U.S. Official Speeches and Interviews
“A Conversation with Clinton and Panetta” at the National Defense University
August 16, 2011 | National Defense University | Washington, D.C.
U.S. Department Of State
Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta with Director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs Frank Sesno
Vice Admiral Rondeau: Welcome to NDU. This is the apex and the vortex for interagency and whole-of-government education, knowledge, conversation, dialogue, and discussion. We are indeed extraordinarily privileged and honored to have the inaugural Distinguished Leader Program speakers be our secretaries of Defense and State and the very distinguished Frank Sesno. Please let’s give a very warm NDU welcome to these great leaders. (Applause.)
Mr. Sesno: Well, good morning, everybody. And good morning to both of you.
Secretary Clinton: Good morning.
Secretary Panetta: Good morning.
Mr. Sesno: It is a great pleasure and privilege to be here with the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, and I cannot think of a more propitious time for this conversation with the world watching this country going through the budget gyrations, I think is the right word, with a world so uneasy with our wars ongoing. So some of what perhaps we can talk about here today – and we will incorporate your questions into this conversation – will be: Is America a wounded colossus? Are these wars winnable? Where and how do these two big departments, this extension of American foreign policy, diplomacy, and military strength work together?
I want to thank National Defense University and Admiral Rondeau for your gracious welcome today. So welcome to both of you.
Secretary Clinton: Thank you, Frank. Thanks for doing this.
Secretary Panetta: Thank you, Frank.
Mr. Sesno: Let’s start with the budget, which is, I know, your idea of a good time. (Laughter.) The world has watched with bated breath as to whether we were going to default, whether American troops were not going to get their paychecks, which is an incredible thing. As you face the prospects of budget cuts and the reality of this – Secretary Panetta, go first – what’s really at stake here? What’s really at stake for foreign policy as well?
Secretary Panetta: I think this is about the national security of the country. Our national security is our military power, our Defense Department, but it’s also our diplomatic power and the State Department. And both of us, I think, are concerned that as we go through these budget tests that we’re going to go through that the country recognize how important it is that we maintain our national security and that we be strong. We recognize that we’re in a resource limitation here and that we’ve got to deal with those challenges, but I don’t think you have to choose between our national security and fiscal responsibility. And I want the country to know that we can get this done, but we have to do it in a way that protects our national defense and protects our national security.
Mr. Sesno: You already agreed to – not agreed, but you’re going to have 350 billion or so in cuts.
Secretary Panetta: No, that’s right. That’s right.
Mr. Sesno: If the trigger takes place, if there’s an inability for the Congress to decide where to go from here, it could be 500 billion more. Then what?
Secretary Panetta: Well, I made the point that with the numbers we’re dealing with now, that the President and Bob Gates before me basically decided pretty much the parameters that we would have to be looking at, and we’re within that ballpark with what the Congress just did. If they go beyond that, if they do the sequester, this kind of massive cut across the board, which would literally double the number of cuts that we’re confronting, that would have devastating effects on our national defense, it would have devastating effects on certainly the State Department.
But more importantly, when we think about national security, I think we also have to think about the domestic discretionary budget as well, because education plays a role, other elements of the discretionary budget in terms of the quality of life in this country play a role in terms of our national security. More importantly, and I’ve made the point based on my own budget experience, that if you’re serious about dealing with budget deficits, you can’t just keep going back to the discretionary part of the budget.
Mr. Sesno: What would be the most damaging part? And Secretary Clinton, I’ll come to you in just a moment. But what would be the most damaging part to the Department of Defense and to the national security if you had to face hundreds of billions of more above the 350? Examples.
Secretary Panetta: Very simple. Very simply, it would result in hollowing out the force. It would terribly weaken our ability to respond to the threats in the world. But more importantly, it would break faith with the troops and with their families. And a volunteer army is absolutely essential to our national defense. Any kind of cut like that would literally undercut our ability to put together the kind of strong national defense we have today.
Mr. Sesno: Secretary Clinton, you have a harder case to make given the public skepticism about development aid, foreign aid, where America is spending its money.
Secretary Clinton: Well, Frank, I know it’s a harder case because I think there is a lot of both misunderstanding and rejection of the work that is done by the State Department and USAID. We comprise, if you round it off, 1 percent of the discretionary budget. And what we have done over the last two and a half years, I think was long overdue, because basically we said we are a national security team, we’re all on the American team. And by that I mean that we have civilians who are in the field with our military forces in areas of conflict, we have civilians who are in the field on their own in other very dangerous settings without our military with boots on the ground, but we are trying to enhance the coordination to achieve our national security objectives.
