leon panetta

Obama Right to Resist Arming Syrian Rebels

In a front-page story for the Wall Street Journal, Adam Entous reports that President Obama rejected a plan to arm Syrian rebels presented by officials at the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department. It seems that despite the advice of the most senior members of his national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and then-CIA director David Petraeus, the president decided against becoming more deeply embroiled in a brutal civil war. 

The president’s caution is welcome news for those of us who are skeptical of the United States’ ability to pick winners and losers in distant conflicts. I am also deeply sympathetic with the president’s dilemma, which is the theme of my book The Power Problem. “With great power comes great responsibility,” as the saying goes. But true responsibility means acting wisely, not simply acting. It takes enormous discipline and courage for a president to resist the incessant demands that he do something—anything—when horrible things occur. He should only act (1) in those rare cases when vital U.S. national security interests are at stake, and (2) when it is clear that the action being taken has a reasonable chance of delivering tangible results at a reasonable cost. 

Neither of those criteria is satisfied with respect to the Syrian conflict. 

Indeed, as the Journal story notes, the president appreciated that armed support for individuals and factions within the Syrian opposition was likely to have a number of unintended consequences. Specifically, the White House was dissatisfied with the answers to “lingering questions” including “which rebels could be trusted with the arms, whether the transfers would make a difference in the campaign to remove Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and whether the weapons would add to the suffering.” And the president apparently didn’t listen only to those making the case for expanded U.S. involvement; an anonymous U.S. official told the Journal that a team of CIA analysts cast doubt on the impact of arming the rebels in the conflict. 

Although the United States is providing non-lethal support to Syrian rebels, there are other good reasons to avoid doing more. One is the United States’ terrible track record in providing material, and lethal, support to opposition groups and figures. We have often mistaken power-hungry thugs, or simply manipulative charlatans, for committed democrats, and it is unreasonable to expect that our ability to separate the true patriots from the phonies has improved markedly since Iraq. 

More Truth about Sequestration

Pentagon officials and other proponents of big military spending have three basic complaints about sequestration. That’s the process created by last summer’s Budget Control Act that would cut planned federal spending by about $1.1 trillion over the next nine years through budget caps and a $110 billion in across-the-board cuts in January 2013, with half the cuts coming from defense.

What the Pentagon’s New Military Strategy Should Look Like

President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey are scheduled to brief the media tomorrow morning on the recently completed strategic review that will inform the Pentagon’s budget priorities for the coming five to ten years. Early indications suggest that the status quo will hold. And that is bad news for U.S. troops, and U.S. taxpayers.

Obama, Panetta, and Dempsey should clearly spell out:

Cutting Military Spending, Rethinking Grand Strategy

The Associated Press’s Pauline Jelinek has a story on the wires/Interwebs today that pokes holes in Leon Panetta’s claim that Pentagon budget cuts on the order of those contemplated under the debt deal’s sequestration provisions would be “devastating to the department.” Jelinek quoted me, as well as the Center for American Progress’s Larry Korb, and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s Todd Harrison.

The Pentagon and Jobs

Desperate to fend off cuts in military spending, the defenders of the status quo are claiming that potential reductions included in the debt ceiling deal’s sequestration provision would result in huge job losses. In September, Leon Panetta suggested that cuts of up to $1 trillion would increase the nation’s unemployment rate by a full percentage point, and put up to 1.5 million people out of work.

Appointment of Panetta and Petraeus Signals More of the Same

The report that Leon Panetta will be appointed Secretary of Defense, and Gen. David Petraeus will become the new CIA director, does not come as a huge surprise. But I worry that President Obama’s decision to fill these positions from within his administration signals an unwillingness to rethink U.S. foreign policy. Such a reevaluation is desperately needed.

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