In an interview about his new book ‘Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace’, Panetta argues that decisions made by President Obama over the past three years about the Islamic State have made the battle more difficult.
His assessment immediately drew strong reaction from the White House.
“I think the President himself is the person that is setting the agenda. It’s the President himself who is building this broad, international coalition,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said yesterday.
“We are pleased with the kind of international coalition that is coming together and gets stronger every day. Just in the last week or so, we’ve seen new commitments from Turkey, but also from countries like Denmark, from the Belgians and others, to lend the support of their military to this broader effort,” he said.
He said the US was confident that this kind of broad, international effort will succeed in implementing the strategy that the President has laid out.
Earnest said Obama was proud to have Panetta serve as a senior member of his national security team both as the Director of the CIA and as the Secretary of Defence.
“Anybody in any administration who serves in prominent positions like that has to make a decision about how and when and whether to talk about their experience serving the President of the United States. And I’ll leave it to others to judge the conclusion that Secretary Panetta has reached about sharing his experience,” he said.
“The President is proud of the record of leadership that he’s demonstrated. It doesn’t mean that the work is done; in fact, the work is still underway,” he added.
Admitting that the work was difficult, Earnest said it was work that was critically important to the country.
“It’s critically important that we have an American President that is willing to make the case to our international partners and to our allies to get involved in these things,” he said.
“Whether it is confronting the causes of an Ebola outbreak that will only be addressed if we can stop this outbreak at its source, or take the fight to ISIL – theres no one else who’s going to sit around and get that done. That’s why the US is going to step up, under the leadership of this President, to play a leading role in the international community to solve these problems,” he said.
In his interview to USA TODAY, Panetta said Obama erred by not pushing the Iraqi government harder to allow a residual US force to remain when troops withdrew in 2011.
That “created a vacuum in terms of the ability of that country to better protect itself, and it’s out of that vacuum that ISIS began to breed,” he claimed.
Panetta criticized Obama for rejecting the advice of top aides including Panetta and then-secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to begin arming Syrian rebels in 2012.
He said Obama also erred by warning Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own people, then failing to act when that “red line” was crossed in 2013.