So one of the goals that Secretary Gates and now Secretary Panetta and I have is to make the case as to what national security in the 21st century actually is. It is, of course, the strongest military in the world that has to be given the tools to do the jobs we send it out to do. It is our diplomatic corps, which is out there on the front lines all the time, trying to deal with very difficult situations to the betterment of America’s national interest and security. And it is our development experts who put another face on American power, who are trying to deliver, as we speak, aid to 12 million people in the Horn of Africa who are facing famine and starvation, in some measure because of al-Shabaab, which makes our challenge even more difficult.
I want to go back though to underscore something that Leon said, because between the two of us, we have many years, probably more than either of us care to admit, of experience in dealing with a lot of these issues. And Leon as the chair of the budget committee, as the director of OMB, as the chief of staff in the White House in the ’90s, was part of a process that got us to a balanced budget. This is not ancient history. We’re not talking about some time so far back we can’t remember it. The tough decisions were made in the ’90s to, yes, cut spending, yes, deal with some entitlement issues, and yes, increase revenues so that --
Mr. Sesno: Raise taxes?
Secretary Clinton: Yes. Absolutely, so that we had the kind of approach that got us on a trajectory, had we stayed on it, where we would not be facing a lot of these issues. And I will end where you started, Frank. I know how difficult this was for our country domestically over the last months. It’s always hard seeing the sausage being made. I happened to be in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, and I said confidently that we were going to resolve this; we were not going to default; we would make some kind of political compromise.
But I have to tell you, it does cast a pall over our ability to project the kind of security interests that are in America’s interest. This is not about the Defense Department or the State Department or USAID. This is about the United States of America. And we need to have a responsible conversation about how we are going to prepare ourselves for the future. And there are a lot of issues that are not in the headlines but are in the trendlines. We are reasserting our presence in the Pacific. We are a Pacific power. That means all elements of our national security team have to be present, and we can’t be abruptly pulling back or pulling out when we know we face some long-term challenges about how we’re going cope with what the rise of China means.
We have so many issues that Leon and I deal with every day that are not going to be getting the screaming headline coverage but which we know, looking over the horizon, are going to affect the economic well-being of our country and the security of America citizens.
Mr. Sesno: A couple things, and then we’ll go to our – to the audience for our first question. Secretary Panetta, talk about the headlines through, there was one, and it really bears directly on the budget and some of the very tough choices and big changes that may be in store. And that is a report on CBS yesterday that the Pentagon is considering a very substantial revamp of the retirement program for those in the military, 401(k)s and ending the eligibility after 20 years and making it normal retirement age. Is that true? Is that the kind of change and the depth of change that’s out there?
Secretary Panetta: Well, that report came as a result of an advisory group that was asked by my predecessor, Bob Gates, to look at the retirement issue. And they have put together some thoughts. They’re supposed to issue, actually, a more complete report at the latter part of this month. No decisions have been made with regards to that issue.
Mr. Sesno: But that’s the kind of thing that you have to think about?
Secretary Panetta: But look, it’s the kind of thing you have to consider in terms of retirement reforms in the broad form.
Mr. Sesno: So when do decisions –
Secretary Panetta: But you have to do it, Frank, in a way that doesn’t break faith, again, with our troops and with their families. If you’re going to do something like this, you’ve got to think very seriously about grandfathering in order to protect the benefits that are there.
Mr. Sesno: So it wouldn’t affect the people in this room?
Secretary Panetta: Exactly. So at the same time – (laughter and applause).
Mr. Sesno: You know what they say about know your audience.
Secretary Panetta: I know my audience. (Laughter.) No, but – well, you do have to do that. You have to protect the benefits that are there. But at the same time, you’ve got to look at everything on the table. I mean, my view when I was on the budget committee, when I was director of OMB, was that you have to look at everything; you’ve got to put everything on the table. You can’t approach a deficit the size we’re dealing with and expect that you’re only going to be dealing with it at the margins. You’ve got to look at everything, and we should.
Mr. Sesno: Secretary Clinton, back on the budget and then to the audience. And perhaps, Secretary Panetta, you’ll want to respond to this. You and your predecessor talked a lot – or Secretary Panetta’s predecessor – talked a lot about your budget and the need for the development budget and how development is cheaper than war. We had that conversation at George Washington University. What do you say to Secretary Panetta about your budget and your needs, and your needs and your lobbying for more in terms of what he’s got and what you need to accomplish?
