Leon Panetta, who retired from a half century of public service in February, jokes that he’s occupying his time with “a different kind of nut” than those in Washington. Ever since Chuck Hagel was confirmed – just barely – as Panetta’s successor as U.S. Secretary of Defense, the Monterey native’s been driving a tractor around his Carmel Valley walnut farm.
But despite his jovial tone, Panetta has grave concerns about the present nuttiness of Washington. “The biggest national security threat we’re facing right now is the inability of Washington to address some key issues facing us for the future,” Panetta says. “The biggest concern I have coming out of Washington is the dysfunctionality.”
Panetta’s endured his fair share of D.C. trials: He resigned a job under the Nixon Administration as director of the Office for Civil Rights, and switched parties (from Republican to Democratic) in 1971. He left his post as chief of staff of the Clinton White House just before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. His successor as CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus, resigned in the wake of an extramarital affair.
But he says he’s never seen Congress so gridlocked: “When I was in the Congress [from 1976-93], governing was good politics. If governing is not considered good politics, and confrontation is considered a better way to serve your party – then we get bogged down.”
Panetta blames campaign cash, redistricting that’s encouraged primary challenges against partisan outliers and extremist media for the deterioration.
He hopes the Panetta Institute at CSU Monterey Bay, which he runs with his wife Sylvia, inspires a new generation of young leaders to redirect the national conversation.
Panetta reflects proudly on some of his own recent victories, particularly opening up military combat positions to women in January.
“It’s a little bit like when we eliminated Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” he says. “Women had been playing a larger and larger role in our national defense. It was hard for me to justify having a limitation that said, they can do everything else but can’t be involved in combat. “I went to [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen.] Martin Dempsey and said, ‘You gotta take a hard look at this.’”
Panetta acknowledges the high rates of sexual assault in the military, and the disproportionately low rate of prosecutions. He thinks the gap will close with more prosecutions and independent investigators – and a cultural shift.
“Having women in combat could be a very important step in sending the signal that we are not going to be intimidated by this,” Panetta says. “If women can move up the ranks like everybody else, that could in many ways be the key to taking to care of this problem.”
Addressing students at the Naval Postgraduate School in February, Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert spoke of ending sexual assault. “It is probably our top problem out there,” Greenert said. “There are too many, and we’ve got to reverse the trend. It is eating at our readiness.”
Panetta considers NPS to be an essential feeder of educated, capable leaders when it comes to military readiness, both for training officers and developing new technologies. He points to unmanned weapons, aka drones, as one particularly useful development.
“Drones are here to stay no matter what the different views are,” Panetta says. “Drones are a technology that’s being developed and improved, and countries everywhere in the world are obtaining drone capability. It is a very precise and efficient weapons system.”
John Arquilla, chair of the Department of Defense Analysis at NPS, takes a different view. He says drones are not particularly effective when it comes to counter-terrorism.
“This new tool is reinforcing the old practice of going after leaders, when in fact if your opponent is a network, leadership is really a much less important issue,” he says. “We killed Al Qaeda’s number one, and it looks like they’re still in business.”
But taking out Al Qaeda’s number one is one of Panetta’s most trumpeted accomplishments as CIA director. The decision to pursue Osama Bin Laden is consistent with Panetta’s advice to aspiring public servants: “The key to being elected is not survival in office. It’s being willing to take risks.”
THE PANETTA INSTITUTE 2013 lecture series, “Gridlock or Action?” begins with a forum on immigration at 7pm on Monday, April 8, at the Monterey Conference Center. $40, sold out. 582-4200, www.panettainstitute.org