Every Time She Thinks She’s Out, They Pull Her Back In
Leon Panetta's new book is yanking Hillary Clinton into a debate she doesn't want to have: whether Obama lost Iraq.
Hillary Clinton finds herself in an uncomfortable spotlight as two books coming out next week from former colleagues show her pressing President Barack Obama to keep troops in Iraq but being overruled, giving critics of the White House new fuel for their argument that the current crisis in Iraq is a result of Obama's refusal to heed the advice of his top national security officials.
Hillary Clinton finds herself in an uncomfortable spotlight as two books coming out next week from former colleagues show her pressing President Barack Obama to keep troops in Iraq but being overruled, giving critics of the White House new fuel for their argument that the current crisis in Iraq is a result of Obama’s refusal to heed the advice of his top national security officials.
The books, by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill, paint Obama’s inner circle of advisers as feckless and distrustful of the military, but the excerpts that have trickled out ahead of the Oct. 7 publication of both works also highlight Clinton’s opposition to the president’s handling of the Iraq troop withdrawal, discussions over what the United States should give in order to free missing U.S. prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl, and whether to arm the moderate Syrian opposition.
Given Clinton’s name recognition and her possible presidential bid, accounts of foreign-policy dissension within the Obama administration on Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan are likely to have resonance for some time to come. Indeed, the new books are likely to cause heartburn within both the White House and the tight circle of trusted aides advising Clinton as she considers a 2016 presidential run. White House National Security Council Spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden did not respond to a request for comment.
For the administration, the new works are the latest to paint the president as overly reliant on a tight circle of senior White House staffers who routinely shunt aside powerful cabinet secretaries. As the Obama administration tries to move away from the past and come up with a strategy to deal with the threat posed by the Islamic State, books by former officials rekindle old debates, said Stephen Biddle, a foreign-policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Unflattering commentary is not regarded as helpful to any administration,” Biddle said. “But the bigger issue is the administration still is groping around for limited ways to respond to limited interests.”
Clinton’s own book, Hard Choices, had assiduously avoided mention of internal battles within the Obama administration in order to focus on her accomplishments as America’s top diplomat.
While Clinton has a chapter each in her book on Afghanistan, Gaza, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Russia, there is none on Iraq. In one significant mention of Iraq, Clinton is dismissive of the American war effort — the one she voted for. On the dilemma of whether the United States should intervene in Syria, she writes: "Do nothing, and a humanitarian disaster envelops the region. Intervene militarily, and risk opening Pandora’s box and wading into another quagmire, like Iraq." The new works could force her to now weigh in more directly on those fights.
Representatives for Clinton declined to comment.
Much of Panetta’s book, Worthy Fights, is a memoir about his decades as a congressman, White House chief of staff, CIA director, and Pentagon head, but it’s the sections about Iraq that are likely to garner the most attention inside and outside of Washington. In an excerpt published in Time, the former defense secretary writes that he and the Pentagon’s top military leaders wanted to leave thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq, only to be overruled by Obama.
"I privately and publicly advocated for a residual force that could provide training and security for Iraq’s military," Panetta writes. "But the president’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated."
Representatives for Panetta did not respond to emails for comment.
The White House withdrew all U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 after being unable to strike a bilateral security agreement with Baghdad, a decision that critics say paved the way for the current violence and chaos rocking the country. Had American troops remained, critics say, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki might not have adopted the strident pro-Shiite policies that drove many angry Sunnis into an alliance with the Islamic State.
In the excerpt, Panetta writes that a small U.S. troop presence "could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al-Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country."
Panetta’s book also echoes a central critique leveled by former Defense Secretary Bob Gates in his own book, Duty: that senior White House staffers routinely used their access to the president to shut out top cabinet officials, including ones as senior as himself and Clinton.
"Far more than in previous administrations that I’d witnessed — certainly more than in Clinton’s when I’d been near the center of the action — President Obama’s decision-making apparatus was centralized in the White House," he writes in an excerpt from a copy obtained by the Daily Beast.
Hill’s memoir, Outpost — an excerpt of which appeared in Politico — looks at a different aspect of the White House’s handling of Iraq: A startling lack of attention from the officials at the highest levels of the administration paints a picture of a State Department under Clinton that was disorganized and ineffectual.
The former ambassador recounts Clinton’s first official trip to Iraq in 2009, going through a grueling day of meetings and ending with a campaign-style event complete with rope lines and amateur photographers armed with cellphones at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Hill writes that he bid farewell to Clinton after that trip "with the expectation she would be back soon." Except that she never returned, Hill writes. That’s because Vice President Joe Biden took over the Iraq portfolio, he writes, and the focus drifted.
Hill goes on to describe how then-Undersecretary of State William Burns, a high-powered official who might have argued for a stronger American diplomatic role in Iraq, was asked to take on issues other than Iraq, leaving the State Department without a strong backer in Washington, D.C., in 2009 when the troop withdrawal debate was still underway.
The result was that "it was increasingly clear that Iraq remained the military’s problem, not the State Department’s," Hill writes. Allowing the Pentagon to take the upper hand meant Iraq became a "matter of keeping faith with our troops rather than seeing Iraq as a strategic issue," Hill writes.
As Panetta makes clear, the military didn’t get its way on Iraq either. That, in part, reflects the power of the president’s inner circle, who appeared capable of effectively overruling top cabinet members. Panetta, like Gates, aims his ire at former White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, then-counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, and then deputy national security advisor Denis McDonough.
"Most of my conflicts with the Obama administration during the first two years weren’t over policy initiatives from the White House but rather the [National Security Staff’s] micromanagement and operational meddling, which I routinely resisted," Gates wrote in his own work.
Panetta offers a grim assessment of the threat posed by the Islamic State, the militant group that now controls much of Syria and Iraq. The United States is attempting to cobble together an international coalition of Arab states and other countries to take the fight to the Islamic State, but Panetta’s book raises serious questions about whether the White House is up to the task. What is clear from the work, though, is that the former defense chief sees the group as posing a direct threat to the United States.
"In my view, the ISIS offensive in 2014 greatly increases the risk that Iraq will become al-Qaeda’s next safe haven," Panetta writes in Time. "That is exactly what it had in Afghanistan pre-9/11. After all we have done to decimate al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and its core, those efforts will be for naught if we allow it to rebuild a base of operations in the Middle East."
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.