Former C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta Says Fight Against ISIS May Be ‘a 30-Year War’; Gives Critical Review of President Obama’s Performance

(Photo: Michael Howard Kofsky for USA TODAY)
(Photo: Michael Howard Kofsky for USA TODAY)

Americans should be braced for a long battle against the brutal terrorist group Islamic State that will test U.S. resolve — and the leadership of the commander in chief, says Leon Panetta, who headed the CIA and then the Pentagon as Al Qaeda was weakened and Osama bin Laden killed.

“I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war,” he says, one that will have to extend beyond Islamic State to include emerging threats in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere.

In his first interview about his new book, Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace, Panetta argues that decisions made by President Obama over the past three years have made that battle more difficult — an explosive assessment by a respected policymaker of the president he served.

Even before it’s published Tuesday by Penguin Press, the 512-page book has provoked rebukes at the State Department and by Vice President Biden. But Panetta says he was determined to write a book that was “honest,” including his high regard for the president on some fronts and his deep concern about his leadership on others.

In an interview at his home with Capital Download, USA TODAY’s video newsmaker series, Panetta says Obama erred:

• By not pushing the Iraqi government harder to allow a residual U.S. force to remain when troops withdrew in 2011, a deal he says could have been negotiated with more effort. That “created a vacuum in terms of the ability of that country to better protect itself, and it’s out of that vacuum that ISIS began to breed.” Islamic State also is known as ISIS and ISIL.

• By rejecting the advice of top aides — including Panetta and then-secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — to begin arming Syrian rebels in 2012. If the U.S. had done so, “I do think we would be in a better position to kind of know whether or not there is some moderate element in the rebel forces that are confronting (Syrian President Bashar) Assad.”

• By warning Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own people, then failing to act when that “red line” was crossed in 2013. Before ordering airstrikes, Obama said he wanted to seek congressional authorization, which predictably didn’t happen.

The reversal cost the United States credibility then and is complicating efforts to enlist international allies now to join a coalition against the Islamic State, Panetta says. “There’s a little question mark to, is the United States going to stick this out? Is the United States going to be there when we need them?”

Showing leadership in the fight against ISIS is an opportunity “to repair the damage,” he says. He says it’s also a chance for Obama to get a fresh start after having “lost his way.”

On Friday, the terrorist group released a video that showed the beheading of a fourth Westerner, British aid worker Alan Henning, and threatened to execute American hostage Abdul-Rahman (formerly Peter) Kassig next.

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SOURCE: USA Today
Susan Page

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