Leon Panetta Calls ‘Dysfunction in Washington’ Biggest Security Threat

Former CIA director and secretary of defense discusses his critical new book during interview with Frank Sesno.

Leon Panetta has a conversation with SMPA Director Frank Sesno.
October 14, 2014
Leon Panetta knows his provocative new memoir has caused a stir in Washington, but his blunt criticisms of the Obama administration are necessary at a time when the U.S. is dealing with major conflicts in Iraq, Russia and other parts of the world, he told School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno on Tuesday. 
“You want to know what the worst national security threat we face is? It’s dysfunction in Washington. It’s the inability of both parties—and the president—to be able to deal with issues, and I think that’s what we ought to be debating,” he said.
After a brief introduction from George Washington University President Steven Knapp, the former CIA director and secretary of defense joined Mr. Sesno at the Jack Morton Auditorium for a conversation centered around “Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace.” His book details how the Obama administration approached the war on terrorism and other foreign policy issues and describes what Mr. Panetta views as the shortcomings of the current president.
Mr. Panetta was clear on Tuesday that President Obama always supported the CIA’s and the Department of Defense’s operations. But the president’s major impediment lies in his inability to confront a challenging Congress and aggressively fight to change the country.
Last year’s sequester showed how President Obama’s leadership lacks muscle, Mr. Panetta said. He had admonished leaders about the way a sequester could devastate the country, but even after his warnings, “nothing happened.”
Mr. Panetta said he saw a similar passivity in fall 2011, when the White House was trying to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government to keep U.S. troops in the country. He didn’t think the Obama administration stepped up to firmly lead negotiations and as a result, U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq that year. Critics have since lambasted that decision, saying it left Iraq in a vulnerable state that allowed ISIS to evolve.
Although Mr. Panetta said former Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki is largely to blame for Iraq’s instability, he iterated that the U.S. could have changed the country’s course. 
“If we had pushed, we could have moved it in the right direction,” Mr. Panetta said. 
With the threat of ISIS now spreading in the Middle East, Mr. Panetta said the president can leverage Iraq’s army without necessarily having to put U.S. boots on the ground. He added that President Obama is fully capable of “getting things done” both domestically and internationally, but he has to be willing to take risks, even if it means challenging or offending his opponents and members of his own party. 
“The question now is does he get back in the ring and really fight to try to get some things done, or does he stand back and give up?” Mr. Panetta said.
“Worthy Fights” has surprised Washington insiders—Mr. Sesno said he’s spoken to many people who have questioned why Mr. Panetta would write so uncompromisingly about a president he served. Mr. Panetta said his drive came from frustrations with how politicians have “pulled back and given up,” refusing to resolve key issues like immigration reform, infrastructure funding, a comprehensive budget and more. 

"In the time that I have been in this town, I have seen Washington at its best and Washington at its worst," Mr. Panetta said Tuesday.

He added that the media isn’t helping. The news amplifies conflicts between leaders instead of placing importance on political harmony, Mr. Panetta said. The focus needs to be on how Americans want to be governed.
“Everyone forgets what this country is all about. The great strength of the country is not here in Washington. It’s in the resilience and grit and common sense of the American people,” he said. “Most American people want this place to work.”
Protestors from GW’s Progressive Student Union and local NGO Code Pink held signs outside of the Jack Morton Auditorium, and a demonstrator sitting in the audience briefly interrupted the event before being escorted outside. Mr. Sesno wasn’t shy about broaching the main issue on protestors’ minds: the use of drones by the U.S. government.
“I think that my responsibility as director of the CIA, and for that matter as the secretary of defense, is to protect the American people,” Mr. Panetta said. “If the steps we took were effective at undermining the enemy, I have no regrets.”
Although he focused on the complexities and frustrations that come with the world of politics, Mr. Panetta said his own career has made him believe that he has made a difference. He spoke directly to students in the audience and encouraged them to see past the difficulties of public service and get involved.
“Somehow, leadership has always risen to the occasion, and I think it will again. A lot of our future is dependent on you—you’re our best investment, and if I can say anything to you, it’s that it’s worth it,” Mr. Panetta said.