January 22, 2019

Leon Panetta criticizes Obama for non-activism at Pearl lecture

With some 50 years of public service as an eight-term California congressman, as President Clinton’s chief of staff and President Obama’s Secretary of Defense and CIA director, Leon Panetta believes in the value of experience.

So it came as no major surprise when he endorsed two old political hands as his favorites in the 2016 presidential race – Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Jeb Bush for the Republicans.

Panetta advanced his choices at the annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture, established by the Pearl’s parents, Professor Judea and Ruth Pearl, at UCLA on March 30. The event commemorates the life of the Wall Street Journal reporter who in 2002 was murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan.

The lack of such experience, and civility, by many of today’s political incumbents has led to a state of affairs described in stark words by Panetta.

“In 50 years, I never saw Washington as bad as it is now. There are no rules anymore, so that 47 senators decided to write to our enemy [Iran],” he said,  though adding that even in the best of times “governing is not a pretty-please process. It’s essentially a kick-ass process. You have to fight for every vote. You have to roll up your sleeves and engage.”

Although Panetta got his political start in 1966 as legislative assistant to California Senator Thomas Kuchel, a Republican, Panetta subsequently became a Democratic stalwart, and he apportioned most of the blame for the current Washington gridlock to Republican legislators in the House and Senate.

However, he did not spare President Obama entirely. During questioning by journalist and moderator Jim Newton, Panetta praised his former boss as “supremely intelligent” and responsible for important progress in some areas, But he faulted the president for “lacking fire” and, until recently, not fully using his executive power when his policies were stymied on Capitol Hill.

By contrast, Panetta cited previous presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton as activist chief executives.

“It would be wonderful if political decisions were made by logic alone, but if that doesn’t work, you have to go out and fight for every vote,” Panetta said.

Leon Panetta (right) was interviewed by journalist Jim Newton during the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLATodd Cheney/UCLA

He devoted little time to American foreign policy, but called for a “comprehensive policy on the Middle East, rather than responding to each new crisis separately.”

While endorsing recent moves by Saudi Arabia and Egypt to form a combined force confronting ISIS and other terrorist groups, Panetta warned that as new Arab coalitions are formed, “You never know what the hell they are going to do.”

Regarding the current rift between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Panetta warned that “the security of the Middle East is too important to allow these divisions to go on.”

A capacity crowd of some 500 in UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall reacted with frequent applause and laughter to Panetta’s outspoken political points and his reminiscences of growing up as the son of struggling Italian immigrants in California’s Monterey area.

After the lecture, a lengthy line formed to purchase autographed copies of Panetta’s book “Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace.”

The event was sponsored by UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations, Luskin School of Public Affairs, and Yitzak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life, joined by the Daniel Pearl Foundation