Worthy Fights – Book Review
In case you haven’t heard, Leon Panetta wrote a book. It’s a weighty in more ways than one. This tome of his service in government—including heading both the CIA and Pentagon— contains far more than the few quotations that have so inflamed other reviews. Though I don’t shy from giving my own opinions, I’ll avoid the politics of the book for now and lay out why Worthy Fights is a worthy read.
The book can be broken up roughly into thirds, with the first part covering Panetta’s early life and career through to the Clinton Years. His parents hailing straight from Italy, his father self-identifying as “peasant” on his immigration documents, Panetta’s story is the quintessential American success tale. Moving from New York City to Monterey, California (a city made famous in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row), the Panettas opened an Italian restaurant that benefitted from being situated so close to the Army training base Fort Ord. Sometimes it was a little too close; Leon’s mother, Carmelina, had to keep a buzzer under the counter to summon the MPs when soldiers got too drunk, too frisky, or both.
Growing up in the shadow of a military base helped shape the life and values of young Leon. An ROTC man who remained a member through law school and received an officer’s commission to serve at familiar Fort Ord, he was an Eisenhower Republican and entered politics as a staffer for moderate GOP Senator Tom Kuchel. Panetta did yeoman’s work on crafting the Fair Housing Act, and his administrative talents brought him to the attention of the Nixon White House, which placed Panetta in a senior position at the Department Of Housing, Education, And Welfare (since split, amoeba-like, into three cabinet positions). Continuing his work for civil rights, Panetta eventually came into conflict with what he perceived as the go-slow attitude on school desegregation of the Nixon White House. He not only left government service for a while, he left the Republican Party; when he returned to Washington a few years after Watergate, the moderate Republican had become a moderate Democrat.
In the House of Representatives
He spent eight terms in the House of Representatives, becoming one of the few experts on the Federal budget as chairman of the House Budget Committee, which formed in 1978 and quickly became one of the most powerful positions in Congress. Panetta tried to trim the pork of the Federal budget while expanding its muscle in the form of social programs. Since his expansions required tax increases and growth of government in general, he was invariably opposed by Republicans. But his first vote in the House was against a Congressional pay raise, which irritated his fellow Democrats, as did his demands for balanced budgeting, so Panetta was often in a two-front fight.
His experience on budgetary matters and connections with Capital Hill figures led to Panetta’s being selected by incoming President Clinton to head up the Office of Management and Budget, the executive branch’s version of the Budget Committee. He performed so well that he was tapped to step in as President Bill Clinton’s Chief Of Staff. The president ran his White House informally: people could speak to Clinton any time on any subject, staff meetings turned into hours-long bull sessions, and the White House had turned into sort of a high-functioning frat house. What was needed was a knife-edged supervisor who could say no to the too-numerous FOB (Friends of Bill), and Panetta fit that role of gatekeeper quite well. He became a strong Chief of Staff and guided the White House through several conflicts with an aggressive Republican Congress.
Head of the CIA
The middle third of Worthy Fights deals with Panetta’s out-of-the-blue choosing to head the CIA under newly elected President Barack Obama. He was not a popular choice initially; Senator Barbara Boxer had reservations related almost solely to pique (she hadn’t been consulted on his nomination beforehand), while Republicans criticized Panetta’s lack of experience. He had been a low-level intelligence officer for barely two years in the ’60s, and although Panetta had participated in the Iraq Study Group—a cast of stellar government intellects tasked by Congress in 2006 to study the Iraq War and come up with long-term recommendations for its successful conclusion—he didn’t have much experience in foreign affairs or in national intelligence.
But his status as a no-nonsense outsider was needed. As Panetta reminds us, the CIA at that moment had been under harsh scrutiny for nearly ten years. They had been front and center of the intelligence failures leading to the 9/11 attacks, got the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq completely wrong, couldn’t find Osama bin Laden, and were under assault for the programs known as “enhanced interrogation” and rendition which they had been using in the war against al Qaeda. There was even talk in Washington of prosecuting CIA officials. Panetta, still enjoying good relations with Congressional members of both parties, and with a reputation as a straight shooter, would be a blast of fresh air to help revitalize an agency that had fallen into public disrepute and was suffering fading morale.
Panetta was famously the director of the CIA when we “got” bin Laden. There have been several books and films about the sequence of events, but it’s great to have Director Panetta himself lay out step by step how the CIA tracked him down, the debates on how to go in, the preparation of the Special Forces teams, and his own doubts and tensions both before and during the operation. Also under his tenure the CIA expanded its use of drones in the war against terror, mainly in the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan where the Pakistani military could not (or would not) operate. Panetta helped refocus the CIA by standing with it against its harshest critics. Although in the book he vehemently disagrees with waterboarding and other such “techniques,” he is honest enough to understand that those on the other side of the debate also have legitimate arguments; to him, it’s not a matter of right and wrong but a question of what is most effective. He had the backs of every member of the CIA past and present, and they knew it.
