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