Leon Panetta Addresses “Obama Doctrine,” U.S.-Israel Relations, Presidential Campaign

Former Defense, CIA Chief Receives Institute Scholar-Statesman Award

(Washington, D.C. – June 20) In a candid conversation with Institute Executive Director Robert Satloff, former secretary of defense and CIA director Leon Panetta offered measured praise for President Obama’s national security policy, critiqued the decision to refrain from military action to enforce the “red line” on Syrian chemical weapons, and called on the next president to take steps to restore allies’ faith in American credibility.

Panetta spoke on the occasion of receiving the Institute’s 2015 Scholar-Statesman Award, which honors leaders who have advanced U.S. ideals and interests in the Middle East through exemplary scholarship and policymaking. The June 6 award presentation was the featured event of the Institute’s Lafer Symposium, an annual program dedicated to late Institute chairman and president Fred Lafer. (Panetta was unable to attend the December 2015 Scholar-Statesman Award ceremony when he was scheduled to be honored along with Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel.)

In video excerpts of the event released by the Institute, Panetta addresses the following issues:

“The Obama Doctrine” Commenting on Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic article, “The Obama Doctrine,” Panetta says that despite the president’s admitted reluctance to become deeply involved in the Middle East, Obama was supportive of all Pentagon and CIA operations under Panetta’s guidance during the first years of the administration. “I’m not too sure what the hell went wrong in the second term,” Panetta says. He credits the president with responding to crises during the latter half of his term but added that “the decision-making process to deal with these threats in the Middle East has not been as effective as it should have been.”

Presidential Leadership – Panetta says that a key responsibility of any president is to communicate national priorities to the American people simply and clearly and to make the case that only the United States can provide the leadership needed to address global problems.

U.S. Credibility – “Credibility is everything” in foreign affairs, he says. Expressing regret that President Obama did not punish Syria militarily for violating a U.S. “red line” by using chemical weapons, he calls on the next president to take steps to restore American leadership at home and abroad. In one of the new president’s earliest acts, says Panetta, the White House should send a high-level delegation to visit with foreign allies to show that the U.S. is a reliable partner.

U.S.-Israel Relations – Panetta urges the next administration to improve relations with Israel, which has provided the U.S. with an important ally in the Middle East and the war on terrorism. Referring to a passage in the Goldberg Atlantic article, he explains that President Obama raised questions about the need for the U.S. to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge” due to frustration over complications that triggered a delay in the sale of U.S. fighter jets to Saudi Arabia.

Countering ISIS and Iran – At a time when the proliferation of ungoverned spaces has allowed terrorism to metastasize, Panetta calls for a more comprehensive, unified strategy to deal with the threat from both the Islamic State and Iran that incorporates the contributions of local and regional partners, including Israel.

Dysfunction in Washington – Panetta, whose Washington career as a congressman, White House official and Cabinet officer spanned almost 50 years, asserts that Washington is more dysfunctional than ever. “Why can’t elected leaders draw on the same courage and values of American men and women in uniform to govern the country?” he asks.

The Presidential Campaign – In a glowing testimonial to his former cabinet colleague, Panetta endorses former secretary of state Hillary Clinton for president. While acknowledging Clinton’s shortcomings, Panetta says that she meets his test for presidential leadership: She alone among the candidates has the ability to break the gridlock in Washington and provide moral leadership for a troubled world.

(To view a Washington Institute video tribute to Leon Panetta, please click here.)