Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stressed that Washington bears some responsibility in the development of ISIS by not getting involved in the Syrian revolution.
Panetta, also former director of the CIA, has been critical of President Obama’s foreign policy since leaving the Pentagon in 2013.
While promoting his memoir a year ago, Panetta said the president drawing an unenforced red line on Syria was “damaging” to U.S. credibility, “and that is something you do not want to establish in the world, an issue with regard to the credibility of the United States to stand by what we say we’re gonna do.”
On Sunday, the former Defense chief told NBC’s Meet the Press that the mission to “disrupt, dismantle, and destroy ISIS” is “the right mission,” but “the resources applied to that mission, frankly, have not been sufficient to confront that.”
“And for that reason I think we have to be much more aggressive and much more unified in the effort to take on ISIS,” he said.
Panetta stressed that “clearly we’ve been through acts of war these last few weeks that make it very clear that they are a clear and present danger not only to Europe but to this country as well.”
“And we’re going to have to take some very specific steps here. One is to unify this effort,” he said, adding “everybody’s kind of doing their own thing on different targets.”
“We need to unify the command. We need to set a joint command center where all of these countries are together on their objective. And secondly, we need to increase our effort there. We need to increase the tempo of our air strikes. We need to organize ground forces, particularly the Sunnis and the Kurds and arm them so that they can take territory back from ISIS. And, frankly, we need to increase Special Forces and our intelligence advisers not only to guide these forces but to go with them in order to ensure that we are successful in this effort.”
On how the chaos evolved in Syria, Panetta noted “we’ve gotten an awful lot of people that bear some responsibility there, including the United States.”
“Assad is probably the primary villain here for what’s going on in Syria. Iran bears some responsibility for injecting themselves into the civil war. Hezbollah is there,” he said. “We’ve got a number of opposing forces — a lot of extremists that are part of those opposing forces in Syria. The problem with Maliki who basically threw the Sunnis not only out of the government but out of the military, added fuel to the development of ISIS.”
“And I think the United States by virtue of not getting involved sooner in trying to establish some kind of moderate force there. I think all of those are factors that have contributed to the situation that we’re facing now.”
Panetta said “the U.S. has to lead in this effort because what we’ve learned a long time ago is that the United States does not lead nobody else will.”
“Look, air strikes are great, we’re hitting some targets, but air strikes alone are not going to win here,” he said. “What ISIS has achieved is the ability to gain territory. And it’s that territory, it’s the caliphate where they’re designing their ability to kind of now do outreach and attack other countries. We’ve got to take that territory away from them.”
“It’s been a year. They’re still Mosul. They’re still in Ramadi. They’re still in Raqqa. Those are the areas we have to go after in order to be able to defeat ISIS ultimately. We’ve got to take the territory back and we’ve got to make sure that other countries are part of the effort to try to deal with ISIS. All of those steps need to be taken.”
And for the coalition, focus on NATO countries instead of trying to pull Russia and Iran into the fold.
“I’m a little surprised that they haven’t invoked Article 5 of the NATO charter. We invoked Article 5 after 9/11, they should certainly do it now and be able to get NATO and its military forces engaged in that effort,” Panetta said. “Secondly, we need the Arab countries, the moderate Arab countries — Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan and others to be part of that effort. We’ve got to focus on that effort because that’s doable. When we went into Libya we had over 50 nations that were part of that effort. We had a joint command center at Naples. That’s the effort we need to put together and focus on our objectives and what we’re trying to achieve.”
“Russia, obviously it would be nice to have them as part of that effort but, frankly, I don’t trust them in this effort at this time and I certainly don’t trust Iran to be part of that effort as well. We’ve got to focus on our allies and the countries that work with us to try to achieve the mission that we need to go after.”
And, he added, you don’t need to choose whether you should take out ISIS or Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
“I don’t think we can suddenly say Assad — you know, we shouldn’t pay attention to him because Assad is an international criminal and we should not be part of an effort to allow Assad to stay in place,” Panetta said. “But our priority here, our main focus now, ought to be in going after ISIS and making sure that we defeat them. They’re the clear and present danger. They’re the ones we have to defeat if we’re going to be successful at protecting the American people.”