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Mattis departure ‘puts our nation at risk,’ Panetta says

The resignation of U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is putting our nation at risk, two top former defense and national security leaders say.

To lose Mattis “increases the danger in this country,” not only because the retired four-star general brought valuable experience to the role, but also because of his belief in some long-standing tenets of American foreign policy, said Leon Panetta, who served as secretary of defense and CIA director during the Obama administration.

In his resignation letter, Mattis pointed to the fact that he and President Donald Trump could not agree on several foreign policy and national security issues.

Richard Haass, the director of policy planning at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration, said that is in some ways even more concerning than Mattis’ departure itself because it’s not clear whether the president will take the advice of whoever serves as secretary of defense next.

“Even if someone were to espouse [Mattis’ point of view] … this president simply is not going to listen,” said Haass, now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Other highlights from the interview with PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff

  • Did Mattis make a difference? Panetta said Mattis felt he had a responsibility to make sure “the administration walked in the right path,” even “understanding that he had an erratic president and somebody that was unpredictable,” But Panetta said he also believes that Mattis knew there would be a point at which he was asked to cross a line — and that came this week in the decision to withdraw from Syria, “without consultation, without talking to our allies, without really spending time with his key advisers.”
  • America’s reputation at risk. After Trump’s decision on Syria, “why would any American ally, why would any country dependent on America, somehow believe that something like this couldn’t happen to them?” Haass asked. “We’ve shredded our relationship for reliability and dependability and that might be the biggest consequence of the last few days.
  • “The President is increasingly the problem,” Haass said. But “there’s very little we can do to rein him in.”
  • What can be done now? It’s “going to take a recognition by this president that he can’t simply tweet his way to foreign policy and national security decisions. He can’t just stand back without talking to anybody and decide what he thinks is in the interests of the country. He’s going to have to be more responsible,” Panetta said. Haass added that other people — including those in Congress — would have to step forward to be a check on the president’s decision making.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We want to continue our look at Secretary of Defense Mattis' resignation, and what it means going forward, with two men with extensive experience in U.S. national security policy.

    Leon Panetta served as secretary of defense and CIA director during the Obama administration. He has also served as White House chief of staff under President Clinton. And Richard Haass was the director of policy planning at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. He also served on the National Security Council staff under President George H.W. Bush. He is now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

    Gentlemen, welcome to you both. It is good to see you.

    Leon Panetta, to you first.

    Your reaction when you learned that Secretary Mattis had resigned?

  • Leon Panetta:

    I thought it was a sad day for the nation to lose an outstanding defense secretary who is well-experienced with regards to national security policy and also believed in the basic principles of leadership, of strength, of our alliances, of understanding who our adversaries are, principles that I think have served this country well since World War II.

    To lose that experience, to lose somebody with those principles, I think, increases the danger in this country of not having the ability to deal with a lot of danger points in the world today. And that concerns me, because I think it puts our nation at risk.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Richard Haass, do you agree it puts the nation at risk?

  • Richard Haass:

    Well, it's certainly a major loss. He was experienced. He was sober. He represented, essentially, a traditional foreign policy view for foreign policy.

    I will admit my bias. I think it served this country extraordinarily well for three-quarters of a century. So, without him there, it can't be good.

    But I will also tell you, Judy, I wasn't surprised that he left. Clearly, he had calculated quite a while ago that he and the president were not on the same page. They weren't even on the same book sometimes.

    And I thought it was a question of when, not if. He decided that his being there wasn't making enough of a difference to justify the price you pay in that kind of a position. And I think what we saw in the last couple of days was simply inevitable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Given that, Leon Panetta, was it better for him to go, given that he could not support the president's policies, or do you think he should have stayed and continued to make the arguments that he was making?

  • Leon Panetta:

    Well, I have had conversations with Jim Mattis.

    And I think he knew that he would — he felt his responsibility was to continue to try to make sure that the administration walked in the right path, understanding that he had an erratic president and somebody that was unpredictable.

    But I think Jim Mattis felt that it was important to try to ensure that we were implementing strong policy for this country. But I also believe that Jim Mattis knew that there might be a point at which he would be asked to cross a line that was unacceptable for him.

    And I think the fact that the president made the precipitous decision to withdraw 2,000 troops from Syria, without consultation, without talking to our allies, without really spending time with his key advisers, people like Jim Mattis, I think Jim felt that that was a terrible signal to send to our allies, to send to the Kurds, who we had fought alongside of.

