Flashpoints: A Conversation with Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta

Leon Panetta - Wikipedia

In this special episode of The Burn Bag Podcast, we speak to former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (2011-2013) about a range of national security ‘flashpoints’ that stand to affect the United States and the Biden Administration in the coming years. Secretary Panetta, who oversaw the Bin Laden Raid as CIA Director, reacts to President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, while also discussing a potentially new Iran Nuclear Deal. The Secretary also discusses his view on the threats facing NATO and why President Biden needs to draw ‘clear lines’ when dealing with Putin’s Russia. 

We revisit Secretary Panetta’s service in the Obama Administration in contextualizing the current state of Chinese assertion in the Indo-Pacific, and Secretary Panetta recounts his meeting with Xi Jinping almost a decade ago. Secretary Panetta uses that story to outline how the United States needs to engage multilaterally while also bolstering its military capabilities to meet the challenge of China. Secretary Panetta also discusses the emergent, if not current, threat posed by cyber-warfare, and how the U.S. military needs to adapt to meet the dangers posed by the newest domain of warfare. We close out the conversation with a brief discussion on the defense budget — a topic Secretary Panetta is intimately familiar with, not only because of his time as Secretary of Defense, but also due to his former position as Director of the OMB and as Chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Secretary Panetta co-founded the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, and is the author of Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace, his New York Times best-selling auto-biography.


On the Biden Administration’s Decision to Withdraw From Afghanistan

[8:37] “The whole purpose was to make sure that Afghanistan would not become a base for terrorism again. I understand the frustration that led to the President’s decision, but it’s a very risky decision, because removing our troops still does not absolve us of the responsibility to make sure that Afghanistan is not taken over by the Taliban, and does not become again a haven for terrorism. So, the President has acknowledged that, I think the Secretary of State has devoted a great deal of foreign aid money to Afghanistan to try and assist them. The President has talked about, even though we’re withdrawing our forces, having the ability to continue to train Afghan forces, having the ability to go after terrorists, in what is called ‘over the horizon’ operations, meaning that they would have bases near Afghanistan giving them that capability.

I think you can take some important steps to try and make sure that the Taliban doesn’t just overwhelm Afghanistan. I’m worried about it if you’ve read headlines in the last few weeks, the Taliban has moved very quickly, particularly in the South and Eastern part of Afghanistan. I think some 26 bases have already fallen to the Taliban. It is a very real threat, I think the United States has a responsibility to deal with that threat, and to certainly assist Afghanistan. While our forces maybe removed, it does not absolve us of the responsibility to make sure that it does not become another base for terrorism, and for a potential attack on our own country.”

On U.S. Negotiations with Iran for a Prospective Nuclear Deal

[12:48] “What has to be done here is that we have got to be able to get Iran back to the table, and back within the limits established by the nuclear agreement. Iran has said they won’t do that unless sanctions are lifted. There are now two working groups, one working on the sanction issue, one working on the nuclear issue as well, trying to see if there can’t be an agreement here that will bring Iran back to the table. I’m glad they’re doing it, I’m glad they’re working at it, it is an important objective, but I also think we shouldn’t kid ourselves, that it’d be easy to get Iran to comply.”

[14:10] “Secondly, if this is really going to be supported politically in this country, Iran does have to agree to putting other areas on the table. Its ability to develop missiles should be on the table. Its continuing support for terrorism should be on the table. Those are areas that unfortunately were not included on the first agreement, and I think President Biden has said that those are areas that ultimately need to be addressed. So there are a lot of challenges here, and I don’t think we can assume that we should not be ready for potential conflict in that part of the world, because it is a very volatile situation… I think this is one situation, where as long as we’re prepared for potential conflict, I think we ought to give our diplomats some room to see whether or not they can’t arrive at an agreement that can’t reduce the level of conflict, in terms of the relationship.

