Obama still in office, but ex-aides’ books and claws are already out

President Obama and then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in 2012. Panetta says in his new book that Obama "avoids the battle, complains and misses opportunities."
(Saul Loeb / AFP-Getty Images)

Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was first to land a punch. Then former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton weighed in with a memoir that distanced herself from her president’s foreign policy.

And Tuesday, former CIA chief and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, long a trusted advisor to Democratic presidents, released a book about his years in the administration in which he criticizes President Obama as a vacillating leader who often “avoids the battle.”

All presidents have had in-house critics. But rarely has a president faced the degree of public criticism from former senior Cabinet members that Obama has this year.


The critiques are particularly notable because they have appeared while Obama is still in office, struggling with a world beset with crises. Panetta’s “Worthy Fights” has appeared as the midterm election approaches, when criticism of Obama could boost his Republican opposition.

The chorus of Cabinet members’ complaints “is really like no other case in the modern era,” said Aaron David Miller, who worked as a diplomat for presidents of both parties and is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Fairly or not, they are “reinforcing the image of a president who has pushed risk aversion in foreign policy too far,” Miller said.

The former-officials-turned-authors aren’t members of Obama’s personal inner circle, like Chief of Staff Denis McDonough or advisor Valerie Jarrett, who haven’t written books. But all three were pillars of Obama’s first-term team and central in shaping his national security strategy.

Panetta’s book, like Gates’, which was published in January, and Clinton’s, which was released in July, does have favorable things to say about Obama’s leadership. Obama’s foreign policy may be headed in a positive direction now, Panetta writes.

But he asserts that Obama, in his efforts to steer the country away from costly and ineffective wars, sought to avoid risk in ways that have created only greater dangers.

Obama shouldn’t have withdrawn all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, or refused to arm Syrian rebels until recent months, or reversed his decision last year to bomb the Syrian government after it used banned chemical weapons, Panetta writes.


Although Obama had developed a coherent foreign policy, the president also “avoids the battle, complains and misses opportunities,” Panetta says. The president erred recently in ruling out the use of ground troops against Islamic State militants, in Panetta’s view, and in failing to seek congressional approval for the campaign.

Obama’s “most conspicuous weakness,” Panetta writes, is a “frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause.”

In the publicity campaign for the book, Panetta, who served as White House chief of staff under President Clinton, appears to be suggesting that Hillary Clinton would make a better president than Obama. Her tenacity would make her a “great” president, Panetta said in an interview with USA Today.

The Gates and Clinton books also described an ambivalent president who too often stops short.

In his book, “Duty,” Gates described Obama as having signed on to an expansion of the Afghan war early in his presidency even though he “was skeptical, if not outright convinced, it would fail.” For the president, “it was all about getting out.”

Clinton made clear that she disagreed with Obama’s refusal to support the Syrian rebels and to stand up more firmly to Russian President Vladimir Putin. She also disagreed with his decision to set a hard deadline for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan

As president, she would be more loyal to allies such as Israel, she suggested, tougher on U.S. adversaries and more ready to use force.

The three Cabinet members aren’t the only important stewards of Obama’s foreign policy who have conspicuously parted ways with him this year.

Prominent diplomats, including Ryan Crocker and Christopher Hill, both former ambassadors to Iraq, and Robert Ford, the former ambassador to Syria, have said since their retirements that they believed the administration should have maintained more of a U.S. presence in Iraq or done more in the Syrian fight.

To some extent, the criticisms may reflect the gulf between Obama and the leaders of the Washington foreign policy establishment.

The instincts of policy experts, conservatives and liberals alike are to want to do more to deal with the world’s problems. Obama’s conviction is that America has been bearing too much of a burden, getting too little in return, and should shift more of the burden to other countries.

But the books also reflect a change in Washington norms. Not long ago, critiques like these were considered bad form.

Former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara kept his anguish over President Johnson’s policies involving the Vietnam War to himself for almost three decades before going public. Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher made clear he didn’t approve of revealing memoirs and instead released a collection of his speeches.

But the stigma about critical tell-all books seems to have eased.

“I don’t think there is public disapproval of this kind of thing any longer,” said James Goldgeier, dean of American University’s School of International Service and a former national security aide in the Clinton White House. “I don’t think any White House can now expect that people won’t say things until after you leave office.”