Secretary Clinton: Well, I mean, obviously, the DOD budget far outweighs the combined budget of the State Department, USAID, 10-12 to 1. We understand that. And we know we’re going to also have to put everything on the table. We’re going through a very difficult budget process. And we have –
Mr. Sesno: And that includes development, which you hope to grow. You’ve been wanting to grow that.
Secretary Clinton: Well, it includes everything, because I’m not saying we should be exempt and education or healthcare here at home should bear all the costs. I’m just saying that as we look at everything that is on the table, we have to try to do a reasonable analysis of what our real needs and interests are. And it’s easy in a political climate, which I know something about, as Leon does, to say, “Oh, well, look, I mean foreign aid.” If you go out to the American public and you say, “What’s the easiest thing to cut in the American budget?” it’s always foreign aid. “Well, how much do you think foreign aid represents in the American budget?” And people honestly say something like 15, 20 percent. And then you say, “Well, how much should it represent?” And they say, “Oh, maybe 10 percent.”
Well, we understand that we have a case to make and it is a case that we’ve been making. And there is a new way of looking at it, which Bob Gates and I, and now Leon and I, are working on. The military has always had in the defense budget something called Overseas Contingency Operations that go to the kind of conflicts and investments that have to be made in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. For the first time, we have now the Congress accepting that we, too, need what’s called an OCO, because we have a lot of costs that will begin to go down over time because they’re not part of our base.
So we’re doing things to try to get smarter about explaining what we do and what it’s going to cost for us to do it. But the bottom line, Frank, is we want national security to be looked at holistically, and we want people to understand that a lot of what we’re going to have to be doing in the future is not sending our young men and women into harm’s way, but trying to avoid that in the first place.
Mr. Sesno: In a word, what’s your view of her budget?
Secretary Panetta: It’s absolutely essential to our national security.
Mr. Sesno: Should it grow or it’s going to be need to be cut? Or are you saying that in this –
Secretary Panetta: No. Listen, we all know we’re going to have to be able to exercise some fiscal restraint as we go through our budgets. But the bottom line is that what I hope the Congress doesn’t do, what I hope this committee doesn’t do, is to walk away from their responsibility to look at the entire federal budget. I mean, the entire federal budget now – annual budget is close to $4 trillion. In the discretionary side, which is around a trillion plus, it’s already been cut a trillion dollars by virtue of this deal that was made in the Congress. So we’re already taking a trillion dollar hit over these next ten years. Two-thirds of that budget has not been touched. Two-thirds of the federal budget has not been touched.
If you want to deal with the deficit, you’ve got to deal with mandatory spending programs, you’ve got to deal with revenues. Every budget summit that I’ve been a part of, going back to – Ronald Reagan was the first budget summit I participated in. It was a balanced package that dealt with cuts and revenues. It was true for Ronald Reagan, it was true for George Bush, it was true for Bill Clinton, and it has to be true today if you’re serious about dealing with this –
Mr. Sesno: Let’s take our first audience question. Anybody got a question on the budget? This gentleman right here. We got a mike over there? I’d ask you to identify yourself and ask your question briefly, and we’ll get a response.
Question: Colonel Rich Outzen. I’m an Army Foreign Area officer and a student at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. Welcome to both of you. Like many of my peers here, I’ve spent about five years out of the last ten in the Middle East and Afghanistan. One of the things that concerns me, as we see the budget tsunami approaching, is problems with the teaching of foreign language and culture. It’s an incapacity we’ve had in the Force that persists now. How will we deal with that as we lose the hundreds of millions of dollars to throw at contracting solutions? Have we looked at ways that maybe State and Department of Defense can synergize efforts to teach? Have we looked at working with academia? Is that sort of restructuring and reengineering how we approach these missions that are budget sensitive going on?
Mr. Sesno: Secretary Panetta, why don’t you start?
Secretary Panetta: Well, I certainly think we’ve got to look at creative ways to be able to deal with it. I’m a believer in foreign language training. I think, unfortunately, this country hasn’t devoted enough resources really to foreign language training. We’ve looked at the three Rs – reading, writing, and arithmetic – but we haven’t looked at reality of the world that we deal with. And in order for – I mean, when I was CIA director, I did not think you could be a good intelligence analyst or operations guy without knowing languages. And I believe that for the Defense Department and I think for the State Department, there’s a recognition that you need to have language in order to be able to relate to the world that we live in. So my goal would be, as we go through the budget, as we develop the restraints that we have to develop, that we are creative and not undermine the kind of teaching and language training that I think is essential to our ability not only to protect our security, but frankly to be a nation that is well educated.
