Leon Panetta: Should have armed Syrian rebels sooner

Gates, Panetta slam Obama on Syria
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Story highlights

  • Obama's former defense secretary splits with the President on Iraq and Syria
  • Panetta is the second former Obama defense secretary to publicly criticize the President's foreign policy
  • Bill Clinton says he agreed with Hillary Clinton that Syrian rebels should have been armed sooner
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is the latest ex-Cabinet official in the Obama administration to publicly come out against President Barack Obama's handling of Syria and Iraq.
In an interview on CBS News' "60 Minutes" that aired Sunday evening, Panetta told Scott Pelley that he "really thought that it was important for us to maintain a presence in Iraq."
The United States withdrew its last combat troops from Iraq in 2011 after an agreement could not be reached with Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki about residual U.S. troops.
Panetta also said that the President should have been more aggressive in aiding Syrian opposition fighters two years ago. He said that would have hindered ISIS' rapid expansion of its reach and deadly influence.
"The real key was, how can we develop a leadership group among the opposition that would be able to take control? And my view was to have leverage to do that, we would have to provide the weapons and the training in order for them to really be willing to work with us in that effort," he said.
Obama insists that arming the rebels sooner wouldn't have helped stop the rise of ISIS. But he now says arming rebels fighting the terror group is a good idea. Congress last week approved his request to provide anti-ISIS Syrian rebels with weapons.
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This is the second time in a week that Panetta has criticized the President's handling of the latest foreign policy crisis, and he's the second of Obama's two former defense secretaries to publicly split with Obama after leaving the post.
Robert Gates, Obama's first defense secretary, who also served under President George W. Bush, has criticized Obama for his handling of Syria. Last week at a forum in Dallas, which Panetta also attended, Gates said, "My bottom line is, I believe to blow a bunch of stuff up over a couple of days to underscore or validate a point or a principle is not a strategy."
Gates, a Republican, has not been shy about airing his disagreement with Obama's policies. He gave a harsh critique in his memoir of the President's handling of Afghanistan, and in a Washington Post interview in June, Gates said the Obama administration is to blame for "a bit of neglect of Iraq after U.S. troops left."
Panetta is close with former President Bill Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Long before he worked in the Obama administration as CIA director and then defense secretary, he served as Bill Clinton's chief of staff in 1994.
Over the weekend, Bill Clinton said on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" that he "supported two years ago" his wife's proposal "to give more robust armed support to the Syrians."
Hillary Clinton is considering a presidential run in 2016 and has tried to distance herself from Obama's foreign policy.