The hate had to be drained and the healing begun.” Here is his address explaining the pardon decision:

Not everyone accepted Ford’s explanation. His press secretary Jerry terHorst resigned in protest, the most visible symbol of a vehement public backlash that Ford confessed he failed to fully anticipate. Most notably, critics suggested there was a secret deal in which Nixon agreed to resign on Ford’s promise to issue the pardon. And, in fact, Nixon aide Alexander Haig had presented Ford with a document describing the pardon power and another blank pardon form.  Both later denied that any discussion of a deal took place, but the perception that one occurred damaged Ford’s political standing.  His approval rating, as measured in Gallup polls, dropped from 71% before the pardon to 49% after it was granted.

How much of a long-term political price Ford paid for the pardon remains a matter of speculation. In the aftermath of Watergate, and with a poor economy, he was already facing a stiff headwind as he sought reelection in 1976. Early polls showed Ford trailing his opponent, Jimmy Carter, by more than 20%, and Carter was quick to bring up the Nixon pardon during their presidential debates. Polls suggested that the pardon remained an important issue for many voters – but so did an economy plagued by both slow growth and inflation. In the end, although Ford was able to close the gap with Carter (a final Gallup poll actually showed Ford ahead 47%-46%), he lost a very closely contested contest; Carter won 297 electoral votes to Ford’s 240 and took the popular vote by 50%-48%.

In his memoirs, Ford begins his post-election chapter by asking, “What if I hadn’t pardoned Nixon?” – the first, and probably most significant, of several “what ifs” he lists that might have turned the election. However, throughout his post-presidential life he steadfastly refused to express any regret over his decision. And, over time, many who first criticized the decision came to agree with Ford that the pardon was the right thing to do.

In 2001, a bipartisan panel awarded Ford the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award for his decision to pardon Nixon. In his acceptance speech Ford noted, “President Kennedy understood that courage is not something to be gauged in a poll or located in a focus group. No advisor can spin it. No historian can backdate it. For, in the age-old contest between popularity and principle, only those willing to lose for their convictions are deserving of posterity’s approval.” When deciding to pardon Nixon, it is clear Ford thought it was the right thing to do for the health of the nation. But, while he understood he would pay a political price, it is not clear to me that he fully grasped the potential impact of pardoning Nixon on his presidential reelection chances. Would Ford have pardoned Nixon if he knew with certainty that it would cost him reelection?  When he was sworn in as Nixon’s Vice President, Ford famously remarked, “I am a Ford. Not a Lincoln.” But I am not sure even Lincoln, in a similar situation, could answer that question.

It is fitting, I think, that we give Ford the last word – here is his speech (click here) accepting the Profile in Courage Award and once again defending his decision to pardon Nixon.


About Those Senate Forecasts

I’m up today at U.S News (see here) trying to make sense of the variation in the more quantitatively-driven Senate forecasts that are popping up.  At first glance they seem all over the map, running the gamut from the Princeton Election Consortium’s Sam Wang’s optimistic 75% probability that Democrats will retain a majority on November 4th to the more pessimistic mid-30% probabilities projected by the New York Times and FiveThirtyEight.  Here are the projections at six of the sites as of last Friday – the percentage is their assessment of the probability that Democrats will retain control of the Senate:

DailyKos 56%
Five Thirty Eight 36%
Huffington Post 55%
New York Times 38%
Princeton Election Consortium 75%
Washington Post 47%

As I argue in my US News post, however, there is an underlying pattern to this seemingly disparate set of projections.  The projections that are purely poll driven (the bold-faced forecasters above) are much more optimistic regarding the Democrats’ chances of retaining the Senate than are those forecasts that include some structural component into their model, such as Obama’s approval ratings, or a measure of economic performance or a generic party preference.   It’s too early to say which type of forecast model will prove more accurate – my guess is that they will converge as we get closer to election day.  See my US News post for a more detailed discussion.

As I noted to those of you who are on my email distribution list, with classes starting today, the frequency of my posting is likely to go down a bit.  Moreover, I’ll be depending a bit more on you to flag interesting items about which you will want me to post.  So keep those suggestions coming!