Mr. Sesno: You have similar issues at State.
Secretary Clinton: Well, I certainly say amen to that, and I think your suggestion that we look for ways that we can better coordinate our language and culture education programs is a very good one. I have begun to do that in the State Department/USAID because they had different platforms; they had different IT platforms, different language instruction platforms. And when I came in, I didn’t think it was the most sensible way for us to train our development experts and our diplomats, but I think we are going to have to be more creative. I mean, NDU is a perfect example of whole-of-government education. We have Admiral Rondeau, who leads the NDU team, and Ambassador Nancy McEldowney from the State Department, who is the number two. That is what we have to get in our minds is more likely to be the pattern of cooperation both before deployment, whether it’s as a military or civilian personnel, and then after deployment because we cannot, number one, afford to do it any other way.
But secondly, I think it gives us a better result. You may have seen the article in The Washington Post over the weekend about one of the civilian employees in Afghanistan. I think it was Garmsir District. And because of his Pashto facility, the military really looked to him because he was able to communicate not just in a formalistic way, but informally, colloquially, in a way that really captured the attention and eventually the cooperation of a lot of the Afghans. That’s what we need across the board. So any way we can work together, it’ll save us money, but it also will begin from the beginning to put together this whole-of-government national security team.
Mr. Sesno: Let’s move around the world a little bit. Let’s start with Afghanistan –terrible, costly week last week; 35 Americans lost their lives there. And there are a lot of Americans who say: With this loss, is this worth it? Are we prevailing? Should we stay? What is your response to that? How do you view what is happening in Afghanistan and the trajectory?
Secretary Panetta: It was tragic what happened last week. We’ve lost 4,500 in Afghanistan. We’ve lost many more – we’ve seen a lot more that have been wounded. There are a lot of our men and women that have put their lives on the line on the mission that we’re involved with there, and we can’t forget the mission. The mission, as the President said, is that we have to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida, and make sure that it never again finds a safe haven in Afghanistan from which to launch attacks to this country. I think we’ve made good progress on it. I think – I just talked with General Allen this morning. We are making very good progress in terms of security, particularly in the south and southwest. Those are difficult areas. We’ve now got to try to improve the situation in the east.
But overall, the situation is doing much better. We have weakened the Taliban significantly, and we’re continuing to work on that. We are continuing to build the Afghan army and police; they are right on target in terms of the numbers that we needed to develop. So we are working in the right direction. We’re going through transition, we’re beginning to transition areas. There are others we’re going to have to do. We’ve got to make sure that the Afghan Government is prepared to not only govern but to help secure that country in the long run. But I really do believe that if we stick with this mission that we can achieve the goals that we’re after, which is to create a stable Afghanistan that can make sure we never again establish a safe haven for the Taliban or for al-Qaida.
Mr. Sesno: Secretary Clinton, what is the conversation the two of you have about the reliability and stability of the Karzai government and whether you should be negotiating with the Taliban?
Secretary Clinton: Well, Frank, we have, as Leon just stated, a strategy for transition that we are following. And it is based on, frankly, the decision that President Obama made upon taking office that we had lost momentum to the Taliban. When he came into office, the situation that we found was not very promising. And so he did order additional troops. I ordered and fulfilled the more than tripling of the civilians on the ground from 320 to more than 1,125. We put in a lot of effort to try to stabilize and then reverse what we saw as a deteriorating situation.
I think we both believe that we are now at a place where we can begin the transition and do so in a responsible way. Part of that transition is supporting Afghan reconciliation. We have said that for a very long time. I gave a comprehensive speech about our approach in February at the Asia Society in New York. Ambassador Marc Grossman, who is leading our efforts to build a diplomatic framework for this kind of reconciliation effort, is proceeding very vigorously, because we know that there has to be a political resolution alongside the military gains and sacrifice that we have put in alongside the sacrifice and suffering of the Afghan people. But we want this to be, as we say often, Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.
Mr. Sesno: But can it be with the Afghan team-- regime that you’re working with?
Secretary Clinton: Yes, yes. And as –
Mr. Sesno: Do you trust Karzai?
Secretary Clinton: Yes. I mean, look, I deal with leaders all over the world who have their own political dynamics that they’re trying to cope with, which are not always ones that we experience or that we think are necessarily the most important. But they get to call the shots. They’re the ones who are coming out of their culture. They’re trying to implement democracy, often in places where that’s a very foreign concept. It can be a difficult and challenging partnership; there’s no doubt about it. But there is certainly a commitment on the part of the Karzai government to this transition process.
