Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told CBS News that some U.S. troops should have remained in Iraq after his boss, President Barack Obama, declared the war over in 2011, and that Obama should have armed and trained Syria's rebels in their uprising against President Bashar Assad.
"I really thought that it was important for us to maintain a presence in Iraq," Panetta, who served as defense secretary and director of central intelligence under Obama, told CBS News reporter Scott Pelley in a segment that aired on Friday night.
Panetta joins a growing list of former high-ranking Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who have criticized the president's handling of his foreign policy and national security strategy in the Middle East.
Negotiations between the United States and Iraq for a residual American military force broke down over Iraq's refusal to grant legal immunity from prosecution to any remaining U.S. troops, and U.S. negotiators opted not to pursue the issue any further.
Critics of the president's Iraq pullout have blamed it for the chaos engulfing Iraq today, with the violent Sunni militant group the Islamic State (ISIS) laying siege to that country as well as Syria.
The president has sent small numbers of troops back into Iraq to assist local forces in the fight to dislodge the Islamic State from territory its extremist army seized in a series of brutal, lightning advances that caught the world by surprise.
But the president's promise to emphasize airstrikes and coalition-building, and avoid another full-scale U.S. war, has sparked fresh criticism from those, including Gates,
who believe the Islamic State, with as many as 30,000 fighters, cannot be defeated in Iraq and Syria without more direct involvement by U.S. combat troops.
With the United States now promising to arm moderate, pro-Western Syrian rebels — a reversal of the Obama White House's policy — Panetta said the president's national security team overwhelmingly wanted those rebels armed at the outset, when their enemy was Assad, not the Islamic State.
"I think the president's concern — and I understand it — was that he had a fear that if we started providing weapons, we wouldn't know where those weapons would wind up," Panetta told Pelley in an interview that will air at length on "60 Minutes" on Sunday. "My view was, you have to begin somewhere."
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