US Will Do All it Takes to Defend Strait of Hormuz

H.E. Leon Panetta: US Will Do All it Takes to Defend Strait of Hormuz

  • 23 April 2013

The ECSSR Website was granted exclusive audience with former US Secretary of State His Excellency Leon Panetta in which he warned Iran against intimidating countries in the region and spoke on vital issues such as implications of latest terrorist bombings in Boston, the Palestinian-Israel two-state solution and the US Congressional impasse over the debt ceiling. The interview was conducted on the sidelines of his lecture – The US Defense Budget: Repercussions for US Global Commitments – delivered on April 22, 2013 at the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Hall, ECSSR office complex in Abu Dhabi.

Q1. The UAE and the US are very close allies. Some people in the UAE wish there was more coverage in the Western world — in the media and in the political space — about Iran’s occupation of the three UAE islands. Iran does not seem interested in addressing the issue. What are your views on this matter?

Answer: We are very strong allies and partners with the UAE and we have worked together on intelligence issues and we have built one of the strongest relationships and we strongly support the UAE and its claims and we work with the UAE and try to make sure that should Iran take any steps to close the Strait of Hormuz we would do whatever we can to defend against that. We think it is extremely important that Iran understands that not only the world community but all the Gulf nations are unified in making clear to them that they cannot intimidate other countries in this region, that they ought to abide by international rules and international requirements.

Q2. There is a perception that even if the current regime in Iran leaves the scene, Iran would continue with its controversial nuclear program as Iranians see it as a symbol of national pride. Do you see the pressure on Iran over its nuclear program would persist even if there is a more agreeable dispensation in place?

Answer: The whole emphasis has been to urge Iran to abide by international rules and standards. There have been situations where they have violated UN resolutions, they clearly have proceeded with enrichment in violation of international rules. If they want to join the international family, if they want to abide by the rules that we all follow in the international family, then that’s something we are prepared to discuss and work on. When it comes to the peaceful use of nuclear power there are many countries which are abiding by the requirements. There is no reason why Iran cannot do the same thing, but the first thing for us is to be able to negotiate the fact that they cannot proceed to highly enrich fuel because that creates the danger that they will use that fuel in order to create a nuclear weapon. That is unacceptable. The world has made it clear that that is unacceptable and it is in Iran’s interest to try to resolve this issue, if they fail to resolve it peacefully, then make no mistake about it, all options are on the table.

Q2. Are we any closer to determining whether the Boston bombings were carried out by ‘lone wolves’ or were they part of a larger conspiracy hatched by terrorist organizations?

Answer: Well obviously anytime these kinds of terrorist attacks take place, the United States is very concerned about what happened. We certainly will not be intimidated by these kinds of actions, we made clear on 9/11 that we are a resilient country and we will go after those who are trying to attack our people and we have done that against Al-Qaeda and we will do that against any terrorist.

This situation appears to have involved two brothers, whether or not they were ‘lone wolves,’ whether or not anything they did was tied to more organized terrorism, we just don’t know the answer to it at this point and that is being investigated. But I want to make clear that after 9/11 the United States aggressively went after Al-Qaeda and we decimated their leadership. I think we made clear that we will do everything necessary to ensure that we never again suffer a 9/11 attack. America is safer as a consequence, but we have to be vigilant with regards to other forms of terrorism and one of the dangers I talked about is, when I was the Director of the CIA, is the danger of people who are lone wolves, who are located in the United States and who become self-radicalized because it is very difficult to be able to anticipate that kind of terrorism.

Q3. It is said that if the attackers were lone wolves, the implications could be far-reaching, because it will be more difficult to combat the threat of terrorism as it is more daunting to track down small groups. What new measures will the US take in such a scenario and how will it balance it with the values and freedoms on which the great nation is founded?

Answer: You see, I am the one who does not believe that we have to choose between providing security for our people and our freedom as a democracy. I believe that we can balance both of those in a way that respects our freedom, respects what our Bill of Rights is all about and at the same time take steps to ensure that we go after those who try to attack our country. Coming out of 9/11, obviously steps were taken to allow the government to proceed vigorously in that area. These steps still follow our constitutional rules, they still follow our Bill of Rights but we have been much more aggressive in pulling together intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies to make sure that we track potential terrorists and we have actually been very successful in going after them. We have deterred a number of potential attacks, through good intelligence we have been able to anticipate some of those who would attack our country, we have to continue to be vigilant, we have to continue to ensure that we have very good intelligence, the very best law enforcement and if we continue to emphasize that I think ultimately we can continue to keep our country safe.

We govern either by leadership or crisis. If leadership is there we can avoid crisis, if not we are governed by crisis

Q4. How do you see the crisis in Syria unfolding and what is the current US position on the worsening situation?