Remember, when we adopted this process that will go through 2014 at the NATO Lisbon Summit, it was in concert with the Karzai government making the same commitment. Now, we’re also discussing what kind of ongoing partnership – diplomatic, development, military – that we will have with Afghanistan. President Karzai made a very important statement just this past week: He is not seeking a third term, which is a very strong signal that there has to be an active dynamic political process to choose his successor.
So look, I’ve dealt with President Karzai now for nearly 10 years. I’m looking at my old chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee down there, John Warner. I dealt with him as a senator and I have dealt with him as Secretary of State, and you have to listen to him because all too often we come in with our preconceptions about how things are supposed to be, and he says over and over again, you know, I don’t like this or I’m not sure about this. Take the private contractor issue. That went on for a long time because we didn’t quite get what his concerns were.
So it’s not all a one-sided critique here. I think there is – there’s got to be a recognition that we have a dialogue and a partnership and that we both have to work at it.
Mr. Sesno: A question on Afghanistan from the floor. The gentleman right there.
Question: Tom Nicholson, International College – Industrial College of the Armed Forces. We’ve mentioned a lot about Iraq and Afghanistan, and it comes to mind our allies and partners in Pakistan are also critical in what’s going on with our efforts there and as a strategic partner going forward. What are your thoughts on how we continue to enhance that relationship, especially given the difficulties we’ve had recently?
Secretary Clinton: Well, let me start by saying we consider our relationship with Pakistan to be of paramount importance. We think it is very much in America’s interests. We think it is in the long-term interest of Pakistan for us to work through what are very difficult problems in that relationship. And this is not anything new. We’ve had a challenging relationship with Pakistan going back decades.
And we’ve been – we’ve kind of been deeply involved with Pakistan, as we were during the ‘80s with the support for the Mujaheddin, the old Charlie Wilson’s war issue. And if you remember the end of Charlie Wilson’s War, the Soviet Union is defeated and Charlie Wilson and others are saying, well, now let’s build schools, let’s work in Afghanistan, let’s support Pakistan. And our political decision was we’re exhausted, we’re done, we accomplished our mission, which was to break the back of the Soviet Union; we’re out of there.
So I think the Pakistanis have a viewpoint that has to be shown some respect: Are you going to be with us or not, because you keep in, you go out? And it is –
Mr. Sesno: Well, are they partner or adversary?
Secretary Clinton: Well, they are partners, but they don’t always see the world the way we see the world, and they don’t always cooperate with us on what we think – and I’ll be very blunt about this – is in their interests. I mean, it’s not like we are coming to Pakistan and encouraging them to do things that will be bad for Pakistan, but they often don’t follow what our logic is as we make those cases to them. So it takes a lot of dialogue.
Mr. Sesno: Secretary Panetta, let’s talk about Pakistan for a minute. I mean, there was a story that the Pakistanis, our adversary – our allies here, handed over parts of the helicopter that went down in bin Ladin’s compound or gave access to it to the Chinese. Is that true and is that what an ally does?
Secretary Panetta: As the Secretary has said, it’s a – this is a very complicated relationship with Pakistan. (Laughter.)
Mr. Sesno: Is that a yes? (Laughter.)
Secretary Panetta: I’ve got to protect my old hat. (Laughter.) I --
Mr. Sesno: It’s not a no, though.
Secretary Panetta: Well, I’m not going to comment because it does relate to classified intelligence. But –
Mr. Sesno: But are you concerned about this?
Secretary Panetta: -- clearly we’re –
Mr. Sesno: Are you concerned?
Secretary Panetta: We’re concerned with the relationships that Pakistan has. What makes this complicated is that they have relationships with the Haqqanis, and the Haqqani tribes are going across the border and attacking our forces in Afghanistan, and it’s pretty clear that there’s a relationship there. There’s a relationship with LET, and this is a group that goes into India and threatens attacks there and has conducted attacks there. In addition to that, they don’t provide visas. They – in the relationship there are bumps and grinds to try to work it through.
And yet there is no choice but to maintain a relationship with Pakistan. Why? Because we’re fighting a war there. Because we are fighting al-Qaida there and they do give us some cooperation in that effort, because they do represent an important force in that region, because they do happen to be a nuclear power that has nuclear weapons and we have to be concerned about what happens with those nuclear weapons.
