"Face the Nation" transcript: January 8, 2012

BOB SCHIEFFER: Rick Santorum says we should already be making it known to them and the rest of the world that we're planning an attack to take out their nuclear facilities. And that we should let them know about that right now. What about a military reaction right now?

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Well, you don't take any option off the table. I think that's extremely important. Don't take any option off the table. But the responsible thing to do right now is to keep putting diplomatic and economic pressure on them to force them to do the right thing. And to make sure that they do not make the decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon.

BOB SCHIEFFER: General, how hard would it be to take out their nuclear capability, if in fact we decided to do that -- this is not just going in there and dropping one bomb on one building.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, I'd rather not discuss the degree of difficulty and in any way encourage them to read anything into that. But I will say that-- our-- my responsibility is to encourage the right degree of planning, to understand the risks associated with any kind of military option-- in some cases to position assets, to provide those options on-- in a timely fashion. And all those activities are going on.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Could we, if we had to, without using nuclear weapons ourselves, take out their nuclear capability?

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, I certainly want them to believe that that's the case.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Well, is it?

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: I absolutely want them to believe that that's the case.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Mr. Secretary, would you like to add anything to that?

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: I think they need to know that-- that if they take that step -- that they're going to get stopped.

BOB SCHIEFFER: What about if they decide to block us off at the Straits of Hormuz?

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: We made very clear that the United States will not tolerate the blocking of the Straits of Hormuz. That's another red line for us and that we will respond to them.

BOB SCHIEFFER: And we would be able to-- could they actually, General, do they have the capability to actually block off that waterway, which is, of course, where all the oil to get it out of that part of the world comes through?

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: They've invested in capabilities that could, in fact, for a period of time block the Straits of Hormuz. We've invested in capabilities to ensure that if that happens, we can defeat that. And so the simple answer is yes, they can block it. Of course, that is as well a-- we've described that as an intolerable act. And it's not just intolerable for us, it's intolerable to the world. But we would take action and reopen the Straits.

BOB SCHIEFFER: A lot of people, Mr. Secretary, say, "We ought to just tell the Israelis quietly, 'Look, if you need to take out that nuclear capability in Iran, go ahead. That'll be fine with us.'" What would happen if Israel does decide to take this matter into its own hands and what would be our reaction and response to that?

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: I think I-- you know, our preference is that the international community, including Israel, ought to work together on this issue. We face -- we have common cause here. We're not interested in them developing a nuclear weapon. We are not interested in them proliferating violence throughout that region. We are not interested in them trying to assist in terrorism. We are not interested in them trying to destabilize governments in that region or any place else. We have common cause here. And the better approach is for us to work together. And not act--

BOB SCHIEFFER: But what if the Israelis did that?

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: If the Israelis made that decision, we would have to be prepared to protect our forces in that situation. And that's what we'd be concerned about.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Let me ask you about Iraq. We still have 15,000, 17,000 civilians there, as I understand it. Are you confident that they're safe?

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: We're confident that we have an Iraqi government and an Iraqi security force that is capable of dealing with the security threats that are there now. The level of violence has been down. It's been down for a long time. And even though we've had these periodic acts of violence, that's something we've experienced there for a long time. But the bottom line is that the Iraqis can provide good security and that our people can be secure in what we they're doing there.

BOB SCHIEFFER: But I mean, the fact of the matter is, we've had over 100 people killed just this week there, have we not? As this-- these various attacks have come about, and...

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Bob, you're right. We're going to see those kinds of acts of violence take place. But when you look at the level of violence overall, it is down and it has been down, mainly because the Iraqis have been able, effectively, to develop good security. And that's important.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Let me ask you both this question. And I'll start with you, General. What is it right now in the world -- is it North Korea, is it Iraq, is it Iran -- what is it that worries you the most right now?

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: I-- you know, I think you've articulated--

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: All of the above. (LAUGH)

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Yeah, that's right, all of the above. (LAUGH) Do I have to pick one of those? No look, I think that's what worries me is that, because the conversation that we're having, this year, about changing strategy and budget problems, that there may be some around the world who see us as a nation in decline, and worse, as a military in decline. And nothing could be further from the truth. And that miscalculation could be troublesome in, particularly in the three areas you describe, but it could be-- it could cause even our close partners to wonder what kind of partner are we? So what I'd like to say right now is we're the same partner we've always been, and intend to remain that way.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Secretary?

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: I think the main message that the world needs to understand is: America is the strongest military power and we intend to remain the strongest military power and nobody ought to mess with that.

BOB SCHIEFFER: All right, well gentlemen, I want to thank you very much for being with us this morning. And we'll be back in one minute with Republican Senator John McCain.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BOB SCHIEFFER: And back now with Sen. John McCain who today is kind of our one-size-fits-all kind of guest, he has just endorsed Mitt Romney and of course he is the Republican of the most influence on the United States Senate, I would say, on defense policy. I'll just ask you the general question, what's your reaction to what you just heard?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: There's no doubt that savings have to be made in defense, personnel costs, entitlements they're kind of a microcosm of the overall problems we face in these areas. I have obviously been a strong advocate of these, eliminating these terrible cost overruns, it's really a culture of corruption at the Pentagon on cost overruns of these weapons systems but I'm very worried about ignoring the lessons of history. After World War Two there was never going to be another land war. After Vietnam we ended up in a quote hollow army. But I understand these savings have to be made but I am more worried about the perception in the world of what the United States is doing. Secretary of Defense Panetta mentioned Iraq. In all due respect, Iraq is unraveling, it's unraveling because we did not keep residual forces there. Because the President of the United States pledged to get out of Iraq and we could have kept a residual force there and kept some stability. And instead it's unraveling, and Iran's influence is increasing and there's every possibility you could see a very chaotic situation there.