Promoting the release of his new book “Worthy Fights,” former Secretary of Defense and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Leon Panetta has embarked on a media tour full of criticism of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.
Panetta’s criticism has been squarely aimed at the president’s handling of the situation in Syria and Iraq over the past few years.
He has painted Obama’s decision not to enforce his own “red line” against the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad as a mistake that hurt US credibility. And he has said Obama has made decisions that have created a vacuum for the rise of extremists like the group calling itself the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL).
“It was damaging,” Panetta told Yahoo’s Katie Couric of Obama’s decision to draw a “red line” over Assad’s use of chemical weapons and then back away from military action.
It “sent a mixed message, not only to Assad, not only to the Syrians, but to the world,” said Panetta, who served as Obama’s CIA director from 2009 to 2011 and secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013. “And that is something you do not want to establish in the world, an issue with regard to the credibility of the United States to stand by what we say we’re going to do.”
Panetta took over as US secretary of defense about six months before the US pulled all of its troops out of Iraq, a move Obama’s critics say is at least partly responsible for the growth of extremism in the country over the next two-plus years. Panetta joined those critics, saying he was of the opinion that as few as 8,000 to 10,000 could have made a difference.
“I don’t think there’s any question that, had we left 8,000, 10,000 troops there, plus our intelligence operations, plus a strong diplomatic presence, that that would’ve had an impact,” Panetta told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
In April, ISIS began a sweeping offensive in northern Iraq, gaining swaths of territory and eventually prompting the US to intervene. The US is also striking targets in Syria, and a coalition of partners is confronting the group along with the US in Iraq.
Panetta placed most of the blame at the feet of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite leader he said was mostly responsible for the governmental dysfunction and rise of sectarianism. But he said the US pulling out troops “created a vacuum” and shifted US attention away from the region while extremist groups were building up their operations.
“I think when we stepped out of Iraq, in many ways, we created this vacuum in which not a lot of attention was paid to what was happening in Iraq or what was happening in Syria with the extremists who were developing a base of operations there,” Panetta told NBC. “That combination, plus obviously not getting all of the intelligence that we should’ve had on it, I think is what produced the ISIS that we’re confronting today.”