So for all of those reasons, we have got to maintain a relationship with Pakistan. And it’s going to be – it is not – as I said, it is complicated. It’s going to be ups and downs. I mean, the Secretary and I have spent countless hours going to Pakistan, talking with their leaders, trying to get their cooperation.
Mr. Sesno: Take us into – let me ask the two of you to take us into a conversation that you might have together in the privacy of several hundred people and cameras. (Laughter.) This war that you talk about is largely conducted with drones. Those drones are deeply resented and complicate your efforts on the diplomatic front. How do you balance that? Isn’t your best asset your worst nightmare?
Secretary Clinton: No, no. Let me take you back to conversations that are not maybe so current but I think relevant. Shortly after I became Secretary of State, we were quite concerned to see the Pakistani Taliban basically taking advantage of what had been an effort by the government in Pakistan to try to create some kind of peace agreement with the Pakistani Taliban and to, in effect, say to them, look, you stay in Swat, which is one of the territories, you stay there and don’t bother us, we won’t bother you. And I was very blunt, both publicly and privately, with my Pakistani interlocutors in saying you can’t make deals with terrorists. I mean, the very people that you think you can either predict or control are, at the end of the day, neither predictable nor controllable.
And I was very pleased when the Pakistanis moved in to Swat and cleaned out a lot of what had become a kind of Pakistani Taliban stronghold. And then they began to take some troops off of their border with India to put more resources into the fight against the Pakistani Taliban.
Now, as Leon says, we have some other targets that we discuss with them – the Haqqanis, for example – and yet it’s been a relatively short period of time, two and a half years, when they have begun to reorient themselves militarily against what is, in our view, an internal threat to them. We were saying this because we think it will undermine the control that the Pakistani Government is able to exercise.
So we have conversations like this all the time, Frank, and I do think that there are certain attitudes or beliefs that the Pakistanis have which are rooted in their own experience, just like we have our own set of such convictions. But I also think that there is a debate going on inside Pakistan about the best way to deal with what is an increasing internal threat.
Secretary Panetta: Let me just add to that. I mean, the reason we’re there is we’re protecting our national security. We’re defending our country. The fact was al-Qaida, which attacked this country on 9/11, the leadership of al-Qaida was there. And so we are going after those who continue to plan to attack this country. They’re terrorists. And the operations that we’ve conducted there have been very effective at undermining al-Qaida and their ability to plan those kinds of attacks.
Mr. Sesno: What’s left of them?
Secretary Panetta: But let me make this point. Those terrorists that are there are also a threat to Pakistani national security as well. They attack Pakistanis. They go in to Karachi, they go in to Islamabad, and conduct attacks there that kill Pakistanis. So it is in their interest – it’s in their interest – to go after these terrorists as well. They can’t just pick and choose among terrorists.
Mr. Sesno: What’s left of the al-Qaida network?
Secretary Panetta: The al-Qaida network has seriously been weakened. We know that. But they’re still there and we still have to keep the pressure on. Those that are suggesting somehow that this is a good time to pull back are wrong. This is a good time to keep putting the pressure on to make sure that we really do undermine their ability to conduct any kind of attacks on this country.
Mr. Sesno: Will they ever be defeated, or was Donald Rumsfeld right and this is just the long war?
Secretary Panetta: You know, we can go after the key leadership of al-Qaida that I think has largely led this effort, and we have seriously weakened them. We certainly took out bin Ladin, which I think seriously weakened their leadership as well, and I think there are additional leaders that we can go after. And by weakening their leadership, we will undermine al-Qaida’s ability to ultimately put together that universal jihad that they’ve always tried to put together in order to conduct attacks on this country.
So the answer to your question is that we have made serious inroads in weakening al-Qaida. There’s more to be done. There are these nodes now in Yemen, in Somalia, and other areas that we have to continue to go after. But I think we are on the path to being – seriously weakening al-Qaida as a threat to this country.
Mr. Sesno: Let’s talk about Iraq for a few minutes and then we’ll take a question on that topic from the audience. We’ve seen a terrible string of attacks over the last 24 hours that have claimed, at last count, nearly 90 lives, hundreds injured, leading to grave concerns about the ability of the Iraqi Government to look after its own security. What is happening in that country now? What do you read from this wave of violence?
Secretary Clinton: Well, what I see happening is that there continues to be a terrorist capacity inside Iraq. I don’t know as – at the time I left my office, no one had claimed credit, but we believe that it could very well be al-Qaida in Iraq trying to assert itself.