    And, very frankly, if the United States is not going to stand by its word, I think Jim Mattis felt it's not worth continuing to try to be secretary of defense.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Richard Haass, so, how concerned are you that that kind of advice is not going to be there anymore in this administration, that there isn't going to be someone who has the president's ear who is saying, we do have to stick by our allies, we do have to stand up to our adversaries?

  • Richard Haass:

    Well, my bigger concern, Judy, that even if someone were to espouse that point of view in the way that Secretary Mattis did, that this president simply is not going to listen.

    Look, I think that it's clear, after two years, Donald Trump is a radical when it comes to American foreign policy. He believes the cost of American world leadership far outweigh the benefits. He doesn't believe in free trade. He doesn't believe in alliance relationships. He rather prefers daily tractional transactional approaches.

    He doesn't care whether a country is democratic or respects human rights. He's looking to draw down American troop commitments anywhere. So I think that's the real danger.

    So it's not whether Jim Mattis or someone like him is around. It's that the commander in chief has, again, what I think is a radical view of this country's relationship with the world. And that will be heard far beyond the Middle East.

    I would think people in Taiwan, in South Korea, in Europe, they saw what this president did. And why would any American ally, why would any country dependent on America somehow believe that something like this couldn't happen to them?

    We have shredded our reputation for reliability and dependability, and that might be the greatest consequence of the last few days.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Leon Panetta, Secretary Panetta, I mean, what could be done, I mean, given what we're hearing from you and from Richard Haass and a number of others?

    Is there anything that can be done to either correct the course the country is on under this president's foreign policy, or to modify it, or to some way — in some way keep from happening what I hear you two describing as real danger down the road?

  • Leon Panetta:

    Well, for all the reasons that Richard described, it's why I think our nation is at risk right now.

    There was some comfort in having Jim Mattis as secretary of defense, having John Kelly as chief of staff, Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, of having some stability within the Oval Office that could at least operate as a check with this president.

    I think the only key here is going to be whether or not he's willing to appoint somebody as secretary of defense who believes in the principles that Jim Mattis espoused in his letter and that he was about, and recognizing that that person would probably face the same kind of situation, but at least would provide the experience necessary to not only assure our allies, but also assure the American people.

    And it's also going to take a recognition by this president that he can't simply tweet his way to foreign policy and national security decisions. He can't just stand back without talking to anybody and decide what he thinks is in the interests of the country. He's going to have to be more responsible.

    This idea of America first, very frankly, is not a policy. In many ways, it's an escape from the reality of the kind of dangerous world that we live in.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Richard Haass, we haven't seen any indication the president intends to change course, have we?

  • Richard Haass:

    No, ma'am. I think it's probably the triumph of hope over experience to think that this president is going to change course.

    It's quite ironic, Judy. I spent most of my career arguing for presidential executive primacy when it comes to foreign policy. I was worried that Congress would be too parochial.

    And now, for the first time, we're facing the reality that the president is increasingly the problem when it comes to American consistency in the — in the world. But there's very little we can do to rein him in.

    And we have seen that, whether in Syria, now in Afghanistan, the negotiations with North Korea, taking the United States out of various trade agreements, taking us out of the climate change agreement, the Iran nuclear agreement.

    Almost all the initiative, almost all the discretion when it comes to foreign policy lies with the executive. And for the first time since World War II, we have an executive who has opted out of the mainstream.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, in less than a minute, to the two of you, what check do you see out there, realistically, on this course?

  • Leon Panetta:

    The check is going to have to be, you know, what our Constitution provides, which is a system of checks and balances.

    They have never wanted to centralize power in an executive. And so Congress is going to have to step up and play a bigger role. And people within the administration who feel very strongly about this country and being able to protect our national security are going to have to step up as well.

    It isn't going to be easy, but I think the system that our forefathers created ultimately has got to serve as the ultimate check on this president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Richard Haass?

  • Richard Haass:

    I don't think there's much of a check. Congress can do a few things, as Leon correctly said.

    People in the administration could push back if they're given a hearing. The media can play a role. Some of our allies, I think, may have to do more, in some ways almost take on some of what has been the traditional American role, until the United States decides it's prepared to start doing again what it has done for so long.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sobering observations from Richard Haass and Leon Panetta.

    Gentlemen, thank you very much.

  • Richard Haass:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Leon Panetta:

    Good to be with you.

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