TIME World

Leon Panetta: How the White House Misplayed Iraqi Troop Talks

U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta Visits Afghanistan
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks to the troops during a visit to Kandahar Airfield on Dec. 13, 2013 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Getty Images

As U.S. forces return to Iraq to counter the surging al-Qaeda splinter group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, President Obama’s former Secretary of Defense and CIA chief recalls the White House debates that led to America’s departure from the country. His new book, with Jim Newton, Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace, from which this article is adapted, will be published on Oct. 7.

Through the fall of 2011, the main question facing the American military in Iraq was what our role would be now that combat operations were over. When President Obama announced the end of our combat mission in August 2010, he acknowledged that we would maintain troops for a while. Now that the deadline was upon us, however, it was clear to me—and many others—that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability then barely holding Iraq together.

Privately, the various leadership factions in Iraq all confided that they wanted some U.S. forces to remain as a bulwark against sectarian violence. But none was willing to take that position publicly, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki concluded that any Status of Forces Agreement, which would give legal protection to those forces, would have to be submitted to the Iraqi parliament for approval. That made reaching agreement very difficult given the internal politics of Iraq, but representatives of the Defense and State departments, with scrutiny from the White House, tried to reach a deal.

We had leverage. We could, for instance, have threatened to withdraw reconstruction aid to Iraq if al-Maliki would not support some sort of continued U.S. military presence. My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S. Iraq’s stability was not only in Iraq’s interest but also in ours. I privately and publicly advocated for a residual force that could provide training and security for Iraq’s military.

Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press that position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs. But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.

We debated with al-Maliki even as we debated among ourselves, with time running out. The clock wound down in December, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter continued to argue our case, extending the deadline for the Iraqis to act, hoping that we might pull out a last-minute agreement and recognizing that once our forces left, it would be essentially impossible for them to turn around and return. To my frustration, the White House coordinated the negotiations but never really led them. Officials there seemed content to endorse an agreement if State and Defense could reach one, but without the President’s active advocacy, al-Maliki was allowed to slip away. The deal never materialized. 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-Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country.

Over the following two and a half years, the situation in Iraq slowly deteriorated. Al-Maliki was responsible, as he exacerbated the deep sectarian issues polarizing his country. Meanwhile, with the conflict in Syria raging, an al-Qaeda offshoot—ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria—gained strength. Using Syria as its base, it began to move into Iraq in 2014, grabbing power in towns and villages across Iraq’s north, including Mosul and Tall ‘Afar. These were strategically important cities that U.S. forces had fought and died to secure.

The news from Iraq bothered me to no end. In my view, the ISIS offensive in 2014 greatly increases the risk that Iraq will become al-Qaeda’s next safe haven. That is exactly what it had in Afghanistan pre-9/11. After all we have done to decimate al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and its core, those efforts will be for naught if we allow it to rebuild a base of operations in the Middle East.

From Worthy Fights, by Leon Panetta and Jim Newton, to be published on October 7, 2014 by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Leon Panetta.

Leon Panetta served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2009 to 2011, and as secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993, the director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1993 to 1994, and President Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994 to 1997. He is the founder of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, and has served as professor of public policy at his alma mater, Santa Clara University.

Jim Newton is an editor at large of the Los Angeles Times, where he has worked for twenty-five years as a reporter, an editor, a bureau chief, and a columnist. He is the author of two critically acclaimed biographies, Justice for All and Eisenhower.

TIME Viewpoint

The Indelible Lessons of Auschwitz

A replica hung in place of the stolen infamous "Arbeit macht frei" sign at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland on Dec. 18, 2009.
A replica hung in place of the stolen infamous "Arbeit macht frei" sign at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland on Dec. 18, 2009. Jacek Bednarczyk—AFP/Getty Images

The recent increase in attacks against Jews reminds us to stay vigilant against anti-Semitism

From the murderous pogroms of the 1930s to the chanting mobs calling for “death to the Jews” in a slew of European cities today, anti-Semitism and violence have historically gone hand in hand. It’s no surprise, then, that the rise of born-again terrorist groups marching in lockstep with al-Qaeda—chief among them the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)—has been accompanied by an increase in Europe of boycotts, protests, beatings, firebombed synagogues and other attacks on Jews.

That’s unnerving news in more ways than one. For decades, most people in Europe have believed the monster of anti-Semitism to be all but buried for good. Not quite. Across the continent, physical as well as verbal attacks on Jews are shocking the consciences of people who never thought they’d see such displays there again. Against this backdrop, and with ISIS and its supporters rooting openly on social media for a new Holocaust, it’s worth meditating for a moment on a historical milestone just ahead.

Nov. 24 marks the 70th anniversary of Heinrich Himmler’s 11th-hour attempt to hide the Nazi genocide. With the Red Army practically at the gates of Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi concentration camps, Himmler—chief overseer of the so-called Final Solution—ordered the crematoriums at the camp destroyed and the killing of Jews throughout the Reich to cease.

Himmler’s attempted cover-up failed miserably. Seventy years of trials, books, museums, documentaries, memoirs, testimonies and articles have so powerfully borne witness that one can only wonder whether, by 2014, there is anything at all left to say.

The answer from all directions continues to be not only yes, but also plenty.

For one thing, there’s the fact that writers of stature continue to mine the signature horror of the 20th century. Today’s prominent example is British novelist Martin Amis, who grappled with the Nazi genocide in earlier fiction too. Amis’ new book, The Zone of Interest, is a satire set in a fictionalized version of Auschwitz.

The novel has become the object of impassioned—largely positive—reviews in both the U.S. and Europe (though it has yet to secure a German publisher). The sheer amount of international attention goes to show that in literature at least, there’s no such thing as the last word on the Holocaust.

Amis isn’t the only current writer of fiction who dares to take up the subject. British novelist Philip Kerr is the author of a series of Berlin-based noir procedurals in which a Marlowe-esque protagonist, detective Bernie Gunther, is repeatedly enmeshed in major episodes of Nazi history. In addition to fiction written for adults, Holocaust-themed literature for children and teenagers is also flourishing and often assigned in classrooms, at least in the U.S. Among the most popular: Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

This fall has seen two other new commentaries destined to leave their marks. One is the English translation of researcher Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. Already well known in Germany, the book challenges Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis via new documentation from Eichmann’s years in Argentina that reveal him repeatedly as an anti-Semitic braggart, a proud Nazi and a master manipulator. At the same time, a new film called Night Will Fall—about a rarely seen Holocaust documentary created in 1945 by a team including Alfred Hitchcock and Sidney Bernstein—is playing in theaters across Great Britain.

In September, coincidentally, German prosecutors charged a former member of Hitler’s SS named Oskar Gröning with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. This so-called accountant of Auschwitz is 93 years old. What will happen when the last camp guard finally dies off, the last survivor ceases to tell the tale? Will the world then forget about the death camps at last, and move on?

Even seven decades after Himmler’s attempt to conceal the Nazis’ crimes, that’s impossible to believe. No one can erase the collected, recorded knowledge of what happened. Auschwitz remains what it has been since the Nazis first set boots in the place: the inescapable moral Rorschach test of our time, and of foreseeable times to come. n

Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington and author of How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser