February 15th, 2015
01:54 PM ET

Panetta: Netanyahu will "make this a partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans."

Today on CNN’s State of the Union, former Secretary of Defense and former director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, joined CNN’s Chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta, to discuss the instability in the Middle East, Putin’s aggressive foreign policy, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, and President Obama’s performance regarding said issues.

 

TEXT HIGHLIGHTS

On Netanyahu’s Congressional speech: “I don't like the way this developed.  I don't know what was behind it.  I don't know how it all happened.  But, you know, we - we need to have a strong relationship with Israel.  They are - they are an important ally in a very difficult part of the world.  I think we need to maintain a relationship of trust and confidence in each other. And I'm just afraid that what's going to happen here with, you know, what Netanyahu will do is to make this a - a partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans.  And that - that makes it a very dangerous trend...”

On fighting ISIS: “There's no question in my mind that some mistakes were made here.  Presidents make mistakes, but they also learn from those mistakes.  And I think the president has learned from those mistakes. It's going to take time.  I'm more hopeful about the effort in Iraq.  I think ultimately we'll have, I think, a pretty good chance of being able to push ISIS back out of Iraq. The big question, Jim, in my mind is Syria and just exactly how long is it going to take us to be able to confront ISIS in Syria, because if they have a safe haven there, they may continue to be trouble for a long time.”

On Putin and Russian aggression: “I think the West needs to - to be much tougher.  The West, combined with the United States, needs to be much tougher in drawing the line on Vladimir Putin.  I think we ought to be providing military aid to the Ukrainians.  I think we ought to be bolstering NATO.  I think we ought to be doing everything we can to provide other energy supplies so that Russia isn't the only country that provides energy to those countries in that part of the world. I think we've got to take a number of steps here to make very clear to Putin that he cannot just simply use military power to be able to invade and take over another country.”

On Yemen:  “I'm afraid Yemen has turned into another failed state in the Middle East.  You know, and we've seen a number of failed states throughout the Middle East.  And the problem is, in Yemen, with the Houthis having taken over, supported by Iran, by the way, that what we have now is chaos.  And what it's doing is it's giving al Qaeda a free hand to do what it wants to do in Yemen.  And I have to tell you that when you look at terrorist threats around the world, the one you have to worry about the most are - is al Qaeda in Yemen, AQAP, because they have the bomb making capability and they have the other capabilities to - to basically do what they had to do to attack this country. They are - they are a real danger.  That's why we have operations there.  That's why we're going after al Qaeda there.

And as a result of what's happened in Yemen, I think it's going to impact on our capability to defend ourselves.”

On partisan politics and the Authorization for Use of Military Force: “You want to know what the - the biggest national security threat is to this country right now? It's the - the total dysfunction in Washington, the fact that so little can be done by the Congress.  They - they can't even resolve the issue of homeland security.  They can't deal with budgets.  They can't deal with immigration reform.  They can't deal with infrastructure.  They can't deal with other issues. If they wind up not being able to deal with this war authorization, that sends a terrible message to the world.”

VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS

Panetta: It's going to damage this country

Panetta: ISIS represents new phase in war on terror

Panetta's advice to incoming Defense Secretary

Panetta: U.S. needs to be tougher on Putin

Panetta: Hillary will be the Democratic nominee

Panetta: Terror threat to worry about most is in Yemen

FULL TRANSCRIPT

THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JIM ACOSTA, HOST: And joining me now, Leon Panetta, former secretary of Defense and CIA director for President Obama.

Secretary Panetta, thanks for joining us on STATE OF THE UNION.

LEON PANETTA, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE/DIRECTOR OF CIA: Nice to be with you, Jim.

ACOSTA: Let's jump right into it, because as you probably saw in recent days, there was this pretty alarming attack on the al-Asad Base in Iraq. Some ISIS insurgents attacked that base. They were repelled by Iraqi security forces. But it was alarming in the fact that there are U.S. military personnel at that base, involved in these training exercises with the Iraqis.

And I'm just curious, you said in your book, the ISIS offensive in 2014 greatly increases the risk that Iraq will become al Qaeda's next safe haven.

Is this what you were afraid of?

PANETTA: What I see happening is that ISIS is - it truly represents kind of a whole new phase in the war on terrorism. We're dealing with an enemy that is well-funded. We're dealing with an enemy that has strong command and control. And we're dealing with an enemy that is well-armed.

And as a result of that, I think that they can conduct the kind of offensive operations that can be very effective and that have to be met tooth and nail with everything we've got. That's - that's the reality.

