Thursday, February 2, 2023

Leon Panetta visits MSU to talk government polarization, war in Ukraine

November 30, 2022
Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director, Leon E. Panetta speaks at Governor Blanchard’s Public Service Forum on campus at the Wharton Center on Nov. 29, 2022.
Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director, Leon E. Panetta speaks at Governor Blanchard’s Public Service Forum on campus at the Wharton Center on Nov. 29, 2022. —

Former Congressman, U.S. Secretary of Defense, White House Chief of Staff and CIA Director Leon Panetta is concerned about the state of polarization in the United States and the future implications it can have on democracy. 

Panetta visited Michigan State University on Tuesday to speak at the annual Governor Jim Blanchard Public Service Forum. He discussed issues ranging from Iran’s nuclear capabilities to his own experiences in government. However, he’s most concerned about both finding ways for lawmakers to come together and the war in Ukraine.

Panetta served as a democratic representative from California in the U.S. House from 1977 to 1993. During this time, he said, he had the opportunity to work with Republicans on issues such as immigration reform, social security reform, tax reform and budgets. This cooperation, however, is something he said is becoming increasingly uncommon in Washington DC.

"There's a polarization that prevents, for whatever reason, both parties from trusting one another and working together in order to solve the problems facing our country,” Panetta said. “I think that's a real threat to our democracy and to our security.” 

Panetta said that the events on Jan. 6, 2021 were the result of this polarization – and they were an example of how fragile democracy is. He said the U.S. needs two strong and unified parties with similar goals in order to govern the country.

“I think in the 21st century, we can choose one of two paths: We can have a country in renaissance, I think America could be the strongest country on the face of the earth,” Panetta said. “Or we could be a country in decline. If we allow our hates and our prejudices and our fears to dominate, I think we'll go the way of past empires. That's reality … We have to see elected leaders that listen to the American people and really do try to work together.”

Panetta said that he was very encouraged by the results of the midterm elections and the number of people who turned out to vote. He said that through this election, the American people sent a message: that they don't like extremism, election deniers or parties that don't work together.

Panetta said there has been a lack of governing in Washington and when lawmakers don’t govern, they play games with investigations and scandals which only serve political purposes. The American people are frustrated by this, and the midterm elections showed that they want both parties to work together.

Panetta said that he is hopeful that lawmakers will come together, as they have in the past.

“In my over 50 years of public life, I often say that I've seen Washington at its best and Washington at its worst,” Panetta said. “The good news is I've seen Washington work.”

The war in Ukraine is a great example of Washington working. Panetta said he is glad that the U.S. and its NATO allies have come together to bring economic sanctions against Russia and provide weapons for Ukraine, to stop democracy from being threatened.

“I think that Ukraine is both a very dangerous but also a very pivotal moment,” Panetta said. “It's dangerous because we don't know what Putin will ultimately resort to. The tide of war has changed. Putin has failed but when you corner a bully, you're never sure what he's going to do. ... What happens in Ukraine will tell us a lot about what happens with democracies in the 21st century.”

Panetta said that while the US has done a lot to help Ukraine, it must continue to do more and, most importantly, it must stay unified – because he said Putin is trying to break the will of the Ukrainian people, the U.S. and NATO allies.

Panetta also used the forum to discuss the importance of educating a new generation of leaders. He said that the US has made it through recessions, depressions, natural disasters and hundreds of other crises, but what has gotten the country through those times was the strength of the American people and leadership.

“We've got to be able to inspire young people to the duty that they have to this country, to give back to this country and to serve in our democracy in a responsible way,” Panetta said. "I think this country needs new leadership. I think that we need to really develop the kind of leadership that's important to our country in the 21st century. The only way this democracy is going to survive is if we have young people who are willing to give back to our country and serve this nation.”

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