On What Biden Needs to do on Russia

[20:50] “Putin, as a result of the last number of years in the United States, has read weakness on the part of the United States in dealing with Russia, and Putin has taken advantage of that… this bold cyber attack that was conducted against our election systems, beginning in 2016, 2018, 2020, and intelligence tells us they’re going to continue to undermine our elections systems. We’ve seen the SolarWinds attack, a very broad cyber-attack, we’re seeing what these criminals are doing, that are hiding out in Russia, that went after the Colonial Pipeline, that went after JBS. Ransomware attacks are continuing to go after our vital infrastructure. That is a national security issue.

I think it’s going to be very important for Joe Biden, in this meeting with Putin, to make very clear to Putin, where the lines are. We haven’t done that before, very frankly. I think he’s got to make very clear where the lines are, that Russia cannot cross. And one of those lines, very frankly, is in trying to go after any former Soviet republics, as he did in the Ukraine. I think we have to make very clear, that if he tries to do that, NATO will engage. I think we have to make very clear to Putin, that he cannot continue the cyber-attacks against the United States, and make no mistake about it, the criminal operations hiding out in Russia, there is no question in my mind that Russia knows who they are, where they’re located, and what the hell they’re doing.”

On China

[27:40] “If you’re going to deal with China, you have to deal with them from strength. I think what’s happened in the last few years, particularly in the Trump administration again is China read weakness on the part of the United States. Trump pulled out of the trade agreement with the Southeast Asian countries which was a real mistake, very frankly. If we had held that agreement together, it would have been a very important trade bulwark that could confront China, but instead we walked away from that agreement and China said if the United States is basically abdicating its leadership role, we’re going to take advantage of that — and they have.”

[28:41] “I think for that reason it’s important for the United States now to say wait a minute, wait a minute. There are areas we’re concerned about — the South China Sea should not be militarized and interfere with international law and freedom of the seas. You’ve assered yourself in Hong Kong, but we are not going to allow you to assert yourself in Taiwan. So again lines have to be drawn. And if lines are drawn in that relationship, I think we can have a dialogue on trade, we can have a dialogue on technology, we can have a dialogue with regards to cyber and what’s happening with cyber. That’s, that’s the kind of relationship you ultimately want with China, but it has to be from a position of strength. And if we can if we can make that clear, if President Biden can make that clear, then I actually think that China itself, is going to be more willing to engage in dialogue, rather than ignoring international rules.”

[31:30] “We should’ve been tough a long time ago, in terms of requiring China to abide by their membership in the World Trade Organization, which they have yet to do. I think that it’s very clear that China is a little bit like a bully, if China thinks they can take advantage of you, they will. If you stand up to bullies and make clear that that’s not the case, then I think you can engage in some productive dialogue, but you have to do it from a position of strength. I think the U.S. has to recognize that we have to recognize that we are going to have to increase our presence, our military presence in the Pacific. I regret that the problem I see right now is that we’re moving our carriers, one of our carriers, from the Pacific, to deal with situation off Afghanistan, and I’m afraid that sends the wrong signal. You want to make sure that we have carriers. I would frankly increase with two carriers. We have a strong presence in Japan, we have a military presence in South Korea, we have a military presence in other areas of the Pacific. I would A increase our presence there, number 2 I would build that alliance with the ASEAN countries. The ASEAN meetings were basically kind of touchy-feely meetings, in which everyone got together, but not a hell of a lot happened. I think the ASEAN meetings have to be about security. These countries have developing economies, they’re doing well, there’s no reason they can’t develop their own security. And we can help them do that… if we developed a strong ASEAN alliance, that would be one of the most effective ways to contain China. China right now has a free hand, and they feel that they can do whatever they want.”

On India as a Prospective Ally of the United States

[37:15] “India is a country that wants to protect its independence, and I understand that. At the same time, I think India is smart enough to recognize that if it is to ever really break out in terms of its economic strength, that it is going to have to be a country that really develops not just its economy but its security as well. If we can work with India in a real partnership in which we are working together, and giving them the assistance they need in exchange for their willingness to work with us in dealing with China and other threats in the region. I think there’s a tremendous potential there, for the future.

