10/13/2014 03:09 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2014

Leon Panetta's Book, Barack Obama's Plight, and the Shreds of Statesmanship

President Barack Obama's got a lot of problems, some of his making, many not. His popularity is down. Democratic control of the U.S. Senate is teetering, and nobody wants him campaigning with them. His new war against ISIS isn't going well. Nobody much cares about his economic recovery except the folks actually benefiting most, and they're mostly voting Republican. And so on and on. And on. The last thing he need is one of his former top officials feeding attack lines to his enemies.

So naturally, that's what he has.

Leon Panetta, who served as secretary of defense and director of the CIA, two posts that had seemed beyond his reach several years ago, has published a memoir with scathing criticisms of Obama's national security policies and decision-making. The only reason to publish now rather than later is because of the heightened coverage around the election. It's not as though Panetta is providing a breathless, timely expose, for he's not saying anything new. He's providing fodder for Republican attacks. This sure isn't what Clark Clifford or other classic statesmen of the past would have done.

Veteran California political figure and Washington hand Leon Panetta, awarded two of America's most prestigious offices by President Barack Obama, went on Fox News last week to promote his book with host Bill O'Reilly.

I can't think of another contemporary Democrat who has held more top-rank appointed national offices than Leon Panetta. Secretary of Defense and CIA director for Obama; federal budget director and White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton. Those are great honors, three Cabinet-rank posts and the top staff job in the West Wing. Not bad for a former junior Army reserve officer and product of Santa Clara University.

Eighteen years as an amiably hard-working congressman from California's Central Coast yielded chairmanship of the House of Budget Committee. Which gave rise to becoming Clinton's budget director. White House disorganization and Clinton's comfort with Panetta led to the chief of staff post. All of that was a natural progression.

Back here in California, there was recurring talk of Panetta for governor, but he lacked the dynamism to be a top contender. So he settled into an elder statesman role based out of his policy center at Cal State Monterey Bay, working on some projects with then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's only statewide liberal Republican since U.S. Senator Tom Kuchel, with whom ex-Republican Panetta got his start in the '60s.

Then lightning struck for Panetta, in the form of Barack Obama. There was liberal pushback against Obama's first pick for CIA director, John Brennan, who now has the post. So Obama turned to the amiable old Washington hand Panetta. Ironically, Panetta's fellow Californian, Senator Dianne Feinstein, was opposed. She wanted a CIA insider. But there was a good case to be made for a responsible outsider to take the Agency helm in the wake of its expansive Bush/Cheney torture programs. Quite a few were happy to make the case for Panetta, including me. He always seemed a good guy, loyal, thoughtful, decent.

Once at CIA, though, Panetta, who, like Obama, didn't really have an agenda to improve CIA, aligned with Agency insiders. In Washington Postie David Ignatius's elegant phrase, he "accepted the chalice." Which wasn't the worst thing in the world. Although the drone strike program, shared with the Pentagon, became very problematic, the biggest Obama era intelligence problems have been at the National Security Agency, with its massive secret surveillance programs.

Well, there was the problem of CIA spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee, attempting to mess with its supposed overseer's report on the torture programs. But Feinstein, outraged at last, should have expected that.

Panetta did an undeniably great thing in amping up the program to get Osama bin Laden. In a formidable feat of combined intel/special forces operations, the people who actually attacked us on 9/11 were finally defeated. A great moment, yet ... The beat went on. Thanks to the gift that comes on giving, the invasion of Iraq, and the ready-to-make template of jihadism.

So when Bob Gates stepped away as defense secretary, Obama made Panetta, not known before Obama's presidency for his expertise, knowledge, or forecasts in geopolitical or military matters, the head of America's armed forces.

In a time of budget scarcity, with the Iraq War and Afghan War winding down, Panetta's fiscal expertise seemed like a good fit for hard choices in the Pentagon. But Panetta, who backed the hugely expensive Afghanistan surge -- just as he backed the Iraq invasion -- again mainly went to bat for institutional insiders.

Now Panetta is hitting Obama for not going to war in Syria when the Assad regime used chemical weapons in its civil war. He blames Obama for Isis, which would be nowhere had we not invaded Iraq in the first place, saying its rise could have been prevented had Obama provided massive assistance on behalf of illusory moderate rebels in Syria and had he insisted on the residual U.S. force in Iraq that the Baghdad regime itself resisted.

That's all a bunch of familiar, er, mush -- the last bit directly contrary to what Panetta himself said when we withdrew from Iraq -- relevant only because it's Panetta reinforcing right-wing Republican campaign rhetoric against Obama and the Democrats.

Panetta could easily have refrained from saying that dreck out of loyalty and gratitude for the great honors bestowed on him by Obama rather than help the Republicans win the Senate. If he really felt he had to say it, he could have said it after the election.

By saying it now, Panetta makes it more "newsworthy," thus increasing his celebrity and moving his product. Which is, let's say, disappointing.

Speaking of which, there is Panetta's tenure in the two great offices Obama handed him.

One needn't tear apart the CIA to improve it. Why not use it to truly determine the best balance of force and diplomacy to contain jihadism without spurring its growth and fostering a post-bin Laden threat to the homeland?

Similarly at the Pentagon, why not recognize that fiscal woes create an era of limits in which ordering most items at an all-you-can-eat restaurant is no longer remotely possible? That "hard choices," to borrow the title of Hillary Clinton's ironically-named memoir, are required. Taking action creates not only cost but opportunity cost.

The big surge in Afghanistan, for example, which Panetta backed, enabled us to fool around for a few more years with the illusion of nation-building, but not much else. In the end, the Taliban will return to power in much of the country and we will have allies in the north. Between them, our own strike capabilities, and deals with the Taliban we can prevent a renewed safe haven for Al Qaeda. Which was the actual point of the Afghan War.

We didn't go that way, instead fruitlessly squandering a vast fortune.

Instead of the Afghanistan surge, we could have put together a manned mission to Mars. AND doubled the number of top-line aircraft carriers from 10 to 20 (among other things turning China's claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea into a joke). And we would still have money left over for some social and environmental programs.

You want American Exceptionalism? There it is.

Instead we got more wildly expensive post-9/11 hackery, leading nowhere. And Leon Panetta's generation, which has not produced a president, may have one fewer statesman than previously imagined.

William Bradley Archive