Former secretary of defense and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta joined PPIC president and CEO Tani Cantil-Sakauye on Tuesday, November 7, in Sacramento for a conversation about the critical issues confronting leaders in the US and around the world.
Asked to name the top issue facing the nation today, Panetta said that it is the survival of democracy. “As we found out with January 6, our democracy is fragile … the real challenge for our democracy is the quality of leadership that we have,” in a government that is often governing by crisis instead of taking risks and making tough decisions. The anger and frustration Panetta sees in America toward Washington is due to “the inability of Democrats and Republicans to work together.”
Democracy is also being challenged abroad, making this “a pivotal time that will determine whether democracy survives in the 21st century.” Panetta described actions against Ukraine and Israel as efforts to do away with democracy, stating that these efforts threaten “our ability to govern ourselves, enjoy freedom, respect human dignity” in the United States and abroad.
Panetta offered the September 11 terrorist attack by al Qaeda, which killed over 3,000 people, as context for responses to events in Israel. “The US went to war against terrorists [after 9/11] … it was important to make sure that 9/11 never happened again.… Hamas conducted a horrific terrorist attack against Israel,” Panetta said. “Israel clearly has the right to defend themselves. They are going after Hamas.”
The US request for a humanitarian pause is correct in Panetta’s view, but he disagreed with a cease fire. To bring stability to the region, Panetta supports a two-state solution, saying that “the Palestinians are going to have to provide the leadership” while “the US and our allies, working together, must develop an approach to establish a Palestinian state, to provide security,” and to ensure terrorists cannot wage another attack.
“The United States, because of our values … represents an important element of leadership in the world,” Panetta said, but the country needs to build its alliances; the US cannot solve problems alone. The alliance with NATO exemplifies this cooperation, with the US and NATO countries providing resources for Ukraine to stop the Russian invasion, a fight that Panetta emphasized is about democracy. Panetta sees alliances across all continents as the solution to dealing with dangerous times. “We need to build these alliances if we want to preserve our security and the security of the world.”
Preserving democracy amid domestic and international challenges will demand building a new generation of leaders. Panetta had a message for young Americans: “If you want a better life, you need to get involved—in your community, your state, your national government. Our democracy will not survive unless there is a new generation of leaders who understand the importance of governing.”
For Panetta, the divisiveness in government today is due to politicians not understanding the legislative process and the negotiations required to govern. “We need the kind of leadership that says to the country: I don’t give a damn where you’re from, I know what your problems are, and the only way to solve them is to work together.”
PPIC’s Speaker Series on California’s Future invites thought leaders and changemakers with diverse perspectives to participate critically, constructively, and collaboratively in public conversations. The purpose is to give Californians a better understanding of how our leaders are addressing the challenges facing our state.
PPIC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it support, endorse, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Any opinions expressed by event participants are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect any position of the Public Policy Institute of California.