Answer: First of all I have always supported taking very aggressive actions to support the opposition in Syria, I believe that is necessary. The United States has organized an international effort to try to ensure that we provide whatever help we can to the opposition and we are doing that now. We are not only providing humanitarian aid, but we are also working with the opposition very closely, helping to train them, working with other countries that provide support to them so that they can better organize their opposition to the Assad regime. I think this is a critical time that the international community has to provide greater assistance to the opposition so that it has the capability of confronting the Assad forces and ultimately being able to prevail. This is not easy. Obviously, it is difficult. The opposition is divided and it is difficult for them to get to work together. But in recent months, I believe the opposition has done much better at organizing itself and in conducting operations in Syria. We have no choice. Assad has to come down, Assad will come down and the key right now is to ensure that when that happens we have a peaceful transition at that point and so to have that happen we have to exert whatever influence we can to assist the opposition. I believe that that is necessary.

Q5: Is the two-state solution still viable and what are your views on Israel-Palestine solution?

Answer: Experience tells us that this is an issue that is not going to be resolved by itself. The parties are going to have to engage. The United States is going to have to play a key role in trying to arbitrate between the parties and there has to be constant pressure to move the parties toward some kind of an agreement. If we hesitate, if we back off, if we are not involved then make no mistake about it, it will not happen. We have got to be able to pressure both the Israelis and Palestinians to sit down and negotiate this issue. We know what the answers are, we know what steps have to be taken. There is no reason why we can’t get them to move forward and resolve these issues, but it will only happen if the international community and the United States continue to bring pressure on both parties to sit down and negotiate these issues.

Q6. Your Excellency, you did not just get Bin Laden when you were Secretary of State but you are also known to have worked on cutting the US deficit under the Clinton administration pretty well. In this respect, are you optimistic that a Grand Bargain would be reached between the two US political parties before the May 31 deadline when the US is expected to hit the debt ceiling? Again, what strains does the US Defense Department feels in wake of budgetary constraints?

Answer: My experience tells me that there is absolutely no alternative to both parties making a deal with regards to the budget. They have to do that. That means that both sides have to give. When it comes to budget issues, there are only so many areas that you can turn to if you want to reduce budget deficits. You have to deal with entitlements, which now represent two-thirds of the federal budget, you have to deal with raising more revenues and you have to deal with limits on discretionary spending. All three have to be part of the deal. And the reality is that both the Republicans and Democrats are going to have to deal with all three of those areas.

Q7. Is there little progress in cutting discretionary spending?

Answer: We are cutting discretionary spending now, but you cannot balance the budget on just discretionary spending. That’s what is false about what’s happening now especially with this sequester. When two thirds of the federal budget are made up of entitlement programs you can’t expect to balance the budget on the one-third of discretionary spending that’s involved and at the same time the United States has to maintain a strong defense, we have to maintain strong programs to provide security for people in the United States, that’s what makes us a strong democracy. What is lacking right now is the political will and the political courage to take the steps necessary to get it done. We have the resources to do it, we have the know-how to do it, what it takes now is political courage.

Q8. So you think at present there is little hope of an agreement?

Answer: I tell the students (at The Panetta Institute for Public Policy) that we govern either by leadership or crisis. If leadership is there we can avoid crisis, if not we are governed by crisis and today we are governed by crisis. Every time we come to a deadline, it creates another crisis. We can’t continue to do that. Through leadership, we have to find the solutions that are necessary. The concern right now is that both parties are in a gridlock. They couldn’t even pass a gun-control measure last week, which only tells you they are not moving toward some kind of consensus.

Q9. The US has said that in coming years its defense strategy would focus more on the Pacific. Does that mean it would shift its focus away from the Middle East? Should America’s European partners in NATO and allies in the Middle East be apprehensive?

Answer: They shouldn’t be because the defense strategy that we put together at the Defense Department made very clear that although we are going to be smaller and leaner in the future, that we still have major responsibilities to deal with and so we said we need to have force projection in the Pacific, but we also need to have force projection in the Middle East. Frankly, that’s what we have now. We have very substantial military presence in both the Pacific as well as here in the Middle East. In addition to that we have to have a presence elsewhere in the world and so when it comes to Europe, Africa or Latin America, what we have to do is engage in what we call is rotational deployments, where we can provide forces that go in and help train, help develop capabilities of other countries, develop alliances and partnerships that allow us to provide security for the world and we very much intend to continue that effort as well.

Q10: How do you see the future of warfare, particularly the impact of new technology?

Answer: The battlefield of the future is in cyberspace. Our financial institutions have been under cyber attack for the past year. One day, one of these attacks may cause serious damage. I have said that the next attack on America, the next Pearl Harbor, could very well be a cyber attack.

Q11. Finally, can I ask you if you still play the piano?

Answer: (Laughing) Yes! Sometimes, when I get the time.