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Schram: Panetta's memoir a chance for Obama to reset

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks during the

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks during the opening of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) 11th Asia Security Summit in Singapore. (June 2, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

The capital cognoscenti are again engaged in their ritual of fast-thumbing, speed-reading and savoring at least the choicest bits of the latest ex-official's memoir -- this one by President Barack Obama's former CIA director and secretary of defense, Leon Panetta.

But there is only one Washington luminary for whom Panetta's book, titled "Worthy Fights," should be must-reading: Obama. And if he cares enough to look at it, he'll come to view the memoir not as a book but a bathroom mirror.

Because, if Obama wants to still make something of his legacy lap as president, he can start by understanding that Panetta has done him a potentially great service by painting that sometimes-critical portrait now staring him in the face. Because it gives Obama a chance to see himself as only those who are high and inside have really seen him -- but are too timid or too consumed by the need to suck up to speak up.

Panetta has painted an honest picture of what officials in Washington and around the world have been thinking of Obama. Namely: Too often, in foreign and domestic crises, the ostensible world leader doesn't seem to lead.

At home, Panetta faulted his boss for the disastrous budget sequester -- those automatic cuts Congress enacted not because anyone really wanted them but because lamebrained congressional leaders figured the cuts, especially defense cuts, were so awful Congress would force itself to compromise. But Congress never did.

"President Obama bore some responsibility for failing to lead Congress out of it," Panetta wrote. "Indeed, that episode highlighted what I regard as his most conspicuous weakness, a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause." Globally, Panetta faults Obama's reluctance to push Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki to approve a basic pact giving U.S. troops legal protection from prosecution so a larger U.S. residual force could have remained there to help Iraq prevent sectarian violence.

Panetta, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have all said in memoirs that they urged that a larger force remain -- a position Obama's White House resisted.

"To my frustration, the White House coordinated the negotiations but never really led them," Panetta wrote. "Without the president's active advocacy, al-Maliki was allowed to slip away . . . To this day, I believe that a small U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al-Qaida's resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country."

Telling tough truth to power is nothing new to Leon Panetta. I remember the day we first discussed that. It was 1970 and Panetta was coordinating civil rights for President Richard Nixon's Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Panetta had opposed Nixon's determination to slow Southern school desegregation -- a payback for the once-Democratic South's votes that elected Nixon. Nixon's White House responded by announcing Panetta's "resignation" before he'd offered it.

Panetta never lost sight of his true priorities, as we saw this week, when Vice President Joe Biden opined: "Former administration officials, as soon as they leave, write books, which I think is inappropriate."

Asked about that, Panetta told CNN: "You know, I'm of the view that you don't put a hold on history. History is what it is." But history doesn't have to be what it once seemed destined to be. If Obama recognizes the validity of Panetta's critical portrait of him, he has one last chance to bring new leadership luster to his two-year presidential legacy lap.

Martin Schram is a columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.

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