Leon Panetta: It's one thing for a president to talk, another to deliver

Last Updated Oct 8, 2014 2:44 PM EDT

Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's memoir hasn't been published yet, but it's already making waves with its criticism of President Obama's policies on Iraq, Syria, and other foreign crises.

In the book, titled "Worthy Fights," Panetta suggested Mr. Obama made a mistake in not pushing harder to secure a residual U.S. troop presence in Iraq after the 2011 withdrawal deadline - a decision that he says helped pave the way for the rise of extremists with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Panetta also suggested the president should have been more quick to arm the moderate Syrian rebels fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Panetta and other members of the administration, like then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pushed to send munitions to the rebels in 2012, but they were ultimately overruled by Mr. Obama.

Panetta expounded on those criticisms in an interview published Monday by USA Today, and he also suggested that Hillary Clinton's tenacity would make her a "great" president - a remark that the paper suggested drew an "implicit contrast" between Clinton and Mr. Obama.

"One thing about the Clintons is, they want to get it done," Panetta said. "When it comes to being president of the United States, it's one thing to talk a good game. It's another thing to deliver, to make things happen."

Panetta's criticism has already earned some pushback from the administration, but the former Pentagon chief, who departed Washington in 2013, said in the interview that his book is nothing more than a candid accounting of events

"Look, I've been a guy who's always been honest," he explained. "I've been honest in politics, honest with the people that I deal with. I've been a straight talker. Some people like it; some people don't like it. But I wasn't going to write a book that kind of didn't express what I thought was the case."

Panetta also suggested the jury was "still out" on President Obama's legacy.

"For the first four years, and the time I spent there, I thought he was a strong leader on security issues," Panetta said. "But these last two years I think he kind of lost his way. You know, it's been a mixed message, a little ambivalence in trying to approach these issues and try to clarify what the role of this country is all about."

"He may have found himself again with regards to this ISIS crisis," he added. "I hope that's the case. And if he's willing to roll up his sleeves and engage with Congress in taking on some of these other issues, as I said I think he can establish a very strong legacy as president. I think these next 2 1/2 years will tell us an awful lot about what history has to say about the Obama administration."

Asked about Panetta's critiques on Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the president was "proud" to have Panetta on his national security team and said he'd "leave it to others" to pore over the memoir.

"The president is proud of the leadership that he's demonstrated," Earnest said. "It's critically important that we have an American president who is willing to make the case to our international partners and to our allies to get involved in these things and again, whether it is confronting the caucuses of an Ebola outbreak...or take the fight to ISIL. There's no one else who's going to sit around and get that done."

Earnest also disputed the argument that the fight against ISIS has given the president's leadership a sorely needed boost.

"The leadership that the president has demonstrated over the last several weeks is entirely consistent with the leadership that the president has shown over the last six years," he said.