Former Secretary of Defense Panetta on Iran 'You Can Create Chaos, but You'd Better Have a Plan'

Does President Donald Trump know what he's doing? Former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has his doubts. In an interview, he discusses the crisis in Iran and Trump's strange decision to abort a missile strike just minutes before launch.

U.S. President Donald Trump holding up an order for more sanctions on Iran.
AFP

U.S. President Donald Trump holding up an order for more sanctions on Iran.

Interview Conducted by


DER SPIEGEL: Secretary Panetta, late last month, U.S. President Donald Trump called off a military strike against Iran at the very last minute -- according to him, just 10 minutes before the missiles were to be launched. Have you ever seen something like that before?

Panetta: No, I haven't. Generally, when you're discussing that kind of military operation, there is a great deal of time spent in the National Security Council discussing the different options and the consequences of each option. There is normally a great deal of consideration about the pros and cons of conducting such a military strike. If it is done according to that process, the president early on reaches a decision as to whether he will proceed with a mission or not. In my experience, once a president has made the decision to proceed with a mission, he goes forward with it.

DER SPIEGEL: Trump claimed that he learned just 10 minutes before the strike was to take place that 150 people would likely lose their lives. Do you think this account is accurate?

Panetta: If that's what happened, then it's a dysfunctional process. I cannot imagine that the Defense Department would have plans for going after certain targets that did not include what the casualties would be if you struck those targets. That should have taken place early on in the discussion. If that discussion was bypassed and it was only 10 minutes before the strike that the president was made aware of the number of casualties, then something is terribly wrong with the decisionmaking process in the White House.

DER SPIEGEL: Meanwhile, since the resignation of Jim Mattis at the end of last year, the Defense Department has only been led by an acting secretary without Senate confirmation. How much does this affect the president's ability to react to crises or make important decisions involving the military?

Panetta: It further weakens the process that should take place in determining whether or not military action should occur. If you're only dealing with an acting secretary, by the very nature of that title, that secretary is in a weakened position -- not only in dealing with the military, but also in dealing with the White House. The feeling is that he is just there temporarily rather than being there in a permanent position, having been confirmed by the Senate. It really does undermine the authority of Defense Department leadership.

DER SPIEGEL: How dangerous is the situation in the Gulf right now? Is war a real possibility?

Panetta: It is a dangerous situation. I think there's no question that tensions are increasing on both sides. The United States is ratcheting up sanctions while Iran is obviously willing to not only take down drones, but also to conduct attacks on tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. And the danger, of course, is that the more these tensions increase, the greater is the possibility of a miscalculation, misjudgment or human error on one side or the other that could result in military confrontation.

DER SPIEGEL: What would happen if the U.S. were to strike targets in Iran? Even if such strikes were limited, would a larger conflict become inevitable?

About Leon Panetta
  • Jonathan Ernst / REUTERS
    Leon Panetta, 80, heads the Panetta Institute for Public Policy in Monterey, California. In the 1990s, he served as White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed him head of the CIA, where he was responsible for the operation that ended in the killing of terrorist Osama bin Laden. He served as secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013.

Panetta: That was always our estimation when I was at the Department of Defense -- that if you struck targets in Iran, missile sites or installations or other targets, that Iran would literally respond, either by firing missiles at our military bases in the Gulf or having missiles fired towards Israel. They have a pretty effective missile system.

DER SPIEGEL: Many people believe that militias allied with Iran would attack U.S. facilities or American allies in other countries as well. Is that a realistic scenario?

Panetta: I think Iran would use several approaches. They have the capability of directing proxies like Hamas in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen and others to conduct attacks in other parts of the region. So they really have a number of options for retaliation. It isn't going to be a situation where the United States could simply bomb targets and walk away without paying a price.

DER SPIEGEL: With his strategy of "maximum pressure," Trump is still trying to force Iran to the negotiating table. Do you think it will work?

Panetta: I have concerns about the president's maximum pressure tactics on a number of fronts. He's used maximum pressure on North Korea and we still don't have any plan for denuclearization. He's used maximum pressure on trade with these tariffs, and we still have not resolved those trade issues. He's used maximum pressure with Iran, but I don't know that he has ever determined what the longterm strategy is going to be with regard to these kinds of tactics. You can use maximum pressure, you can create chaos, but you'd damned well better have a plan to resolve the issue. And I don't think he thinks that far ahead.

DER SPIEGEL: What is the Iranian approach at the moment?

Panetta: I think they are thinking that they're dealing with a very unpredictable and uncertain president who is not quite sure what path to take to try to resolve these issues. The fact that the president says the main objective is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and yet, at the same time, is the same person who tore up the Iran agreement, which was the only viable plan for trying to restrain Iran from proceeding with a nuclear weapon, creates enough distress on the part of Iran that they're not sure -- even if they sat down and negotiated with the president -- that he would keep his word.

DER SPIEGEL: What about advisers close to the president like National Security Advisor Bolton or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo? Do you think they have a plan for resolving this situation?

Panetta: I would hope so, because they're in the position to be thinking about that. At the same time, I think they're trying to feel their way with the president, in terms of just exactly what he wants to do. I assume they supported a military strike and it probably took them by surprise that the president decided not to go through with it.

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DER SPIEGEL: What is the best path to get out of this mess?

Panetta: I think the best approach for the United States would obviously be to make sure that we have sufficient military strength in the region in the event we are called upon to defend our forces there. Secondly, it is absolutely essential that we keep the Strait of Hormuz open, with a third of the oil in the world passing through the straight. Not only our national security, but the economy of the world is dependent on that. Thirdly, because there is so little trust between the United States and Iran, the better approach to try to open up a diplomatic channel would be to use our allies Germany, Great Britain, France and, yes, Russia and China, all of which are partners to the Iran agreement.

DER SPIEGEL: There has been plenty of criticism of Trump's Iran policy. But he did get a lot of positive feedback for his decision to call off the strike, including from Democrats.

Panetta: In two-and-a-half years, it's probably the one thing he has got right.

DER SPIEGEL: Trump's decision reflects widespread public opinion in the U.S.: Many Americans seem to be opposed to any kind of overseas military involvement. Is that an accurate description of the general mood in the U.S.?

Panetta: I think the general notion is to try to avoid becoming involved in a Middle East war that is not justified in terms of our national security. I think the Iraq experience still is something that impacts American public opinion -- there is a feeling that that war was not necessary. If it's a war created more by the parties, by their inability to resolve issues, I think there would be a lot of concern about that kind of conflict. If, on the other hand, our national security was truly called into question and Iran suddenly started attacking our military bases in the region and killing Americans, I don't think there's any question that this country would be unified in fighting back.

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