[38:50] “India is suffering from the same problem China is, in that it is not distributing its economic prosperity across the board. Somehow they’ve got to break through, and make everybody participate in economic opportunity.”

[39:25] “I’m a believer that India is worth the effort to make them an ally in the Quad, and an alliance between India and the United States. But we’re going to have to pay attention. Too often we take India for granted, and we’ve paid the price for that.”

On Cyber

[41:38] “We are today seeing the consequences of what is happening with these cyber-attacks and ransomware attacks that are going after our vital infrastructure… this is a national security threat. This isn’t just a bunch of criminal organizations making money, this is a national security threat for the United States and we’ve got to treat it that way. Unfortunately, even though we’ve talked about the importance of cyber, we’ve built the Cyber Command, we’ve taken other steps to move cyber together, it’s very much a hit-and-miss operation. Everyone’s operating in their own silos. Government agencies are operating in their own silos. Departments are operating in their own silos. The private sector is operating in their own silo. “

[43:10] “What is needed now, there are several key things: #1 we need a national cyber strategy, that brings together our defense capabilities and our offense capabilities in the use of cyber. I really think we’ve got to really have a national strategy. It’s a little bit like dealing with COVID-19… everyone’s doing their own thing, and they’re paying off ransoms by the way. #2 We need to have a partnership between the public and private sector that are working together. You heard that the Administration said that businesses better develop their own defenses here. Well, excuse me, this is a national security issue, it is government and businesses working together to confront this threat that we’re dealing with. That partnership needs to come together. Lastly, we have got to stay on the cutting edge of this technology. This technology is developing rapidly… We need to be ahead of that technology. And we need to have the brightest and the best people possible dealing with this whole cyber area. We’ve got to recruit people to be part of a very strong team that can really bring together that strategy I talked about, in order to make sure that this country is working together to protect our national security. This is a fundamental national security issue. And unfortunately, right now, that is not the way it’s being addressed.”

[48:54] “My God, the capability of artificial intelligence, to be able to gather all this data, to be able to determine what happens on the battlefield, the use of drones, the use of space, all of this is the kind of development that the United States has to be ahead of[…] You might have to face a country that’s coming after us using cyber weapons. If you’re using cyber and these sophisticated viruses, you don’t need to deploy bombers, you don’t need to deploy fighter planes. You don’t need to put the boots on the ground. You sit at a computer and you can deploy a sophisticated virus that can virtually cripple a country. That’s the reality. That’s the world we live in. So we damn well have to be prepared to deal with those threats, all of those threats. Yes, we’re going to have to maintain some weapon systems, but at the same time we better damn well be able to deal with the new technologies coming into the warfare regime, and those technologies are being developed in Russia, and China, and elsewhere. It does mean that we’re going to have to take a serious look at our defense strategies for the future.”

On the Defense Budget

[53:45] “How can we try to develop a path here that gets us back to a better relationship between debt and spending at the federal level? What I’m calling for is basically is a serious budget that sets that direction, and if we set that direction, very frankly we’re going to have be disciplined not just on defense spending, but also disciplined on discretionary spending as well, and we’re going to have to be disciplined on entitlement spending, and very frankly, we’re going to have to raise revenues, all of that needs to be apart of that package. Look, as Secretary of Defense, there are areas where savings can be achieved in defense. We can achieve savings in procurement, we can get savings in duplication in the Defense department. We can eliminate some of the number of bases we have around the whole world as well as in this country, there are bases we can reduce. So yeah, there are savings that can be achieved in defense. But we’re living at a time now where we’re doing everything and basically borrowing the money to get it done. If we really want to get this in control, we have got to develop a comprehensive budget that looks at every area that find savings in every area. And that sets a path of discipline for the future, that is going to ensure that when you’re out there, with whatever careers you decide on, you’re going to have a country that is in a much better fiscal position in order to handle economic growth. That’s what really needs to be done.”

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