Former Defense Secretary (and former CIA chief) Leon Panetta has offered his first public comments on the Obama deal in which the US released five top Taliban commanders for one US soldier accused of desertion. Panetta says that he opposed the deal and “assumed that it was never going to happen.”
“I don’t fault the administration for wanting to get him back. I do question whether the conditions are in place to make sure these terrorists don’t go back into battle,” former CIA director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told a gas industry gathering in Pittsburgh.
Panetta, who was in the Cabinet for four of the five years Bergdahl spent in Taliban custody, said he opposed a swap for the terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when he was Defense secretary.
“I said, ‘Wait, I have an obligation under the law,’” Panetta said during a lunchtime address at the Hart Energy Developing Unconventionals DUG East conference at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. “If I send prisoners from Guantanamo, they have to guarantee they don’t go back to the battlefield. I had serious concerns.”
He said talks fell apart because the Taliban “asked for five top guys.” He did not say when during his 2011-13 tenure in the Pentagon that discussions took place.
“I just assumed it was never going to happen,” Panetta said.
So Panetta is on the record. Hillary Clinton is on the record, first giving lukewarm support for the deal, but then saying that she opposed it too. That’s the Pentagon and the State Department, then, opposing the trade during Obama’s first term. We can throw the CIA in as well, since Panetta served atop the CIA from 2009 to 2011 before moving over to the Pentagon. Before Panetta was SecDef, Robert Gates was — and he opposed the deal too. The deal did not happen as long as these officials were in the Obama administration.
Gates, Panetta and Clinton exit the Obama administration during or after the first term. They’re replaced by Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, respectively. Hagel and Kerry share Barack Obama’s leftist worldview and attitude toward the military far more than Panetta does, and apparently even more than Clinton does or is willing to let on. Panetta’s comments will matter, a lot, as he is widely respected on both sides of the aisle. He tends not to be a partisan gunslinger.
Upon Obama’s election, the new president was reported to be a fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Goodwin makes the case in that book that Lincoln drew strength from the strong, independent-minded and often bitter rivals whom he selected to serve in his cabinet. That idea is not original to Goodwin. It has been taught in history classes about the Civil War for decades, because it happens to be true. Lincoln was, among other things, an extraordinary manager of huge personalities. He had something that Obama lacks, which was key to his management skills — wisdom. Wisdom’s foundation is humility. Obama is a foolish narcissist. Obama, the media reported, thought enough of himself that he wanted the same thing in his cabinet, and thought it would be an easy thing to pull off. So, like Lincoln, Obama chose a major rival in the form of Hillary Clinton. He retained Republican Robert Gates to helm the Pentagon, and installed Panetta at the CIA. All of them have deeper resumes than Obama, including Clinton, whose record is much thinner than those of Gates and Panetta. Gates and Panetta are among the most experienced hands in politics by a long way.
But the “team of rivals” didn’t work out as Obama had planned, because independent thinkers actually think independently, and because they know things, they can be difficult to push around. It takes a strong, decisive, insightful, wise person to manage such strong personalities and get the best out of them. Obama, remember, had never even managed a lemonade stand. His idea of top-level diplomacy is handing the queen of England an iPod with recordings of his own boring speeches on it. Where Lincoln was a self-educated, poor country lawyer sharpened over years of studying and opposing slavery, Obama grew up well-to-do in Hawaii where his greatest difficulty was securing that day’s supply of choom. Where Lincoln was wise, humble and shrewd, Obama is a narrow-minded ideologue who is in love with himself.