ISIS is a whole new chapter in terms of the terrorist threat to this - to - to that area and to our country.

ACOSTA: The president, as he was laying out this authorization for the use of military force earlier this week, made a pretty bold statement. He said, "Our coalition is on the offensive. ISIL is on the defensive. ISIL is going to lose."

In your view, is the U.S. and its coalition winning right now?

PANETTA: I think the president has the right pieces in place to try to confront ISIS and obviously, we've made some important gains in trying to stop their effort to try to gain additional territory in Iraq.

The key elements are, you know, obviously developing strong intelligence so we know what they're up to, developing our counterterrorism operations with Special Forces, using our air capability, using our other technologies, building the kind of alliances that can help us, developing the capacities of Iraq and other countries to be able to confront them, and ultimately dealing with the - the root causes of terrorism.

All of that needs to be part of the strategy that is involved here.

I think the - the problem I see is that that strategy has to be bolstered in a strong way. We've got to be able to ensure that we are committed every day of the week toward making sure that this strategy works, that we disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat ISIS.

ACOSTA: Before we talk more about the AUMF, let's talk about the battle against ISIS. And since leaving the White House, you have said publicly that the U.S. should have armed those moderate rebels in Syria a couple of years ago, when that civil war was unfolding there.

And I'm just curious, you know, do you think that would have made a difference at this point, in this fight against ISIS?

PANETTA: Well, you know, I - there's no question in my mind that some mistakes were made here. Presidents make mistakes, but they also learn from those mistakes. And I think the president has learned from those mistakes.

It's going to take time. I'm more hopeful about the effort in Iraq. I think ultimately we'll have, I think, a pretty good chance of being able to push ISIS back out of Iraq.

The big question, Jim, in my mind is Syria and just exactly how long is it going to take us to be able to confront ISIS in Syria, because if they have a safe haven there, they may continue to be trouble for a long time.

ACOSTA: One thing I've heard from - from people over at the White House is that - and this was obviously the big debate when Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, crossed President Obama's red line and the president had that decision to make as to whether he was going to bomb Assad's forces in Syria. And he - he didn't do that. He didn't enforce that red line.

But what White House officials will say now privately is that had we done that, ISIS would be in control of Damascus now.

Do you - do you buy that argument?

PANETTA: No, not at all. I think that had we gone in and made very clear that once Assad made us of chemical weapons and crossed the line that the president of the United States established, that we stand by our word and go after them.

And I think, you know, we - we are now conducting air attacks in Syria. We're going after ISIS. We're going after those that - that represent the worst of terrorism in terms of their ability to - to strike, not only there, but in other places, as well.

I don't - I think it's important to understand that this is not an enemy that you can kind of stand aside and not confront. If we stand aside, If we don't get involved, if we don't provide leadership, unfortunately, nobody else will. And that's why it's important for us to be - to take a leadership position here, both in Syria as well as in Iraq as well as elsewhere in confronting terrorism.

ACOSTA: And as you know, Mr. Secretary, the president is hesitant to get involved in a big ground war type operation in Iraq or even in Syria. And it is sort of built into or baked into that authorization of the use of military force against ISIS that the president proposed earlier this week, or last week. He said that there would only be a three limit - a three year limit on that authorization.

Are you comfortable with putting an end date, an expiration date, on that authorization?

Do you think he has the flexibility that he needs to take on ISIS?

PANETTA: You know, I think it's important that the president has asked the Congress to give him this authorization for military force. It probably should have been done six months ago, but I'm glad that the president has sent this up.

And it's very important for the Congress, hopefully, to unite, both Democrats and Republicans, and support this authorization.

Look, I understand there's going to be some limits here. And I think the president has struck, actually, a pretty good balance. He's got a lot of flexibility built into this authorization, which I think is important.

I think the president, as commander-in-chief, needs a great deal of flexibility in order to protect this country.

At the same time, it's obvious that nobody - nobody wants a large ground war similar to what we did in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so limiting these kinds of enduring combat operations as part of this authorization probably makes some sense. Including...

ACOSTA: What does that phrase mean to you...

PANETTA: - a three year limit on it...

ACOSTA: - Mr. Secretary, "enduring combat operation?"

There are some of your fellow Democrats who - who say we don't know what that means.

PANETTA: Well, I think a - I think the bottom line here is that we are not going to go to war with 100,000, 150,000 troops the way we did in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's certainly what I envision in terms of the limits of our - of our operation.

