Friday, May 01, 2015
Worthy Fights by Leon Panetta (Book Review #36 of 2015)
Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace
I checked out this book to get more insight into the conflicts of the Middle East and the inner workings of the Obama Administration. This is the fourth Obama cabinet memoir I've read (Clinton, Gates, Geithner) but it had the least to say about the Obama Administration, which was a disappointment. I was hoping to learn why Panetta left as Secretary of Defense so quickly (served about 18 months) but got no such insights. It was partly to due with his desire to spend time with family, he had always made weekend trips home to California no matter his position in government. Panetta returns to his strong feelings about public service throughout the book, and I suspect he avoided any criticisms of Obama, Joe Biden, or the Clintons because he knows he'll be asked to serve again soon. So, the book contained few real heartfelt disclosures, unlike Bob Gates' memoir, but an occasional gem falls out. The subtitle of the book is "Leadership in War and Peace," but there is very little leadership-related material. I didn't glean many insights into how Panetta led his staff, his approach to conflict resolution or negotiation, or how he managed much of his office. Throughout the book, Panetta highlights certain details of events or speeches, and sometimes individuals, that he feels have gone underappreciated in history.
The first 40 percent of the book is about Panetta's early career. Panetta's dad immigrated from Italy in 1921, and he was born in 1938. His parents opened a bar in Monterey, CA. Before the U.S. entered World War II, his grandfather came to visit from Italy and was forced to stay after Pearl Harbor. Worse, his grandfather was one of thousands of Italian Americans living along the coast who were rounded up into detention camps under FDR, giving Panetta a unique perspective on civil liberties during wartime that would assist his thinking as later CIA director and Secretary of Defense.
Panetta never quite defines what an "Eisenhower Republican" is to him, but he was one-- and also an Earl Warren Republican in the 1950s. Panetta responded to JFK's call to service in the 1960s and became an aid to Senator Kuchel. As the Republican Party moved rightward (Kuchel did not support Barry Goldwater and other conservatives), his boss was attached by Birchers on the right and lost in the 1968 primary. Panetta then worked in the Office of Civil Rights under former CA governor Bob Finch in the Cabinet for Health, Education, and Welfare. Panetta claims that both himself and Finch were appalled by the Nixon Administration's heavy-handed politics. Panetta was fired by Nixon for being too liberal on desegregation in housing and education policy, which he learned from a newspaper article that said he was resigning. Nixon had courted influential Southerners during the election and it became clear that politics came first. He writes that he was "one of the least surprised" by the revelations of Watergate. He purportedly brought up that history when President Obama tapped him to be CIA chief, and Obama claimed he was aware of the history and included it in his reasons for wanting him.
Panetta went to work for the mayor of New York City, but missed California and returned to Monterey to practice law. Panetta is a practicing Catholic and it's clear throughout the book that time with family and California are the most important things to him. He became a Democrat in 1971 and unseated the Republican congressional incumbent in 1976. He sees one crowning achievement as protecting the Monterey coastline from off-shore drilling. The other was his work on budget committees in Congress, which he says is the "most important work I would do in Congress." He was also on the House Budget Committee from 1979 to 1989, working with Reagan and Bush 41, both of whom he admired and writes well of. He praises Bush for his willingness to increase taxes and Panetta chaired the Budget Committee working out the balanced budget deal of 1990. He appreciated that Reagan would make "thank you" phone calls after passing a budget, and admired Reagan's ability to lead publicly. He worked on the commission on base closings from 1988-1992, fighting to keep the base in his district open but being forthright about the need to "move on" and attract commerce to the area when it was time to close it.
He writes that he was a deficit hawk for two reasons: he was raised to be personally frugal and he hates the cost of servicing the debt, particularly for future generations. He praises Reagan as being a better leader and politician than Carter, and Bush '41 for putting "country first," and doing the right thing to balance the budget and raise taxes. (Panetta is noted for being one of the few to vote against the 1991 Gulf War.) Panetta felt that the GOP's conservative wing's reach for Pat Buchanan in '91 was "desperate," and he repeatedly bemoans the right-wing takeover from the 60's to today.
Since I work in a government budget office, I found Panetta's discussion of budget negotiations and procedures to be interesting. He was tapped by Bill Clinton to be OMB Director for his expertise. Panetta "admired" the "perseverance" of Clinton, and praises Clinton for being the first President he ever saw to read "every line" of the federal budget and for diving into its details. When Clinton wanted Panetta to be Chief of Staff, he called James Baker for advice. Panetta almost fired George Stephanopoulous and Rahm Emmanuel for being too strong in the personalities, Sephanopoulous had an ego and would butt into the room when not needed or wanted.
Panetta offers many insights into negotiations with Congress. One notable story involved negotiating for a difficult "yes" vote from Congresswoman Barbara-Rose Collins from Detroit on an assault weapons ban.
"she informed me that Jesus had spoken to her in a dream the night before. 'Really?' I asked calmly...'What did Jesus say?'
'He told me I should consider supporting the president,' she answered, then added, 'I think God will allow me to support this bill if I get a casino for my district.'
'I'm glad to hear that Jesus is flexible,' I responded."
