With new book, Leon Panetta joins group of top cabinet officials turning their backs on Obama

In Panetta's new book 'Worthy Fights,' he says the president has 'lost his way' on foreign policy.

Susan Walsh/AP
In this 2013 photo, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks at the Pentagon during his last news conference as defense secretary.

What do you do when you disagree with your boss?

If you’re Leon Panetta and your boss was President Obama, you write a book about it.

“Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace,” by former CIA director and secretary of defense Panetta takes aim at President Obama for what Panetta characterizes as temerity, a lack of leadership, and serious missteps in foreign policy. 

The book is the latest in a series of memoirs by former Obama cabinet officials that question the president’s decisions and his leadership, thereby creating an opening for Republican rivals ahead of midterm elections in November as well as a PR headache for the White House. 

In his book, released Tuesday, Panetta said Obama “lost his way” on foreign policy and detailed a series of decisions in which he said he disagreed with the president. 

Among Panetta’s complaints directed at the president: failing to enforce the “red line” on chemical weapon use in Syria; rejecting advice to arm Syrian rebels and approving the full withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011, thereby enabling a power vacuum in Iraq that allowed ISIS to flourish; not going to Congress to seek approval for attacks on ISIS and ruling out deployment of American ground troops there.

Obama “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities,” Panetta said in his book. 

As The New York Times reported, Obama’s lack of effort to stop automatic budget cuts mandated by the sequester was the moment that crystallized Panetta’s frustration.

“Indeed, that episode highlighted what I regard as his most conspicuous weakness, a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause,” Panetta wrote. “That is not a failing of ideas or of intellect. He does, however, sometimes lack fire. Too often, in my view, the president relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader." 

Panetta’s harsh criticism, the latest in a handful of former cabinet officials to speak out against the president, has the White House on a defensive.

“The book, and the media blitz that accompanies it, becomes the latest headache for a White House that, like other second-term administrations, finds itself fending off friendly fire from veterans of the first,” reports the NYT.

The problem is even more pronounced as the midterm elections approach and Republicans ferret out fodder against their Democratic rivals by connecting them to the president. 

Of course, “Worthy Fights” is not the first book that’s criticized a sitting president.

Former defense secretary Robert Gates criticized Obama’s handling of Afghanistan in “Duty,” former secretary of state Hilary Clinton faulted the president for rejecting advice on arming Syrian rebels in “Hard Choices,” and former Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner disapproved of the president’s handling of the financial crisis in “Stress Test.” 

With “Worthy Fights,” Panetta has joined the pack of top cabinet officials turning their back on Obama.

Reaction has been mixed.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank criticizes the cabinet officials, writing that “this level of disloyalty is stunning" and says the “lack of message discipline is puzzling.”

The Post’s Ed Rogers disagrees.

“The explosive conclusions they all independently report about President Obama should not be seen as acts of disloyalty or selfishness.” he writes. “Maybe we should look at their revelations not as selfish, disloyal acts, but as sincere warnings from patriots." 

However Panetta’s book is received, his words provide the last glimpse of his dealings from within the White House.

Panetta has said he’s done with public office. As he told the Times, he is focusing now on his walnut farm.

“I’m dealing with a different set of nuts,” he said.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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