Longtime political figure Leon Panetta wove together storytelling, reflections on the current geopolitical climate and laughter-inducing anecdotes in a Thursday evening appearance before more than 300 people at the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center.
Panetta, 81, who worked as CIA director under President Barack Obama and oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, said that the U.S. is at “a turning point” and called for politicians and other leaders to seek common ground.
“I think this country can go in one of two directions right now in 2019,” Panetta said. “I think one clear direction — and I think it’s achievable — is an America in renaissance. I see an America that has a strong economy and an America that is creative, innovative. ... I think we could be a country in which Republicans and Democrats work together to govern, and work together to find solutions to the problems that we face. We could be that kind of country.
“Or we can be an America in decline,” Panetta continued. “We could be an America that is deadlocked and gridlocked and unable to find solutions to the challenges that face us — an America caught up in partisanship and caught up in division, unable to solve problems and divided by our hates and prejudices.”
Panetta, who is from Monterey, California, served as a Democrat in the U.S. House from 1977 through 1993, then worked as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994 to 1997. On July 1, 2011, Panetta was sworn in as U.S. secretary of defense, a position he held until 2013. In his remarks, he also praised former President George H.W. Bush’s commitment to public service.
Panetta’s speech was part of the inaugural 2019 Cameron Fellows Lecture. He titled his remarks “The Challenges of U.S. National Security Decision Making.” Bush School Dean Mark A. Welsh provided opening remarks before Panetta’s lecture.
Panetta shared reflections on U.S. relations with China, Russia and Syria, adding he is “worried about the consequences of the decision” President Donald Trump made recently to withdraw military forces from northern Syria, which drew widespread criticism from across the political spectrum. He also said that he believed it was possible for the U.S. to negotiate with China and to make progress on trade challenges.
“If you’re going to deal with the Chinese, you have to deal with them from a place of strength, not from weakness,” Panetta said. “It’s the same way with the Russians — you deal with the Russians from strength, which means you make very clear where the damn lines are that you can’t cross — and if you do that, you can work with Putin, but he’s got to know we’re serious.”
He also said that he believed Congress should investigate the president and said he supported an impeachment inquiry.
“I think this is something that merits an inquiry by the Congress,” Panetta said. “We have a situation where there was at least an effort to try to get a foreign leader to get involved in politics of our country. That’s something we have to worry about.”
As CIA director from 2009 through the summer of 2011, Panetta helped orchestrate the operation that led to the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, something Welsh asked Panetta about during the question and answer portion of the evening.
Panetta recalled the journey of gathering intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts and the process of making the decision to raid the Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound that harbored him.
“The courageous work of the [Navy] SEALs plus all the intelligence officers sent a very clear message to the rest of the world that nobody attacks the United States of America and gets away with it. It was a great mission,” Panetta said, to applause from the crowd.