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Blog Post · January 22, 2020

Video: A Conversation with Leon Panetta

photo - A Conversation with Leon Panetta and Mark Baldassare

Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense and CIA director, joined PPIC president Mark Baldassare in Sacramento last week for a wide-ranging conversation about leadership. Baldassare began by asking Panetta to “put on your CIA hat” and compare the targeting of Osama bin Laden during the Obama administration with the recent killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. The main difference, Panetta said, is that bin Laden had directly attacked the United States, and that he and other Al-Qaeda leaders were almost certainly planning more attacks.Panetta explained that the Obama administration “never seriously considered an attack on Soleimani,” because “the result would be that we would increase the chances of war with Iran.” The issue was not whether Soleimani was a “bad actor,” but whether the US wanted to escalate the conflict: “When you make those kinds of decisions, you ought to damn well consider the risks of war.”

For Panetta, the tense situation with Iran underlines the importance of leadership. “In a democracy we govern either by leadership or by crisis.” Leadership, he continued, involves actively addressing major challenges—and this, in turn, entails uncertainty and risk. “If you’re not willing to take the risks associated with leadership . . . , crisis will drive policy in this country.”

Panetta sees impeachment as “a reflection of our times”—we have “a president who doesn’t abide by moral boundaries” and a Congress that “can’t work together.” But he is hopeful that the Senate will deal with the trial “in a fair and impartial way.” Otherwise, he continued, “there is a danger that impeachment is going to become just another political tool.”

Asked to assess how things are going in California, Panetta identified three interrelated leadership challenges: political imbalance, economic inequality, and education. To have a chance of restoring political balance in Sacramento, he said, Republicans are “going to have to look at immigration . . . inequality . . . climate change.” At the same time, the state’s Democratic leadership will have to collaborate with a broad range of stakeholders to tackle economic inequality—and its efforts will need to include a focus on education, which “is absolutely critical to the future of California.”

While Panetta is clearly worried about the level of dysfunction in Washington, he is not entirely pessimistic. “I’ve seen Washington at its best and Washington at its worst. The good news is that I’ve seen Washington work!” More seriously, he stressed the need for people to engage in the political process: “They’ve gotta be willing to fight for what they believe is right.” He conceded that politics “has gotten tougher.” But, he added, the great satisfaction of being involved in our democracy is that “you can do things to make people’s lives better.”



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