Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is the latest to recycle the same tired criticisms of President Obama. The criticisms with only slight variation boil down to Obama are weak, ineffectual, hesitant and blundering on Iraq and Syria. He should have tossed the missiles and put the boots on the ground instantly against ISIS. Or, he never should have taken the troops out of Iraq in the first place. And because he did, blame him for ISIS, a crumbling Iraqi regime, a resurgent Assad in Syria, and a pathetic, fumbling grab at arch foe, Iran, to help bail the U.S. out of its woes in Iraq. The only thing different about Panetta's variation on these tired criticisms is that he speaks as a former administration insider, and he's not a professional GOP Obama basher.
Panetta tried to protect his flank by assuring that there was no mean-spirited political intent to harm Obama but simply it's an honest warning that costly mistakes were made in the region that hurt the administration and made a horrific military and political situation in the area worse. The problem with this is that it does hurt politically and his assessment is wrong-headed. The key Panetta line is that you don't bomb willy-nilly and that you need people on the ground. Obama never made any pretense that air strikes alone would roll up ISIS, but the air strikes were hardly launched and the targets chosen without the approval of military analysts, strategists, and spotters on the ground. But even in this criticism Panetta is being disingenuous. He's well aware that Obama has done everything politically possible to try to weld a coalition of regional forces, Turkey, Iran, even Assad, as well as opposition groups in Syria, the Kurds, and the Iraqi government to halt ISIS which he himself admits is the only hope of ultimately defeating it.
Panetta also can't be serious when he chides Obama for not at least keeping a few boots on the ground in Iraq. He knows that wasn't feasible, and anyway what would a handful of American troops have done anyway unless he really means redeploying thousands of American ground troops back to the country to directly engage ISIS. Neither the American public nor Congress would have backed that.
This is not a small point. Panetta doesn't spell out just exactly how big a U.S. military presence he says should have stayed in Iraq. That's the first question he leaves dangling. There are others. What would they actually do once there? Namely who would they fight? How would they whip the Iraqi military into a force that wouldn't cut and run in the face of the insurgents? Who would pay the cost for maintaining thousands of American troops in the country? Would they force Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to sign a Status of Forces Agreement that would protect U.S. soldiers in the country? He didn't sign that agreement when Obama withdrew American troops from Iraq. How would the U.S. insure that the al-Maliki regime will immediately institute political reforms, namely true power sharing with the Sunni political factions before and after the troops leave again? The white elephant in the Iraqi closet is: Is the U.S. prepared to cozy up to the Iranian regime which has demonized the U.S. for decades, and the U.S. has returned the compliment to effect some settlement? Panetta is virtually silent on this point.
Panetta hectors Obama for allegedly not keeping "all his options open." The one option that Panetta deftly avoids directly saying is to unilaterally tear up the treaty commitment, Bush, not Obama, made with the Iraqi government, and keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the country. Again, what would that do without specific goals, specific timetables, and a specific exit plan for eventually getting them out of the country? The only thing that can be added to this is that the seeds of the quagmire were already firmly planted with the guns blazing intervention of Bush without insuring that a future Iraqi government would not be corrupt, insular, narrow, and thumb its nose at democratic governance and accountability.
This failure is the reason that Iraq was foredoomed to be a perennial testament to Bush's abominable global record when it relied on brute force to fight wars without a real understanding of the forces and factions involved, their historic divisions, and animosities, and their particular vested interests in the country. This abject failure in Iraq was compounded by installing a corrupt, autocrat in power whose rule insured even more sectarian fighting.
Panetta would have Obama double down on this by pouring billions more into Iraq to bolster that same government, while guaranteeing the loss of untold more American lives, and deepening the resentment and loathing of America of yet another generation of Iraqis. This would virtually assure another ISIS type insurgency in the future. Obama took the only steps he could to try and avoid that possibility and he's doing what is politically and militarily feasible given the dreary circumstances. Panetta's after the fact, recycle of the same tired criticisms of Obama won't change that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.