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.


  1. Neat, but not the whole story. We are lucky enough to occasionally have senior cabinet advisors to the President whose thinking and wisdom extends beyond their departmental viewpoints or concerns. At the opposite end of the spectrum are some who grind their own axes ignoring their department’s best thinking and advice. The devil as usual is in the details.

    In Panetta’s case, for instance, I would be surprised if the military would have wanted to stay in Iraq without a Status of Forces agreement exempting US troops from Iraqi court jurisdiction, agreement which the administration worked very hard to obtain but failed. How we could have tried even harder to persuade Maliki to give what he didn’t want to give is unclear. Nor is it obvious that the 10,000 or so US troops Panetta apparently wanted left behind could have accomplished what 190,000 had failed to do.

    The real problem in Iraq is that Bremer and Rumsfeld destroyed its bureaucratic and military structure at the outset and that, after that, the job of turning this ancient tribal and religiously divided artificial country into a unified democracy with an effective military was probably a lost cause. That tragedy, of which the Syrian crisis is a subset, is playing itself out and has more acts to come. Decisive or not, no President could have contained these forces.

    Lastly, I do condemn the (admittedly many) opportunists how bite the hand that fed them. to whit, who air the family linen while their former boss is still in power. Their books are of course more newsworthy and pay more, but its still opportunistic and disloyal.

  2. “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.”

    Non sequitor. Principles =/= concerns. If you cannot maintain consistent principles while moving from Congress to SecDef then you should not be SecDef.

  3. Navigator – I appreciate the distinction, but if you read Cohen’s article, he in fact equates principles with concerns. Here’s some of the relevant passages from Cohen’s critique:

    “At both Langley and the Pentagon he became a forceful advocate for—or, some might say, bureaucratic captive of—the agencies he ran. As CIA Director he pushed back on efforts to expose the agency’s illegal activities during the Bush Administration —in particular, the use of torture (which he had once decried).

    At DoD he ran around with his hair practically on fire denouncing cuts to the defense budget in out-sized, apocalyptic terms. The “catastrophic,” “draconian” cuts would initiate a “doomsday mechanism” and “invite aggression,” he claimed and always without specific examples. Ironically, when Panetta was chairman of the House Budget Committee in the early 1990s, he took the exact opposite position and pushed for huge cuts to the defense budget.For Panetta, principles appear to be determined by wherever he happens to be sitting at any given moment.”

    My response is to that assertion.

  4. Great post. I also think there is something to the fact that all the “kiss and tell” memoirs of the Obama years so far have been written by people with careers not really tied to Obama until they started serving in his cabinet. Gates is a Republican, Hillary was one of the major rivals of his career, and Panetta was very much an elder statesman who owes his rise to Congresses of long ago and Bill Clinton bringing him into the White House in the 90’s. Which means they don’t have the traditional loyalties or career reasons to not criticize the president, at least while they are in office.

    Having said that I think what’s going on here is pretty clear, at least over Syria. Gates, Panetta, and Hillary are hawks who favored intervention in Syria back in 2013 (or before). They disagreed with Obama’s decision not to bomb Syria or arm various anti-government forces back then. That’s an interesting thing to debate, at least more so than the idea that Obama is a disaster because some people disagreed with him. (Personally I think the failure of our current round of bombings and arming various groups to fix Syria’s problems shows that Obama was right back then, but that’s just me.)

  5. George,

    Thanks for the comment. Two quick points: first, I think part of Panetta’s critique is that Obama did not try hard enough to get the Status of Force agreement with Maliki in place. Obviously Obama’s supporters disagree, but I don’t doubt that Panetta believes this to be true. Second, in regard to biting the hand that fed them, I point you to Longwalk’s very good comment above on this point in which he suggests that the willingness of Gates, Clinton and Panetta to go public with their dissatisfaction with the President may partly reflect the fact that each of them had established careers long before they joined his administration, and thus felt they owed less to him than would someone for whom the President was a patron. To this I would add that Clinton, in particular, has a political incentive to distance herself publicly from the administration in which she served.

  6. Longwalk – Both great points (the previous careers and their more hawkish views) with which I fully agree.

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