Business & Government

Leon Panetta: America Is At A Turning Point

The former Secretary of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency director discussed the challenges of U.S. national security decision-making during a lecture at Texas A&M.
By Caitlin Clark, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications October 11, 2019

Mark A. Welsh sits on a stage with Leon Panetta
Mark A. Welsh, dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service, moderated a discussion with Leon E. Panetta following his remarks at the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center.

Mark Guerrero/Texas A&M Marketing & Communications


The United States is at a turning point, former secretary of defense Leon Panetta said Thursday, and could go in one of two directions – toward an America in renaissance or an America in decline. What path the country takes will be determined by the quality of its leadership, he said.

The longtime politician, who served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and secretary of defense during the Obama administration, presented the 2019 Cameron Fellows Lecture at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. An America in which Republicans and Democrats work together to govern, find solutions and provide moral leadership at a dangerous time is achievable, Panetta said.

Leon Panetta sits on a stage at the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center
Panetta, former secretary of defense and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, gave the 2019 Cameron Fellows Lecture at Texas A&M.

Mark Guerrero/Texas A&M Marketing & Communications

But we could also be an America in decline, he said, caught up in partisanship and division and constantly in crisis because of the “failure of leadership to recognize the dangerous signs that were out there.”

“These are unprecedented times and they’re dangerous times, but I absolutely believe – my hope lies in the ability of the American people to fight for that American renaissance, for that American dream, and in particular, for a government of, by and for all people,” Panetta said.

During his remarks, Panetta discussed the importance of governing by leadership rather than by crisis, and being willing to take risks and make tough decisions. Panetta said the keys to leadership are clear – having a strong defense, intelligence providing the best information possible on adversaries, skilled diplomats, and a clear policy process in the White House.

“We are part of a global world, and it is critical in the United States to continue to exercise leadership,” Panetta said. “We’re looking at a lot of danger points out there.”

He said the threat of the Islamic State remains real, and expressed concern about President Donald Trump’s ordered withdrawal of American troops from Syria. Panetta said he worries about the consequences of the decision, which leaves the Kurdish forces who helped to end ISIS’ territorial caliphate vulnerable to Turkish attacks.

“When the president gave the green light to Turkey to invade, the first problem was we were basically betraying our Allies… and when you do that it sends a terrible message to the world that you can’t be trusted,” Panetta said.

It could also give ISIS the opportunity to strengthen itself, and is “essentially handing” Syria to President Bashar al-Assad and his regime’s allies in Russia and Iran, Panetta said.

Among other current events Panetta discussed, he believes now is the time for Trump to cut a deal with China on trade, calling the current trade war a “no-win situation.” The president must also make clear “where the lines are” with Russia, he said.

On the topic of impeachment, Panetta said he thinks it merits an inquiry by Congress.

“I think the fact that we have a situation where there was at least an effort to try to get a foreign leader to get involved in the politics of our country, that’s something we have to worry about,” he said.

Panetta, as secretary of defense, led the 2011 operation that led to Osama bin Laden’s death. He shared details with the audience about the intelligence that led to identifying bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and the decision-making process behind the raid.

“The courageous work of the SEALs plus all the intelligence officers sent a very clear message to the rest of the world that nobody attacks the United States of America and gets away with it,” he said.

Media contact: Caitlin Clark, 979-458-8412,

Related Stories

Recent Stories