ACOSTA: I know you've been critical of the president's ability to - to rally Congress to his cause. And one thing that you say in your book, "He does, however, sometimes lack fire. Too often, in my view, the president relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader."

If that is the case, is - does he have what it takes to rally this Congress to pass this authorization?

PANETTA: Oh, I don't - I don't think there's any question that the president could get this done. But it's going to - it's going to take a continuing commitment. You know, look, want - you want to know what the - the biggest national security threat is to this country right now?

It's the - the total dysfunction in Washington, the fact that so little can be done by the Congress. They - they can't even resolve the issue of homeland security. They can't deal with budgets. They can't deal with immigration reform. They can't deal with infrastructure. They can't deal with other issues.

If they wind up not being able to deal with this war authorization, that sends a terrible message to the world.

ACOSTA: And as you know, the president is going to need a Pentagon that will carry out this policy. And you served as Defense secretary. And as you know, you - you've probably been watching this week, a pretty smooth confirmation process for Ash Carter, who was confirmed at the net - as the next Defense secretary.

But you complained, and I know your predecessor, Bob Gates, complained that the White House is sometimes too controlling when it comes to foreign policy. The president might rather listen to his national security team inside the White House rather than view over at the Pentagon.

What would be your advice to incoming Secretary Carter?

PANETTA: I think Ash Carter is going to be a great leader at the Pentagon. He was my deputy when I was there. I have tremendous confidence in him. He's very bright. He knows the Defense Department inside out, knows the capabilities at the Defense Department.

And I think the president would not have nominated him to be secretary of Defense if he wasn't willing to listen to Ash Carter and the advice that he provides in the National Security Council.

I think - I think the role of secretary of Defense and, for that matter, the secretary of State, is to - is to present your most honest views of your department to the president of the United States, to make sure that he understands what - what the best guidance and the best recommendations are.

In the end, it's the president who has to ultimately decide.

ACOSTA: I want to turn to a different and - and a very difficult foreign policy challenge for this administration, and that is Iran.

As you know, House speaker, John Boehner invited the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, to come to the Congress next month to address a joint session of Congress, to offer his concerns, his complaints about this - this effort that has been undertaken by the Obama administration and other world powers to work with Iran to try to come up with an agreement to constrain its nuclear program.

What did you make of Speaker Boehner's offer to Netanyahu to come speak to the U.S. Congress?

Was that a breach of protocol?

PANETTA: I don't like the way this developed. I don't know what was behind it. I don't know how it all happened. But, you know, we - we need to have a strong relationship with Israel. They are - they are an important ally in a very difficult part of the world. I think we need to maintain a relationship of trust and confidence in each other.

And I'm just afraid that what's going to happen here with, you know, what Netanyahu will do is to make this a - a partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans. And that - that makes it a very dangerous trend...

ACOSTA: Should Democrats...

PANETTA: - (INAUDIBLE) the election.

ACOSTA: - boycott that speech, do you think?

PANETTA: Look, I - I'll leave that up to Democrats to decide what they should do. But I - I really do think that hopefully they could find some way to be able to listen to Netanyahu's views without having it be used in this fashion to kind of set up what - what is clearly a kind of partisan presentation here. We need to get back to presidents and Congresses who can work together - together to try to confront the challenges we face.

ACOSTA: (INAUDIBLE).

PANETTA: Otherwise, it's going to damage this country for the future.

ACOSTA: And as you know, another big issue that came up this week - this past week - was Ukraine. You know, the - the Russians, the Ukrainians, the Germans and the French all agreed to this cease-fire deal, but almost immediately after that cease-fire deal was announced, the State Department was complaining that the Russians were supplying anti-aircraft weaponry to those pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine.

I'm just curious, you know, as former CIA director, former Defense secretary, you might have some insights, I would think, into Vladimir Putin's mind. You - I don't know if you have a sense of his soul, but as - as President Bush once famously said.

But what - what do you think Vladimir Putin is after in the end here?

And I - and I've got to ask the question here, do you think...

PANETTA: Yes...

ACOSTA: - he's playing with a full deck?

PANETTA: You know, look, he - Vladimir Putin is not a mystery. You know, we - we've seen him operate before. The intelligence community has - has nailed down pretty well what Putin is all about. And Putin is all about Russia and expanding the influence of Russia. He's about dividing the East from the West. He's about doing everything he can to regain influence over the former states of the Soviet Union. And he is somebody who will take advantage of - of other countries and - and weakness if he sees that...– frankly, we've got to take a tougher stand against him because, you know, we're engaged now in a whole new chapter of the cold war.

ACOSTA: The president is not...

