Panetta Seeks Swift Approval of U.S. Aid to Ukraine; Former Defense Secretary Urges Protection of World Democracy

Courtesy of Panetta Institute for Public Policy
Leon Panetta

The United States must pass its stalled aid package for Ukraine, to defend both that European country and democracy throughout the world. Leon Panetta, a former U.S. defense secretary and director of the Central Intelligence Agency, spoke in an online interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun about the importance of unity among democratic states in this dangerous time.

The following excerpts from that interview have been edited for flow and clarity.


The Yomiuri Shimbun: It has been two years since Russia’s aggression against Ukraine began. How does the United States try to commit to tackle this war?

Leon Panetta: I think the reason that the president [Joe Biden] and our NATO allies believed it was important to draw a line on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin when he invaded Ukraine is because in many ways, this is not just about defending democracy in Ukraine. It’s about defending democracy in the world. There’s a larger national security issue involved here. It’s for that reason that it’s extremely important that the United States and our allies do not allow Putin to succeed.

We have provided obviously a great deal of aid and military weaponry. But we’ve come down to a point where we have to provide an additional $60 billion of aid to Ukraine. It’s being held up in the House of Representatives. I think it is extremely critical that the House of Representatives pass the aid package that was passed by the Senate, so that we can immediately provide this aid.

In many ways, it’s a pivotal point. Because if we fail to provide this aid, then it’s clear that Putin is going to continue his efforts to try to dominate Ukraine and threaten other NATO nations as well. It is extremely important to our national security that we provide this critical aid to Ukraine … Right now the danger is because we are sending a message that we cannot provide, for whatever reason, aid to Ukraine when it needs it most. Unfortunately, we’re sending a message of weakness to the world.

Yomiuri: Some Republicans, members of Congress and U.S. citizens believe that Ukraine isn’t important to U.S. national interests. How would you explain to those people why Ukraine matters to the United States?

Panetta: I think that it should be made clear to the world that a strong bipartisan majority of both Democrats and Republicans in the Congress strongly support providing aid to Ukraine and that the voices that speak against that aid are a minority and really do not represent, I believe, the national security interests of the country.

For those that might question this aid, what I would say to them is remember the lessons of World War II. Prior to WWII, the United States was leaning isolationist. There were strong voices here that somehow we shouldn’t get involved in what was happening with Hitler in Europe. The result of that was that Hitler continued his march across Europe.

Ultimately, the result was WWII. I think we need to learn the lesson that the United States cannot be an isolationist, cannot withdraw from our leadership in the world. We have to be a world leader, particularly at a dangerous time in the world’s history, and we are living at a dangerous time.

Yomiuri: Do you think that current Republicans are leaning toward isolationism? Not cooperative or internationalism like the past?

Panetta: There’s no question. All you have to do is listen to the former president of the United States, Donald Trump. When he was in office, he talked about America First and withdrawing from the rest of the world. He talked about basically moving away from our alliances in the world. He clearly was sending a message that the United States was going to become an isolationist country. And he continues to do that in this campaign.

When he basically said that if countries aren’t meeting their 2% requirement [of GDP on defense], Putin should go ahead and invade those countries, it was basically surrendering United States world leadership. That was the message. The United States cannot afford to send a message that somehow we are not going to continue to play the role of world leader in the world. That’s a role that came out of WWII.

We were confronting the Soviet Union. We helped create the NATO alliance, building a strong alliance with our allies so that we could do everything necessary to restrain the Soviet Union. Frankly, that alliance paid off, I think, when the Soviet Union came down and the Cold War ended, it was the result of the United States and our allies working together and we have to continue that.

Look, we do live in a dangerous world. It’s not just Russia. It is China. It’s North Korea. It’s Iran. It’s failed states in the Middle East. It’s terrorism. We are confronting a number of dangerous adversaries in the world.

The only way we’re going to confront that number of adversaries is for the United States and our allies to be able to work together whether it’s the United States and NATO, whether it’s the United States and Japan, and South Korea confronting North Korea, confronting China, whether it’s the United States and our moderate Arab allies, working together to deal with both Iran and terrorism in the Middle East. These alliances are critical to our ability to protect our national security.

Yomiuri: Around 60% of Republicans think the U.S. is doing too much for Ukraine. And even among Democrats, around 15% think the same way. Why do such ideas have support?

Panetta: We are a democracy and Japan is a democracy …. I think it’s really important for the president of the United States and the leadership in this country to be able to speak to the American people about why it is important that we protect our national security.

We cannot enjoy our freedoms or our liberties, we cannot enjoy all of the rights that were provided in our Constitution, unless we maintain our national security, because if we allow autocrats in the world, like Putin and Xi [Jinping] in China, and Kim Jong Un in North Korea and the supreme leader in Iran, if we allow them to basically work together in order to undermine democracies in the world, then we’re going to lose, ultimately the freedoms and liberties and rights that we enjoy. That’s the message that the leadership has to send to the American people.

Yomiuri: It is so surprising how Trump and congressmen close to him can say even Putin is not an evil presence.

Panetta: Putin obviously represents a very clear threat to the United States. I mean, for those of us who’ve been in intelligence, I have to tell you that there isn’t a thing that Putin does that isn’t aimed at trying to undermine the strength of the United States.

Yomiuri: We are paying a lot of attention to America’s future, and our readers are highly concerned about the situation in Asia.

Panetta: We live in a world where there really is a contest between autocracy and democracy. We have autocratic leaders Putin, Xi, Kim Jong Un, supreme leader, terrorists. Their interest is to destroy democracy. Putin is trying to do that in Ukraine. Hamas is trying to do that in Israel. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Xi is threatening democracy in Taiwan. There’s only one way to deal with that, for the democracies of the world and our allies to come together. We are going to have to stand up to these autocrats who think that somehow they can have their own way and destroy democracy.

Yomiuri: What kind of role should Japan take in the current dangerous world?

Panetta: Japan is one of our closest allies. And I really, in the time that I was both director of the CIA and secretary of defense, I had a very good relationship with my counterparts in Japan and they were very helpful and very cooperative in working with the United States, not only in dealing with North Korea, but in dealing with China as well.

(This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers Yuko Mukai and Riley Martinez.)

Leon E. Panetta

Panetta served as U.S. secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013 after serving as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Prior to this, he represented California as a Democratic Congressman in the House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993 and then went on to serve as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. He has a strong history of bipartisanship and early in his career was a legislative assistant to Republican Sen. Thomas Kuchel. In 2019, Panetta received the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun from the Japanese government. He currently spends his time teaching the younger generation at the Panetta Institute for Public Policy.