Mr. Sesno: The Sunni extremists.
Secretary Clinton: The Sunni extremists. At the same time, we know that there are Shia extremists who have been also conducting attacks, not quite to the extent of what we saw yesterday, but attacks that have killed Americans and killed Iraqis.
Now, I’m of two minds about this, Frank. I mean, I deplore the loss of life and the ability of these terrorists to continue to operate inside Iraq. I also know that until recently, the trajectory of violence had been going in the right direction, namely down. And we saw that and we were feeling that it was headed in the right direction.
The Iraqis themselves have more capacity than they did have, but they’ve got to exercise it. And we spend a lot of time pushing our friends in the Iraqi Government to make decisions, like naming a defense minister and an interior minister, so that they can be better organized to deal with what are the ongoing threats. And certainly we’re in discussions with them now because they do want to be sure that they have sufficient intelligence and surveillance and reconnaissance capacity, ISR. They want to be sure that they can defend themselves both internally and externally, and that’s a conversation that our ambassador and our commander are having in Baghdad.
Mr. Sesno: Has it been worth it, and should we stay?
Secretary Panetta: Well, the bottom line is that we are going to maintain a long-term relationship with Iraq to ensure that they remain stable.
Mr. Sesno: Militarily? This is a discussion they’re having internally themselves.
Secretary Panetta: I think we’ll – that’s a discussion that we’ll have with them as to what kind of assistance we’ll continue to provide. But the bottom line is, whether it’s diplomatic, whether it’s military, we’ve got a long-term relationship with Iraq. We’ve invested –
Mr. Sesno: So if asked to stay –
Secretary Panetta: We’ve invested a lot of lives there.
Mr. Sesno: If asked to stay militarily, we’d stay?
Secretary Panetta: We’ve invested a lot of blood in that country, and regardless of whether you agree or disagree as to how we got into it, the bottom line is that we now have, through a lot of sacrifice, established a relatively stable democracy that’s trying to work together to lead that country. And it happens to be a country that is in a very important region of the world at a time when there’s a lot of other turmoil going on. And it is very important for us to make sure that we get this right.
Secretary Clinton: But Frank, I just want to just append to what Leon said. The President made a commitment that we would be withdrawing our forces from Iraq and that he would follow the timetable that was set in the Bush Administration, which is for our troops to be out at the end of this year.
Mr. Sesno: Right.
Secretary Clinton: So that is – that’s a period. That’s the end of that commitment. There is, however, a discussion that the Iraqis are having internally and beginning to have with us about what we would do following that. So I don't want there to be any confusion about that. I mean, our combat mission in Iraq ends at the end of this year. Our support and training mission, if there is to be such a one, is what the subject of this discussion would be.
Mr. Sesno: But don’t these attacks demonstrate that the security situation is still precarious, that if the Iraqi Government were to ask for an ongoing American military presence, it might well be more than mere training, that there is combat that is still taking place?
Secretary Clinton: Well, but we don’t believe that the Iraqis have that on their list of asks. I mean –
Mr. Sesno: Do you agree?
Secretary Panetta: Well, I think what they want to do is to, obviously, be able to confront counterterrorism within their own country. And we’ve given them help; we’ve given them training; we’ve given them assistance in that effort. And obviously, that’s something as a country they’re going to have to confront. But their main goal right now is to get the kind of training that will allow them to improve their defense capability and --
Mr. Sesno: Let’s turn to the audience for a question on Iraq. Anybody have a question on Iraq? On the aisle right here, if we can bring the mike over here. Do we have a microphone? Right down here. Yes, sir. Stand and tell us who you are and ask a question briefly.
Question: Keith Crane, the Rand Corporation. I’ve been – I was in CPA in 2003 and followed Iraq every since. I just want to ask you, don’t you see it in the U.S. national security interest to actually have all the troops leave by the end of the year, I think, in terms of both the Middle East, Afghanistan, for the Iraqis themselves? I understand what the Secretary Clinton had said in terms of we are leaving, but even to have troops there training there afterwards, don’t you think it’d send a really strong signal that we’re not interested in bases and that we would – are going to leave if we do not have a training mission there as well?
Secretary Panetta: Well, I think – I mean, as the Secretary said and as the President’s made clear, we are leaving by the end of the year. Our combat mission is over. The discussions now are what kind of assistance can we continue to provide with regards to training, with regards to other assistance that is provided. We do this with other countries. We’ve done it with other countries in that region. And I think this would be what I would call a normal relationship with Iraq if we could establish that kind of approach for the future.
