The Magazine

Panetta’s Duty

Jun 20, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 38 • By JAMIE M. FLY and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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At his confirmation hearing on June 9, Secretary of Defense nominee Leon Panetta faced questions from Democrats and Republicans alike about President Obama’s intention, hastily announced in April, to cut $400 billion from national security spending over the next 12 years. Unfortunately, Panetta seemed to have little concrete information about the president’s plans.

What Panetta was willing to say, however, was that such defense cuts should not be undertaken lightly. Asked whether he agreed with outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about their potential impact, Panetta said:

I share his concerns. I share his concerns about the possibility of hollowing out our force. I think that would be a terrible mistake. I share his concern about some kind of automatic, across-the-board cuts and just, you know, implementing some kind of formulaic approach to cutting defense, when we have to look at each area, determine where we’re going to achieve savings in order to protect defense.

“To protect defense.” That wouldn’t be a bad motto for Panetta to adopt during his tenure at the Pentagon. It’s not something that was accomplished the last time Panetta was involved in decisions about defense spending. When he served in the White House during the Clinton administration, the Pentagon was forced to go on a “procurement holiday” that left it unprepared when the expected post-Cold War peace dividend failed to materialize. Panetta acknowledged at his hearing that the Clinton approach “might not have been the best way to achieve those savings.”

Almost two decades later, a Democratic president is once again entertaining the prospect of deep defense cuts. And this after the experience of 2009 and 2010, when defense was treated differently from the rest of the federal government. Gates pruned away at his department while his cabinet colleagues ladled on more gravy. Now we face an ever more uncertain strategic landscape. American men and women in uniform are engaged in military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Who knows what the future holds in Yemen or Somalia​—​or elsewhere in the Middle East? Iran, already a menace to our allies in the region, is approaching a nuclear weapons capability. And a rising China increasingly challenges us in Asia.

Despite all of this, President Obama still appears unwilling to protect defense, even as he continues to protect the programs that are the true source of our fiscal woes​—​entitlements and runaway domestic spending.

As we have pointed out before on this page, America now faces a “period of consequences,” like the one Churchill predicted in the 1930s as he warned that Britain was increasingly unprepared for the challenges that lay ahead.

Speaking to the House of Commons in 1935, Churchill said:

One would imagine, sitting in this House today, that the dangers were in process of abating. I believe the exact contrary is the truth​—​that they are steadily advancing upon us, and that no one can be certain that a time may not be reached, or when it will be reached, when events may have passed altogether out of control. We must look at the facts. Nourish your hopes, but do not overlook realities. .  .  . It would be folly for us to act as if we were swimming in a halcyon sea, as if nothing but balmy breezes and calm weather were to be expected and everything were working in the most agreeable fashion. By all means follow your lines of hope and your paths of peace, but do not close your eyes to the fact that we are entering a corridor of deepening and darkening danger, and that we shall have to move along it for many months and possibly for years to come.

Fresh from what seems to have been responsible leadership of the CIA in fighting the nation’s covert wars, Leon Panetta will not, we trust, be inclined to overlook the reality of the deepening dangers ahead. But there will be pressures to cut, including from members of Congress of both parties seeking to avoid, or to make more palatable, hard decisions elsewhere. And the example of his commander in chief, cavalierly announcing $400 billion in defense cuts for political purposes, with no justification and no rationale, isn’t encouraging.

Panetta’s confirmation hearing came as reports emerged that the bipartisan deficit commission, led by Vice President Joe Biden, is considering cuts that go up to or even beyond the president’s $400 billion. Responsible members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, will resist such proposals, which could be catastrophic to our nation’s security. We hope that Panetta will, too.

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