If one character gets blasted in the book, it's Newt Gingrich. Gingrich made public accusations that White House staffers were known drug users. Panetta "lost it," and publicly fought Gingrich. Panetta relishes in the aftermath of the famous 1996 shutdown debacle, when Gingrich overplayed his hand and was made to look like a brat. Panetta points out that the shutdown furlough of White House staffers was what allowed Monica Lewinsky greater access to Bill Clinton. By that time, Panetta was Chief of Staff and makes no mention whatsoever of his possible responsibility in keeping women away from the President (as was their duty per orders from Mrs. Clinton as others have alleged). He writes he was later "baffled" to learn of the affair (which came out after Panetta had already left the White House).
His biggest frustration with Clinton was his secretly consulting for advice with Dick Morris. Panetta was supposed to be the "filter of ideas" and all advice or meetings for the president. Morris was an egotistical maniac hated by many Clinton staffers. Eventually, they brought Morris on in an official capacity rather than keep dealing with the secret relationship. Panetta has an "enormous respect" for Bill Clinton and leaves it at that.
Panetta left to start the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at CSU, Monterey Bay. He served as an Iraq Study Group member under President Bush, which he enjoyed but was disappointed with the Bush Administration's handling. He was surprised to be tapped as CIA director and the first hints of his frustration with the Obama Administration come when his friend and former colleague Diane Feinstein, who chaired the committee which would have to approve Panetta's appointment, was not notified and found out via the media. Panetta inherited John Brennan as Deputy Director, who was fluent in Arabic and good at his job. Panetta was technically subservient to the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, who he did not get along with. He writes that Admiral Blair had "looney" notions and was glad when he was replaced by Jim Clapper.
Panetta explains his daily routine at the CIA, which was one of the few "how I do work" insights of the book. His main battle with the Obama Administration came over the release of formerly classified memos about enhanced interrogation. Obama released them but "listened respectfully" to CIA officers' concerns and later visited the CIA for a morale-boosting visit. Panetta defends the CIA and notes that life-saving intelligence was gathered by enhanced interrogation techniques, but the benefits did not outweigh the costs and it should never happen again.
Panetta writes repeatedly of Obama's "disdain" for Congress. Besides the Feinstein incident, Obama would sic Rahm Emanuel on anyone who negotiated with Congress or divulged information to Congress without authorization. He does not write much about his interactions with Bob Gates in the book, which I find odd. He does write that he saw generals like Stan McChrystal as "boxing in" Obama but does not write of the White House's ignorance and disdain for military culture as Bob Gates describes so sharply in his memoir. Panetta found David Petraeus to have an outsized ego, writing that his office "was a shrine" to himself. Panetta opposed his nomination to replace him at CIA when he moved to Defense.
Panetta doesn't write much about operations (like Libya and Yemen) where the CIA would have obvious presence. You get little insight into CIA operations at all. On Libya and other issues, Hillary Clinton was the war hawk while Biden was the dove. Panetta defends the killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011 but does not revel in it. He recounts how an Al Qaeda operative named Humam al-Balawi duped agents in Afghanistan and Pakistan into believing he was going to be a double agent, detonating himself at Camp Chapman and killing several CIA officers. This loss deeply affected Panetta and he names every killed officer and recounts meetings with their families. Oddly, he says that Isaiah's calling in Isaiah 6 "perfectly" sums up the call the CIA officers were responding to.
Panetta recounts meetings with his Russian counterpart and dealing with other Cold War-related issues like North Korea. Revisiting the Cold War seems out of place both in the book and to Panetta. He clearly had no background in those particular issues. He details how Bin Laden was killed and his role in those decisions. Congress was briefed along the way and much to the Obama Administration's surprise there were no leaks. There was nothing, oddly, about leaking that it was Seals who performed the raid. For a budget guru, there was notably nothing in the book about the CIA's budget.
As Defense Secretary, Panetta inherited all the budget battles that Bob Gates had fought. He was chastised for reaching out to agency heads during the Obama administration's battle with Congress that eventually led to sequestration and a $487 billion cut to the Pentagon's budget over 10 years. There is some in the book about how that is pragmatically handled. Nothing in how much the little wars like Libya cost. Panetta utilized Gates' previous strategic review to figure out what missions they could and could not do under the new budget. He also was tasked with redesigning the Defense Department with a pivot toward Asia. Panetta writes of his difficulties in handling the widespread sex abuse in the military, an ongoing problem. As SecDef, the cost to taxpayers were higher although he reimbursed what he was supposed to personally under law.
One criticism of the White House was its lack of effort in negotiations with Iraq about leaving a residual force. The White House, Panetta writes, "managed but did not lead," and Panetta writes that ISIS' rise and capture of Iraqi territory could have been avoided had the Administration done a better job. He reveals that Israel really was thinking very hard about hitting Iraq in 2012. He defends the Administration against critics over Benghazi, pouring evidence on conspiracy theorists who claim that security and defense agents were told to stand down. Panetta writes in the end that Obama is "pragmatic and realistic" but sometimes does not lead with passion and complains too much. Obama "vacillated" on Syria, and Panetta had a problem with that.
Panetta concludes by looking at the budget battles of the '80s and 90s versus the sequestration debacle of today. In the old days during budget fights no one got everything they wanted, but the deal got done. Sequestration, however, was a failure of congressional leadership. Republican leadership, who knew better, "sat, as if powerless, and let it happen." Politics is trumping governance and that irks an old Eisenhower Republican like Panetta.
In all, I give this book 3 stars out of 5. It's useful for recounting the budget fights of the 80's-today but not a whole lot of insight into the CIA or Defense Department or the Obama Administration today. There is criticism of Obama, for certain, but it is tempered with much respect. There is little-to-no criticism for anyone named Clinton.