Secretary of Defense
The final third of the book deals with his years as Secretary of Defense. His nomination coming as it did in the immediate aftermath of the raid to kill bin Laden, the confirmation hearings were more of a victory lap, and Panetta received universal affirmation. The Senate vote for his becoming secretary was 100 in favor, none opposed. The Italian kid from Monterey who cheered for Eisenhower’s re-election had become the one of most powerful men in the country.
As befitting his broad skills set, the tasks of the Pentagon were in large measure administrative and budgetary. With budget cuts coming from both parties, a presidential mandate to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an initial Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting where the commanding officer of the Army declared, “Mister Secretary, the army is tired,” Panetta had a great deal on his plate. And he had less than two years to do it all; Panetta was determined to serve only for the remainder of President Obama’s first term. The army may have been tired, but its civilian leader was getting worn down as well.
It is in these chapters that much of the red meat for the talk shows appears. Panetta is loyal not merely to party but to person, and he has nothing but high words for President Obama. Still, it’s hard not to pick up on the image of Obama acting as more law professor than president. Panetta states over and over again how open-minded the president is, how he listens to everyone around him, yet consistently in the memoir President Obama chooses to go ahead and do what he originally intended anyway. It is one thing to hear someone speak, another thing to actually listen to them. Also, the president’s disdain for Congress in general—at one point Panetta describes him as being “bored” with legislative processes—comes out in sharp focus, a dangerous attitude to have when leading a democracy.
Panetta is even-keeled about the infamous “red line” crossed by Syrian dictator Assad when he used chemical weapons against his people—several times, actually, as Panetta confirms. Panetta lays out clearly the problems of any military intervention in Syria, especially a bombing campaign directed against some of the most sophisticated anti-air defenses on Earth. And he is equally clear about the decision not to strike: “Still, hesitation and half-steps have consequences as well—and those remain to be determined.”
When the former Secretary Of Defense, who was personally involved in the discussions, states categorically that the United States could have gotten a Status of Forces agreement with Iraq that would have enabled us to keep troops in that country, and that those forces were necessary to maintain security in Iraq, how can anyone argue otherwise? This man spoke to Iraqi leader al-Maliki. I’ll take his word and judgment over politically convenient spin.
Likewise my opinion on his behind-the-scenes take about Benghazi. Rather than a Machiavellian plot, we are treated to a situation of confused intelligence, conflicting reports, and by the time it’s all sorted out Ambassador John Christopher Stevens is dead. I still have my suspicions about the White House pushing for weeks the whole “protest against a video” story so as to get through a close re-election without admitting to another Al Qaeda attack. But since Panetta declares that there were no troops who could have arrived on the scene in time, no secretive orders to stand down, and no intentional effort to mislead the American public in those early hours, and he’s an honest enough guy who was in a position to know, I’ll accept his explanations.
Worthy Fights is less an autobiography and more a biography of the people Panetta knows and of Washington D.C. itself. He does a magnificent job of painting these thumbnail portraits of insiders and power brokers. We seem to get one on every page. General David Petraeus whose office walls are covered with hundreds of photographs of … General David Petraeus. Legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill urging newly elected Congressmen to take care of their elders by voting yes to a congressional pay raise. Panetta’s beloved and stereotypical Italian-speaking grandfather misunderstanding the word “cantaloupe” and looking for a wolf (lupe) in the Monterey market. My personal favorite is Congresswoman Barbara-Rose Collins, an ardent opponent of the Clinton Crime Bill who stated that after speaking personally with Jesus the night before she could indeed support the bill’s expansion of the death penalty, but only if Clinton would help finance a casino in her district. Panetta’s response is priceless; “I’m glad to hear that Jesus is so flexible.”
He manages to avoid taking too many swipes at Republicans, though the reader comes away with the impression that he really, really, really does not like Newt Gingrich. One rare occasion where political diatribe intrudes to his detriment comes on page 278. As CIA director Panetta visited numerous countries, and in describing his state visit to Mexico he diverts into a criticism of gun control in America and how our easy access to guns contributes to violence south of the border. Pretty gutsy coming from a guy who served an administration that allowed hundreds (perhaps thousands) of assault weapons to reach Mexican drug cartels in a “What the blank were they thinking?” undercover operation called Fast And Furious.
Worthy Fights is a broad spectrum of a book. If you want to know how government operates, read Worthy Fights. If you want to understand the complexities of international relations and Pentagon planning in the 21st century, read Worthy Fights. If you want insider information on the wars of Iraq, Afghanistan, and against terrorism, read Worthy Fights.
Me, I enjoyed reading how a proudly Catholic man, former altar boy, can attend Mass and then hours later give orders to take out a terrorist chief in an operation that also kills the man’s wife. Leon Panetta is a complex man, and learning what makes him tick is reading the road map of modern America. Thank you, Secretary Panetta, for the memoir and for all the service that led up to it.
Sean Michael Stevenson is a radical Whig libertarian living in Pittsburgh.