Leon Panetta’s Memoirs, and Reconsidering Ethics Alarms’ Absolute Condemnation Of Such Books


When Robert Gates, formerly President Obama’s Secretary of Defense,  published his memoirs, I wrote:

Bottom line: these people betray their colleagues for money, and often, as is Robert Gates’s case, out of spite. Former Defense Secretary Gates, like the others, was given an opportunity to serve his country in a high executive branch position. He was privy to policy discussions and the inner workings of the administration. He was trusted. To reveal details of his tenure while the administration he worked for is still in office, done in a way designed to provoke criticism and embarrass his former associates and boss, is the height of disloyalty, and a breach of implicit confidentiality.

The honorable and ethical way to write such a book would be to wait until it could not actively interfere with the work of the Executive Branch. The people may have a right to know, but they do not have a right to know everything immediately. People in high policy-making positions must be able to be themselves, express opinions, and have productive meetings with the confidence that those they work with are not collecting notes for a future Book-of-the-Month sellout. Books like Gates’s undermine that trust, make it more difficult to get candid and controversial opinions and ideas into the decision-making process, and ultimately hurt all of us. The former  Secretary and those who appreciate the additional ammunition for administration-bashing can assemble a lot of rationalizations for the  book, but they all boil down to “Everybody Does It,” the most threadbare and cowardly rationalization of all.The ethical thing would have been for Gates to write the book in a few years, or not to write it at all.

You can’t get much more definite than that, can you?

I could, without much difficulty, distinguish between Gates’ book and the recently released book by former Obama CIA director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, “Worthy Fights,” that is drawing fire from Obama loyalists. Gates’ book often seemed petty and hypocritical, and I do think he was cashing in. He is, in my view, nowhere near Panetta’s caliber as an administrator or a thinker, and I trust Panetta as a public servant who isn’t motivated by money or celebrity, but by love of country. (Yes, he was by far the best of Bill Clinton’s team.) But rather than do that, and open myself up to the legitimate accusation that I am accepting the identical conduct from Panetta that I condemned from Gates because I respect Panetta more, I’ll just admit that my attack on Gates’ book was excessive, and that there are legitimate reasons, sometimes, and patriotic ones, for a high appointee to write such a book.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews reacted to Panetta’s book, and its criticism of the President’s leadership and foreign policy instincts, by crying, “Why’s he doing this?! Loyalty’s still a good thing. You only get appointed by one president to do one job.” Yes, loyalty’s a good thing..sometimes. Nixon White House and its operatives were exremly loyal, often against their better judgment. Even government lawyers are taught that while loyalty to their clients is the primary obligation, sometimes loyalty to the American public trumps anything else. Two Washington Post columnists, one reliably liberal, the other tilting to the right, argue this moning is that Panetta is doing the nation, and Obama, a favor, if only he’ll accept it.

Dan Balz writes:

“Like Gates and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton in her memoir, he cites disagreements with Obama over arming moderate Syrian rebels. He also adds to criticism of the president’s failure to secure an agreement with the Iraqi government to maintain a U.S. troop presence there after the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. forces. The absence of those forces created a vacuum that has been filled by Islamic State militants….There are many ways to convey a message to a president. It can be done in the quiet of an Oval Office conversation. But sometimes a public bracing can be more effective. Panetta’s main message is that Obama will need to change. Reticence and reluctance to engage are no longer options, in his estimation. Frustration with congressional Republicans or the political process or the 24/7 media culture isn’t, either.”

And Ed Rogers:

“None of these individuals are amateurs. They were not manipulated into writing what they did by greedy publishers hoping to sell books. They are not a bunch of Scott McClellans, the now-forgotten White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, who shamed himself by using his so-called memoir to turn on Bush 43. Panetta, Gates and Clinton are not lightweights who are in over their heads, nor do they think they need to reveal secrets to get attention. They are all distinguished leaders who don’t shoot from the hip or have anything to prove. So when they agree on something, whatever they are telling us should be treated seriously. The world should take notice. The explosive conclusions they all independently report about President Obama should not be seen as acts of disloyalty or selfishness, as The Post’s Dana Milbank suggests in his latest piece, “Leon Panetta, other former Obama subordinates show stunning disloyalty.”  What else could have motivated their so-called disloyalty? Maybe we should look at their revelations not as selfish, disloyal acts, but as sincere warnings from patriots. Are they trying to tell others still serving in this administration that President Obama has the wrong instincts and a misguided worldview? Do they think the president needs to be aggressively hounded into doing the right thing to protect America’s interests and not be left to his own devices? Perhaps Panetta, Gates and Clinton are telling those who still serve in government that President Obama’s biases and instincts need to be challenged. The few adults left in the administration should not roll over, and the Republican opposition needs to be constantly vigilant in order to try to shape a more protective American national security posture. Maybe Panetta, Gates and Clinton are putting loyalty to a country at risk ahead of deference to the president who appointed them.”

