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Leon Panetta: U.S. Mistakes Helped Create 'Vacuum' That Spawned ISIS

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta believes the Obama White House during his tenure was wrong on some key decisions.
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Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta believes the Obama White House during his tenure was wrong on some key decisions in the Middle East that are now fueling the fire that ISIS has set in the region.

In a sit-down interview with NBC News' Andrea Mitchell following the release of his new book, "Worthy Fights," Panetta notes that he disagreed with the moves to completely pull American troops out of Iraq, to not quickly arm the moderate rebels fighting Syria’s Bashar Assad and not acting decisively when Assad crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons on his people.

After being director for the CIA for two and a half years, Panetta took over as secretary of defense in July 2011, about six months before the U.S. withdrew all troops from Iraq following a breakdown of negotiations between Obama and then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Original plans from the Bush administration had called for a “transnational force” of tens of thousands of troops to remain in the country after major fighting had ended.

"I don't think there's any question that, had we left 8,000, 10,000 troops there, plus our intelligence operations, plus a strong diplomatic presence, that that would've had an impact," said Panetta.

In the book Panetta said he warned President Obama not to leave without keeping troops in the country, and the president agreed, but didn't fight hard enough for it.

"I thought we really could put greater pressure on Maliki," Panetta said on Tuesday. "He's the kind — look, Maliki was tough to deal with. And make no mistake about it, Maliki deserves the primary blame, because he continued to resist having troops there. But I think we — we had the leverage in terms of military assistance, in terms of aid, to basically make him come around and accept a presence. After all, the fact is, we have troops in Iraq today because there was an exchange of diplomatic notes that allows us to maintain those troops. I think we could've done that then."

He says that and a lack of concern for the civil war in Syria — and the president not acting decisively when it was proven that Assad used chemical weapons — helped created fertile ground for ISIS to grow strong.

"I think when we stepped out of Iraq, in many ways, we created this vacuum in which not a lot of attention was paid to what was happening in Iraq or what was happening in Syria with the extremists who were developing a base of operations there," said Panetta. "That combination, plus obviously not getting all of the intelligence that we should've had on it, I think is what produced the ISIS that we're confronting today."