PANETTA: And the only thing he understands...

ACOSTA: - tough enough with Vladimir Putin?

PANETTA: - is power.

ACOSTA: The president has not been...

PANETTA: Pardon me?

ACOSTA: The president has not been tough enough with Vladimir Putin?

PANETTA: No, I - I think - I think the West needs to - to be much tougher. The West, combined with the United States, needs to be much tougher in drawing the line on Vladimir Putin. I think we ought to be providing military aid to the Ukrainians. I think we ought to be bolstering NATO. I think we ought to be doing everything we can to provide other energy supplies so that Russia isn't the only country that provides energy to those countries in that part of the world.

I think we've got to take a number of steps here to make very clear to Putin that he cannot just simply use military power to be able to invade and take over another country.

ACOSTA: And that includes...

PANETTA: That simply cannot be allowed to happen.

ACOSTA: And that includes weapons to Ukraine?

PANETTA: Absolutely.

ACOSTA: And on Yemen, let me just ask you about this, because as you saw, the U.S. Embassy in - in Sana'a closed this past week. And - as well as other foreign embassies.

The president - the Obama administration has held up Yemen as something of a success story in recent years.

Is it still a success story, do you think?

PANETTA: Well, I'm afraid Yemen has turned into another failed state in the Middle East. You know, and we've seen a number of failed states throughout the Middle East. And the problem is, in Yemen, with the Houthis having taken over, supported by Iran, by the way, that what we have now is chaos. And what it's doing is it's giving al Qaeda a free hand to do what it wants to do in Yemen. And I have to tell you that when you look at terrorist threats around the world, the one you have to worry about the most are - is al Qaeda in Yemen, AQAP, because they have the bomb making capability and they have the other capabilities to - to basically do what they had to do to attack this country.

They are - they are a real danger. That's why we have operations there. That's why we're going after al Qaeda there.

And as a result of what's happened in Yemen, I think it's going to impact on our capability to defend ourselves.

ACOSTA: And I want to jump to politics, if we can, with the time that we have left.

As you know, Hillary Clinton is reportedly weighing a run for the presidency. You may have heard this in the - in the news, Secretary Panetta. You worked in the...

PANETTA: Yes, I have.

ACOSTA: Yes. You've worked in the Clinton White House before working in the Obama White House.

What do you make of this - it seems to be almost sort of an internal debate in - in the pre-Hillary Clinton campaign as to when they should launch this campaign.

What - what's taking them so long?

PANETTA: Well, I - you know, I - I really don't know the ins and outs of a - you know, what they're up - what they're operating with and, you know, and their plans.

I - I do know that she would make an outstanding candidate. I think she would be great for the Democrats in terms of running for president. And I'm sure that at some point, that will happen.

But, you know, we're - we're a long way from the presidential election. And there's going to be a lot of puts and takes, you know, with a lot of candidates in the interim.

So I think in the end, there's no question in my mind that she will - she will be the nominee for the Democratic Party.

ACOSTA: You've been critical, at times, of President Obama. And isdn let you go without raising something that's come up in recent weeks, as you probably saw.

Valerie Jarrett made some comments recently where she - she almost took a swipe at you, I think, and maybe Bob Gates, in saying, she said, quote, "I would not serve in an administration and then be critical of that administration."

You - you are well known in Washington, Secretary Panetta, as being a party loyalist.

Do you regret some of the critical comments that you've made of President Obama?

PANETTA: No, I think, look, I - I think, you know, in - in evaluating the, you know, the president and in Valerie - in evaluating any president, you look at their strong points and you look at the mistakes that are made.

And I think, you know, history is going to be the ultimately judge as to each president and what they've done for the country.

ACOSTA: Let me ask you this, are - are you done with politics and government, Secretary Panetta?

Is there any job that might bring you back to Washington?

Maybe Hillary Clinton's running mate in 2016?

PANETTA: You know, I - I've mentioned this before. I got - I'm back on - on a walnut ranch that my - my father helped plant. And, you know, I - I'm glad to be back home working with a different set of nuts. It's much more fun to be back on the farm in Carmel Valley.

So that's where I'm going to stay for a while.

ACOSTA: A slightly different nut farm out there in California, I guess.

ACOSTA: All right, well, Secretary Leon Panetta, we really appreciate your time this morning.

Thanks for joining us.

Good talking to you, sir.

PANETTA: Thank you very much, Jim.

##END##


Topics: Iraq • ISIS • Israel • Jim Acosta • Russia • State of the Union • Syria • Ukraine
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