CIA Director Panetta Declares War

11/09/2010 12:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

War? What war?

Last week, I was a guest at a dinner sponsored by the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, based at California State University in Monterey. The nonpartisan west coast echo of the Kennedy School at Harvard is directed by Mrs. Sylvia Panetta, who co-founded the Institute with her husband, Leon Panetta, former White House Chief of Staff and now Director of the CIA.

That energetic 72 year-old, who has traveled to more foreign capitals -- and can boast more varied governmental experience -- than any other Director in the Agency's history, was present at the dinner. Panetta spoke briefly and something he said moved me to write this commentary.

"Our country is at war".

That was the simple declaration I found so striking because, to be honest, it grated. After years of listening to George W. Bush making the same pronouncement, linking his ill-chosen, much overworked catch-phrase "War on Terror" to a hapless conflict in Iraq, I hadn't expected to hear it from a liberal Democrat who is the uncontested senior statesman of the Obama Administration.

Panetta's statement had an ever greater impact because of remarks by TV newsman emeritus Tom Brokaw, one of the journalists honored at the dinner. Brokaw spoke movingly about the American veterans of the Afghan conflict, volunteers, mostly from middle class families of middle America, who were unsung and forgotten when they returned home from a harrowing personal experience in the distant mountains of central Asia.

Maybe, Panetta reflected, he was more conscious of our battle against global terrorism because he was so close to it, dealing with both the Afghan and wider phases of the "war" on a daily basis. He didn't mention that he had also been closer to it personally, as one of his sons, a well-respected criminal prosecutor in northern California, had served in Afghanistan as a decorated Naval Reserve officer just before his father came to CIA. Mrs. Panetta commuted to the Bay Area to help care for her granddaughters while her son was on active service. The Panetta family was well aware of the sacrifices of American men and women in uniform.

So why did I find the CIA Director's remarks so striking? Because, like many Americans, I don't share Panetta's gut feeling that we're at war. I worked very briefly at CIA forty years ago, during the Vietnam era, and whether my draft-age friends and I were at our desks at Langley or later drowning our troubles at a Georgetown bar, we were always very conscious of the war in southeast Asia.

That consciousness is now missing in the country at large. Some Washingtonian at the Panetta dinner joked that it was a relief to leave behind the insularity of the Beltway and return to "reality" -- the joke being that the expensive fund-raising dinner was an haute cuisine, black-tie affair at a Pebble Beach resort.

Yet I believe that the people in the ballroom that night did represent one reality which they share with the folks on Main Street. The American people, even as they read daily news reports of bombs mailed to Chicago synagogues from a place called Yemen or periodic bomb scares in European capitals, are simply not war conscious. More than that, they are not convinced that this nation can afford astronomically costly military operations at a time of domestic economic malaise, especially since it's so hard to distinguish those operations from our unhappy adventure in Iraq.

Personally, I have reservations about the basic counter-terrorist strategy in Afghanistan and beyond, inherited from a disreputable Republican administration. It seems to me, forgive the metaphor, like using a bulldozer to find a needle in a haystack. Unfortunately, I haven't heard of a better alternative, but I hope Director Panetta has tasked some of his whiz kids with advanced thinking outside the policy box which might lead to new directions.

As for why Panetta's reminder of a vintage war that began more than a decade ago should be so provoking, the reason can be traced, in Harry Truman's words, to where the buck stops. It's not just the rationale for health care and Wall Street bailouts which President Obama has failed to communicate to the American people. He also hasn't made a compelling case for that war.

The CIA, as news reports suggest, may be truly making some progress against our terrorist enemies, and perhaps there are even counter-insurgency advances on the Afghan front. But Panetta spent many of his earlier years as a Democratic leader in Congress, and he is surely aware that many Representatives in Washington -- including most of the Democrats from California districts whom he knows well -- would happily emasculate the "war" budget if a Republican were still in the White House. That's because they know that their constituents don't really feel, in their hearts, that America is truly at war.

It's not the CIA Director's responsibility to change their minds, to convince the American people of what he believes to be essential to protecting our national security.

That's another of the many tasks that confront a president who has simply not presented a clear case for the policies, either foreign or domestic, of a faltering administration that began with such buoyant hope.