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Panetta: Time of unprecedented threat calls for debate on leadership

Leon Panetta was involved in the war on terror, the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the wind-down of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now the former CIA director and defense secretary is out with a memoir that has made headlines for its criticism of President Obama’s leadership. Panetta joins Judy Woodruff to discuss his book, “Worthy Fights,” the Islamic State and Washington dysfunction.

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  • Editor’s Note:

    Leon Panetta was incorrectly introduced as President Reagan's chief of staff; he was chief of staff to President Clinton. The transcript has been revised to fix that error.


    We turn now to a memoir from an Obama administration insider that's gaining headlines for its critical assessments of the president.

    The author, Leon Panetta, spent decades in Washington, first as a legislative assistant, later a congressman, and then President Clinton's chief of staff, before retiring to his home state of California. He was coaxed back into government by President Obama, who persuaded Panetta to serve as director of the CIA and then secretary of defense.

    In those roles, he was involved in the war on terror, the assassination of Osama bin Laden, and the wind-down of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    He writes about all of this in "Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace."

    I spoke with him earlier this afternoon.

    Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense, welcome.

    LEON PANETTA, Author, "Worthy Fights": Nice to be with you, Judy.


    So the book "Worthy Fights" comes in the middle of some fierce debates here in Washington about domestic policy, certainly international policy. What contribution do you think the book will have to those debates?


    Well, I very much wanted to, first of all, tell my life story, because in many ways it's the American story, and all of the different fights that I engaged in, in all of the different positions I have held, and to point out that, in fact, if you stay in it and fight, that you can get things done.

    And I guess the lessons that I would like people to draw is that, at a time when there's so much dysfunction in this town, that it is a time when leadership really does need to confront the challenges we're facing abroad, as well as the challenges here at home. And I have said, you know, we govern in a democracy by leadership or crisis. And, too often today, we govern by crisis. We need to get back to governing by leadership.


    You said the other day talking about the war against Islamic State, and you said you think it's something that's going to go on for 30 years.

    If you were at the table right now, would you be arguing that the U.S. should ramp up the effort or leave it to the people in the countries in the region?


    Well, we're going to have to be very flexible, because we're dealing with a resilient enemy. That's obvious.

    ISIS is — they're well-armed. They're well-funded. They're well-trained. You can see them using very, very careful tactics here on the battlefield, now going after this town on the border. They go into hiding. They're hiding their equipment. So we have got to be very resilient in the way we handle this.

    I think the approach of the president is right. We have got — you know, we have put troops — we have deployed troops to Iraq. We're trying to get their security force to be able to be effective in pushing ISIS back. We're going to arm and train the rebels. We have decided to use air attacks, which are extremely helpful.

    But it has to be continuing with a great deal of pressure and a great deal of attention to objectives. You have got to set objectives, so that we can show the American people and the world that we can win in this war on ISIS.


    You do talk about the president's leadership in the book. Wasn't the administration dealing with Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq, somebody who was going to go his own way? How could some more persuasion by President Obama have made a difference?


    My experience was, Maliki operated under pressure. You had to constantly pressure him on almost everything he did. He was that kind of prime minister.

    And so when we wanted him to make decisions on governing, we had to pressure him. When he wanted him to make decisions on security, we had to come down hard on him. So coming down and putting that kind of pressure on him, saying we're not going to provide military aid to you, we're not going to give you F-16 fighters, I think would have been one way to try to at least see whether or not he could have agreed to it.



    You also write at another point in the book that the president — it was a mistake for the U.S. not to go ahead and arm and train the Syrian rebels. And yet, for more than 10 years, the U.S. did train and arm the Iraqi army, and we saw just in the last few months the Iraqi army completely collapse. This was training done part of the time while you were secretary of defense.

    My question is, what makes you believe it would have worked with the Syrian rebels when it didn't work in Iraq?


    Well, you know, again, to return to the book, and how I describe the situation, because, frankly, for four years serving this president, and it — as I said in the book, it was an honor to serve this president — he was very strong in supporting the operations that we did at the CIA.

    He supported the bin Laden operation. And he supported the efforts that we had as secretary of defense. He was a strong leader with regards to the war on terrorism. And I think he knows that, in confronting terrorism, we are going to have to take these things on. He's learned lessons from the things that I talk about.

    We have 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. He made the decision to do that. I think that's the right decision. He's decided to arm and train the rebels. The reality is, unless we are there and defining moderate rebel forces in Syria, we won't have any boots on the ground. We won't have any sources on the ground to guide us as we do air attacks.

    If ISIS is there and command-and-control is there, we have got to have somebody somehow be able to identify those targets so we can go after them.


    But you're very candid in the book, Secretary Panetta, about points at which you think the president should have gone in another direction, should have worked more with Congress.

    I guess my question is, you know, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said at one point, he said — he was a great devotee of history. He said, it was wrong. He said it's harmful for people to write candid memoirs while the presidents they serve are still in office.

    And yet you, Secretary Clinton, Secretary Gates have all written candid memoirs. Is it — is it that Patrick Moynihan is wrong, or does this president just not engender loyalty?


    No, it's that, you know, we live at a time when I think it's important to have a debate about these kinds of issues.

    This is a — this is a serious time in our history in 2014. It's a serious time with regards to, what direction is this country going to take? We have got a Washington that's largely dysfunctional in the stalemate. We're not dealing with the principal issues facing this country. We're dealing with a series of threats abroad.

    It isn't just ISIS. We're dealing with North Korea. We're dealing with Iran. We're dealing with Russia. We're dealing with cyber-attacks. It is an unprecedented set of threats that are out there. This is not a time to kind of get in the trenches and not say anything.

    This is a time to open up that debate about, what is it we need to do? What can we learn from the past? And how do we get together to provide the leadership that's necessary to keep this country strong? I think that's the right debate. And I think people ought to embrace that debate, because that's what makes our country what it is.


    So we are four weeks away from the midterm election, and, right now, Republicans from Mitt Romney to Senate Republicans running in tight contests around the country are saying that — they're citing you as proof that President Obama is weak. Do they have a point?


    Look, President Obama has been a strong leader.

    He made a very tough decision with regards to the bin Laden raid, and it was a risky decision, but he made the right decision. He's made the right decision in terms of helping the economy. He's may the right decision in terms of health care. He's been a president who really is trying to provide the right leadership for the country.

    That doesn't mean that we shouldn't talk or disagree about certain elements of the leadership. That's part of what goes on. But this president has the ability to establish a strong legacy for the country. We can do immigration reform. We can do a budget deal. We can improve health care delivery. We can get — be energy-independent.

    Democrats, this president can present a strong agenda to the country. That's what we're — that's what they ought to all run on, the ability to govern this country. And I think Republicans have a hard time, frankly, coming at that issue of governing this country because they, in the House in particular, are largely responsible for undermining government and its efforts to try to help people.

    That should be the principal issue in this next campaign.


    Leon Panetta, the book is "Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace."

    We thank you.


    Thanks very much.

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