Secretary Clinton: Well, that’s why I wanted to be very clear that the combat mission is over and our troops are leaving and they are in the process of literally packing up, and that was what we agreed to. And I agree with you that that is very much in America’s interest to keep that commitment. But what Leon is saying is also important. If a country comes to us within what we would view as a normal diplomatic relationship and says, “My troops need training. They’re not yet what they need to be. I’m going to need continuing help on collecting intelligence, learning how to do it for counterterrorism purposes,” I think it would be irresponsible of us not to listen to what they’re requesting.
And indeed, the Iraqis have not made a formal request, but we have reason to believe that they are certainly discussing it internally. We do that in Kuwait, we do that in Bahrain, we do that in Qatar, we do that in UAE, we do that in Saudi Arabia. So it would be a little bit, I think, unusual for us to say, “No. We will not respond to a responsible request.” What it is, we don’t know yet, and that’s the next stages.
Mr. Sesno: But I think the bottom line here is very interesting, and it’s something that the country will respond to, which is that if there is a responsible request, as you put it, a military relationship of some form going forward, not unlike these other countries in the region, in Europe, in much of the world after other conflicts, will be part of the military diplomatic landscape.
Secretary Panetta: Look, Frank, just to – for the record, this is going to be a process of negotiation and there’s going to be discussion. And I think what – the good thing is that the Iraqis indicated a willingness to have that discussion. We will have that discussion and try to deal with it. But as to what ultimately turns out, we’ll have to leave to them.
Mr. Sesno: A couple other issues in the time remaining. Syria – is it time for the United States to clearly, emphatically, unequivocally state that President Asad has to go, should step down? There’s been talk that that is going to be forthcoming from the Administration. It has not been yet. Is today the day?
Secretary Clinton: Well, Frank, I’m not a big believer in arbitrary deadlines when you’re trying to manage difficult situations. And what we see happening in Syria is galvanizing international opinion against the Asad regime. And that is a far better landscape for us to be operating in than if it were just the United States, if it were just maybe a few European countries.
Just think of what’s happened in the last two weeks. You’ve had the Arab League reverse position. You’ve had King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia make a very strong statement and the Gulf Coordinating Council also making a strong statement. You had Turkey desperately trying to use its influence, which is considerable within Syria, to convince the Asad regime to quit shelling its own people, withdraw its troops from the cities, return them to barracks, begin a process of real transition. And yesterday, the foreign minister made it clear that the Asad regime is not following through on that.
So I happen to think where we are is where we need to be, where it is a growing international chorus of condemnation. The United States has been instrumental in orchestrating that. And we are pushing for stronger sanctions that we hope will be joined by other countries that have far bigger stakes economically than we do.
Mr. Sesno: I get all of that. But you know that your critics are saying leading means being out in front, that you condemn from the White House the heinous acts of the Asad regime, but --
Secretary Clinton: Well, look, we have condemned it, and we will continue to condemn it.
Mr. Sesno: So tell him to leave.
Secretary Clinton: Well, I have to say I am a big believer in results over rhetoric, and I think what we’re doing is putting together a very careful set of actions and statements that will make our views very clear, and to have other voices, particularly from the region, as part of that is essential for there to be any impact within Syria. I mean, it’s not news that the United States is not a friend of Syria’s. That is not news to anybody. But it is, I think, important that we send an ambassador back there. I’m very proud of what Ambassador Ford has done, representing the best values of our country. So I think we have done what we needed to do to establish the credibility and, frankly, the universality of the condemnation that may actually make a difference.
Mr. Sesno: Secretary Panetta, another place to go to, since the world is such a cheery place these days – (laughter) – Libya. So we find these very interesting developments where we hear of another defection, potentially, from the senior ranks of the Qadhafi government, and yet we also hear that the rebel forces may be having some very serious internal pressures, tensions, and disputes themselves. What is your read on the military campaign in Libya and whether Qadhafi is any closer to being driven out?
Secretary Panetta: Well, I talked with our commanders in the area just within the last few days. And the indication is that yes, there are these concerns about the opposition, but we’ve had concerns about the opposition for a period now. But the fact is the opposition is moving. They’re moving in the west towards Tripoli, towards the coastline, and moving in that direction. The opposition in the east is moving to Brega and moving in the direction of Tripoli as well, that that pressure is having an impact, that the regime forces are weakened. Qadhafi’s forces are weakened, and this latest defection is another example of how weak they’ve gotten.