  • Guess which one is the conservative!
  • Both men are deluded if they think anything in Hillary’s book was written to accomplish anything but to advance Hillary.

But I digress. At least in Panetta’s case, I think they are right, that he is trying to use his book to help make the President’s approach to the world more coherent and realistic, and that his motives are patriotic, not venal or petty.

The $100,000 questions, both Balz and Rogers agree, are “Will the President listen? Does he have the capacity to admit he has been wrong, and change?”

Sadly, I think they know the answer, as do you, me, and Leon Panetta.

Of course not.


Graphic: Washington Post

5 thoughts on “Leon Panetta’s Memoirs, and Reconsidering Ethics Alarms’ Absolute Condemnation Of Such Books

  1. Leon Panetta is one of the last of a fading breed typified by Sam Nunn, Henry M. Jackson, and a few others – the Democrat who still believes in and loves his country rather than seeing it as a power, money, and celebrity cow. I believe he, and probably Gates as well, were aghast at what Obama has done to this country at home and particularly abroad, and were saying so in their writings. Unfortunately, in the end you can’t look into anyone’s mind and heart and know his true intentions, but you can get a pretty good read if you put the action into context. I believe Leon Panetta is trying to do the right thing here. I believe Hilary was trying to advance herself but I believe she also disagreed with Obama. I believe that Paul O’Neill was in fact cashing in and disgruntled, and I believe Arlen Specter was trying to save his own political skin.

    Loyalty is in fact a good thing, that keeps most folks somewhat honest and on the right track, but, like a drug which in the right dose can save your life, is toxic if taken to excess. History is full of examples of loyalty taken too far, starting with Roman armies too loyal to incompetent empires and ending with the USSR’s overly deep well of patriotism. There is a reason that we public servants take an oath of office (yes, I actually had to stand in front of a judge and raise my hand) to support and defend the Constitution first, and not any particular party or leader. Parties can get on the wrong track and become all about staying in power, and individual leaders are as vulnerable to corruption and bad decision making as anyone else.

    Loyalty also cuts both ways, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect your boss to back you up and to listen to what you have to say, particularly if your expertise is why he put you there in the first place. Obama has shown a stunning level of disloyalty to his own appointees, for example his recent throwing of James Clapper under the proverbial bus with regard to ISIS, and showed a clear disinclination to listen to his own appointees, as is the case here. Panetta and the various generals were very clear to Obama that leaving a residual force in Iraq was critical to preventing a collapse and the waste of what good (mixed with the bad, I’m not ignoring it) we had done there. Obama appears to have listened only to his small coterie of White House advisors, led by Valerie Jarrett, who were focused on one thing, winning in November 2012, and saw withdrawal from Iraq as a key plank in their platform, whatever the cost might be. There is nothing more frustrating for someone appointed to advise than to give a fully worked-up presentation and then see the advisee go ahead and do what he was going to do anyway, without even really giving a reason for so doing. Yes, Obama’s the president, and presidents don’t HAVE to explain themselves except to the voters and once a year to Congress, but, if they hope to keep talented advisers and staff, they SHOULD be willing to do so, even if it’s only in private, after those advisers and staff have made recommendations in good faith that a lot of work has gone into.

    Obama is headed for having the worst qualities of a bunch of presidents now thought of as not very good. However, it’s neither Carter’s incompetence nor Harding’s inability to manage scandal after scandal that is the worst of those qualities. It’s Wilson’s arrogance, peevish refusal to listen to anyone who did not agree with him on all points, and disloyalty to his own people that is likely to turn his last 2 years into a repeat of Wilson’s time before the stroke felled him, when his efforts met a brick wall in Congress, his advisors deserted him, and finally his private secretary told him point blank (one of the few people who could)that he had very few friends left. The president’s chair may well be the loneliest chair in the world when the man in it has to make a tough decision and knows the buck stops with him, but it’s a whole lot less lonely when he is surrounded by the loyal and the competent. If he pushes the loyal and the competent away, as he did here, it’s the loneliest it can be, and a lonely, isolated president is not an effective president

  2. I respect neither Panetta nor Gates. Gates is an opportunist who went to work for a man whose ignorance of military affairs- strategic and tactical alike- is almost total, but whom Gates served despite the constant rejection of his advice until America reached its present level of endangerment. Leon “Will Wonk For Food” Panetta is a functionary who is given management jobs because he’s generally reliable politically, not for any particular level of expertise or competence. And yet, both have turned on their former boss who is still the sitting president.

    This indicates that either both are deeply offended with him politically and personally OR both have actually found a sense of duty to the nation over politics and are honestly warning us of a peril. But they helped Obama MAKE that peril! I doubt that their writings and testimonies- of whatever level of truth- are intended as more than an attempt as personal exoneration against the perceived collapse of the administration they once colluded with.

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