In his Pentagon office last Friday evening, a smiling but tired-looking Leon Panetta drank a Sprite on ice and sat for an extensive interview with Foreign Policy, in which the defense secretary spoke publicly for the first time about last week's remarkable, unexpected protests across the Middle East. Even as wall-to-wall media coverage showed angry young men scaling U.S. embassy walls, setting cars and buildings aflame, and hoisting al Qaeda's fblack flag, Panetta called the demonstrations "convulsions" related to the political tumult in a region that had cast off dictators for democracy. The protests, Panetta argued, were as unreflective of popular Middle Eastern opinion as "a Ku Klux Klan demonstration" in the United States.
But the prospects for more unrest are widespread, Panetta acknowledged, saying the military was positioning forces to respond to as many as 18 sites of concern -- far more than the two embassies in Libya and Yemen that 100 Marines have so far been hurriedly deployed to protect. Just a year ago, Panetta hailed the impending "strategic defeat" of al Qaeda; in the interview, he clarified to say he was talking about "the al Qaeda that attacked the United States of America on 9/11," while its affiliate groups are in fact now growing in Yemen, Somalia, and across North Africa.
In a normal week, the top national security news would have been the public row between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama administration officials over whether to set "red lines" that would trigger military strikes to halt Iran's nuclear program. But Panetta dismissed Netanyahu's heated rhetoric, repeated on this weekend's U.S. talk shows, about the need for such "red lines" in the effort to pressure Iran: "The fact is, look, presidents of the United States, prime ministers of Israel or any other country -- leaders of these countries don't have, you know, a bunch of little red lines that determine their decisions."
On Afghanistan, where another deadly insider attack struck Helmand's Camp Bastion on Friday, Panetta acknowledged that some of the toughest fighting is yet to come in the East, before security in the final sections of the country is handed over to Afghans by the end of 2014. As for whether the White House will leave a robust enough post-surge force for two more years of fighting, Panetta said, "My view is that the president of the United States will rely a great deal on the recommendations of General Allen as to what he needs to accomplish the mission."
The next day, Panetta departed for Japan and China, where he said he expected to present himself as a mediator in the dispute that has once again heated up over islands that both nations claim. Interestingly, Panetta said that he had had a good intelligence relationship with China when he was CIA director, which gives him hope that he can continue to thaw relations between the Pentagon and the People's Liberation Army. When asked if that meant that China was not America's top geopolitical foe, Panetta coyly replied, "I'm not going to get into the Romney game."
Below, the edited transcript of Panetta's interview with Foreign Policy editor in chief Susan Glasser and national security reporters Kevin Baron and Gordon Lubold.
LEON PANETTA: Let me just say a few things. As I've said before, I think we're at a turning point, certainly after 10 years of war, but I also think that the world to some extent is at a turning point in terms of, you know, transitioning in many ways to a whole new era out there. What that era will look like I guess we'll be asking questions. But clearly there's a sense that things are changing. For us obviously, having confronted after 9/11, confronted terrorism, and they were our principal enemy, we've gone after them, and have in fact weakened them and weakened their leadership and, I think, impacted on their ability to exercise the command and control necessary to plan a 9/11-type attack.
We brought the war in Iraq to an end, we're in the process of doing the drawdown in Afghanistan, with a plan that we think has us on the right track towards completing that transition. NATO in many ways was tested in Libya and actually did a very good job there and is doing a good job in Afghanistan, as well. It's an alliance and partnership that is working effectively for us. And in addition to that, you know, I think I sense that we've had to as a result of those changes plus the budget constrictions we're facing have had to develop a new defense strategy here that in many ways has to adapt to that changing world that I just discussed.
At the same time that we have in fact moved in the right direction in some of these key areas, there remain some very serious threats in the world that we're in, an array of threats that is very different from the past. Most in my 40 years in this town we were confronting the Soviet Union, and today we're confronting a myriad of threats that haven't gone away even as we face budget constrictions. Normally, when you reduce the defense budget, it's a period where the threats that you confronted in some ways have gone away or have been reduced.
We're going through a period where we have some very real threats out there, still confronting terrorism, still fighting a war in Afghanistan, facing North Korea, the threat from North Korea, facing the threat from Iran, facing turmoil in the Middle East as we've seen over the last few days, facing cyber-threats in a very new world in what I call the new battlefield of the future. When you put all that together, combined with rising powers like China, Brazil, and India and how we confront that kind of transition, we have some real issues that we have to confront.
The defense strategy we designed was trying to -- how do we develop something that is agile and flexible, allows us to deploy quickly, allows us to be able to move, allows us to be able to be on the cutting edge of technology because frankly all of that will be necessary as we deal with these threats. Yes, we have to focus our force protection to the Pacific and the Middle East. Yes, we have to develop a new presence in dealing with the rest of the world that is innovative. But at the same time we're going to have to invest in the future. What is it that we have to invest in that will make us agile, that will make us flexible, that will make us capable of dealing with the myriad of threats that we're going to face as a nation. I think we did that in the defense strategy. I think that we at least got the right elements. It's a work in progress, but I think we have set a foundation for what the defense of this country needs to look like as we confront these challenges that I've just described.