SEASIDE, Calif. — Leon Panetta, the former secretary of defense, CIA director and ex-Clinton White House chief of staff, says President Donald Trump’s incendiary vow to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un Tuesday to deliver “fire and fury like the world has never seen” is disturbing evidence of a White House that is increasingly raising the stakes of a cataclysmic nuclear war.
“You’ve got two bullies chiding each other with outrageous comments — and it doesn’t help the situation in terms of trying to resolve something that has to be resolved peacefully…because the consequences of nuclear war would be devastating," Panetta told POLITICO Tuesday at the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University, Monterey Bay.
"The question is: “Does (Trump) get so frustrated with the North Korean leader — who’s yelling every other day — that he feels that somehow the North Korean leader is attacking his manhood?”
“And (Trump) this is a guy who, if he feels that, does he decide, ‘OK, enough is enough?’ So we’re living on that brink right now,” Panetta said. "We’re not sure what direction this is going to take…it’s a very dangerous world that’s out there and it’s going to require a lot of decisions on some tough issues.”
The stakes for average Americans, he said, are becoming too high. “I know the mood of the American people is, ‘Yeah this is Trump…but I have to take care of my family, life goes on’…But reality is, the commander-in-chief can make a helluva decision that could really impact the lives of Americans.”
Panetta’s comments, his sharpest to date on Trump’s foreign policy and national security efforts, came in an interview with POLITICO and during a session with congressional interns at the public policy institute founded by he and his wife Sylvia. The former CIA director expressed deep concern not only about Trump’s engagement — or lack of it — in foreign policy, but also the methods by which the current White House is approaching problems that may quickly spiral out of control.
With reports that North Korea may have produced a compact nuclear warhead, "there’s only one strategy you can use with North Korea — and it’s containment and deterrence,’’ Panetta said, adding that the time has come to open a dialogue with North Korea. “You have to make very clear that if they do anything that is provocative, that we can come back in a way that will end the regime. That, frankly, for 60 years, is what we’ve been doing — and as a result, we’ve been able to avoid war.”
“The real problem is that…the failure of the foreign policy dealing with North Korea — it really does represent a direct threat to the United States. So this really is a moment in time where we have got to take steps, militarily, diplomatically, to do everything possible to bring North Korea to the negotiating table,’’ he said. America must have a dialogue with them, or to make clear to them that failure to engage in dialogue “is to put them on a path towards the loss of the regime,” he said.
But Panetta said he’s concerned with reports of how the president makes major decisions, and is approaching major foreign policy issues.
“I’ve heard of briefings being presented to the president — and because he has this limited attention span, he kind of immediately goes to the political argument as opposed to the substance,’’ the former CIA director said. In Afghanistan, for instance, reports are that "the military is recommending a strategy that should be done; but the president and (advisor Steve) Bannon don’t think that strategy really gives them what they want in order to deal with the political side of the ledger. So he’s basically sent the military packing — to try and come back with something different.”
Panetta, who has one of the deepest public service resumes in Washington — he’s a former House member from California who went on to manage the White House Office of Management and Budget, and served as White House chief of staff, head of the CIA and secretary of defense — says that Trump’s methods represent a stark shift from past practice on crisis management.
“For 25 years, trying to live with danger zones that are out there in the world, you always felt there were rational minds that understood that at some point you’ll find a way to deal with it,’’ he said. “That chemistry has changed. So it makes it very unpredictable.”
Among other observations from Panetta:
— On Trump’s unorthodox approach to foreign policy issues: “This is a bizarre world, OK? I’m used to — you go through a national security consult, you have deputies’ meetings; you have principles meeting, you talk about substance of the issue, the crisis, the options, you try to develop consensus. You present it to the president; the president asks questions and makes a decision. That’s usually the process. It was true for Clinton, it was true for Bush, it was true for Obama. (Today) this is not the way it works. And it makes it very unpredictable as to what happens.”
— On Trump’s White House team: “I’ve thought that Trump’s national security team is probably the best thing he’s done, in appointing people like [Secretary of Defense James] Mattis and [National Security Advisor H.R.] McMaster, now [General John] Kelly as chief of staff and [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson — even though he’s struggling, his head seems to be at least in the right place.”
— On North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un: “He’s totally bizarre and uncertain. When I was CIA director the one area I thought we did not have really great intelligence was in the inner circles of North Korea..it was tough to get really good information. Normally, you get pretty good intelligence about what a leader was doing…we never could get that. So you don’t know. The only guy this guy seems to like is (Dennis) Rodman.”