Leon Panetta: traitor, patriot – or something else

Books by former presidential aides can also express the views of public servants who tried very hard to fulfill the responsibilities of their positions and, in so doing, clashed with their president.

Cliff Owen/AP/File
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta participates in a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington on Jan. 14, 2013. President Obama's former Pentagon chief is criticizing his foreign policy in a new memoir.

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. Mr. Panetta, of course, is a former congressman and long-time Washington insider who most recently served as President Obama’s CIA director. In his memoirs, Panetta 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, whom 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, Gatesp 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 US 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’s 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.

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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