Leon Panetta, President Barack Obama’s choice to replace Robert Gates as defense secretary, faces a grilling Thursday from the Senate Armed Services Committee, and senators will have plenty to ask him about.
Panetta, currently serving as CIA director, is expected to win easy confirmation to take over when Gates retires June 30. He will face lots of unfinished business Gates is leaving behind, including the Afghanistan troop withdrawals and the need to make deep cuts in Pentagon spending.
“The stakes are potentially quite high,” said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense-oriented think tank.
Here are the five issues at the top of Panetta’s list.
Once confirmed, Panetta, a former White House chief of staff, will most likely need to help mediate a dispute among administration officials over how many of the nearly 100,000 troops to begin pulling out of Afghanistan next month.
Some officials, backed by Vice President Joe Biden, are reportedly considering a large withdrawal, perhaps as much as the entire force of 30,000 troops that were “surged” into Afghanistan over the past 18 months. They have a lot of cover from members of Congress concerned about the increasing cost and wary of public fatigue over a war now in its 10th year: A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday showed 73 percent of Americans want a substantial withdrawal this summer.
But military leaders worry that taking too many troops out of the fight too fast will threaten gains made over the past year, and Gates is backing them up on his way out the door. “We have the momentum. We have succeeded in stopping the Taliban’s momentum. … But we’ve just kind of turned that corner, and I think we need to keep the pressure on,” he told Marines during a visit Monday to Kandahar province, a longtime Taliban stronghold that has become more peaceful over the past year.
Panetta said in response to a committee questionnaire obtained by The Associated Press that he supports a “responsible” military withdrawal based on battlefield conditions and largely backs the Pentagon line that current security gains are “fragile and reversible.”
2. Cutting the Pentagon budget
Defense analysts saw the choice of Panetta as a sign that Obama is serious about squeezing an additional $400 billion out of the Pentagon and other security agencies over the next 12 years — on top of cuts the president already proposed in his fiscal 2012 budget. Panetta’s experience as Office of Management and Budget chief and House Budget Committee chairman could help him find savings where Gates was unwilling to go.
Panetta, in his responses to the committee, said he expects “difficult choices” will need to be made. That’s an understatement. When Gates last month ordered a review of Pentagon spending in response to Obama’s call, he said nothing would be held sacred. But he made clear that Congress and the president will have to assume the risk and decide what to cut.
Among the savings likely to be most contentious: military benefits, such as health care; expensive weapons systems, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; a proposed new ballistic missile submarine; and a change in strategy to reduce the U.S. military presence in some parts of the world.
The stalemate between Muammar Qadhafi’s forces and rebels has pushed the “days, not weeks” Obama promised for U.S. military involvement into months and has created a simmering problem that flares at inconvenient times. Congress is getting antsy about the fact that Obama never sought authorization for the operation, as the War Powers Act requires. The House has adopted a resolution demanding information about U.S. goals in Libya and barring the deployment of ground troops there. Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee asked the Senate on Wednesday to do the same amid growing congressional opposition to U.S. involvement.
Gates never liked the operation. He said last weekend that the decision to launch it was his biggest disagreement with Obama.
Now, Panetta has to help figure out an endgame for a $1 billion mission for which the ultimate goals exceed the commitment and resources to carry them out. “I think it’s just a matter of time before Qadhafi goes,” Obama said Tuesday. But on Wednesday, NATO leaders again made clear they won’t force him out. Meanwhile, Qadhafi, who celebrated his 69th birthday Tuesday, has vowed to fight to the death.
4. Ending “don’t ask, don’t tell”
It’s showtime for one of Obama’s signature initiatives — and one that Gates also championed. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen last week said the military is on track to meet its goal to certify this summer its readiness to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly. Certification would trigger a 60-day waiting period before the law Congress passed last December can be put into practice.
House Republicans are still steaming over the repeal, but they’ve gotten no help from the service chiefs, who have pledged to follow the law. Still, military leaders don’t expect the process to be problem free, and Panetta will have to endure any “I told you so” comments from lawmakers and activists who have warned about possible negative effects on military readiness.
Panetta — who supports ending the ban — also will have to deal with pro-repeal activists upset that gay service members are still being discharged from the military. If certification doesn’t occur before he takes office, expect them to push him to get it done quickly.
“Is this going to happen on Secretary Gates’s watch? The answer seems to be maybe not. And that leads to the question, why not?” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, one of the leading groups pushing to repeal the ban.
5. The Iraq endgame
Under Gates, Obama moved toward fulfilling a campaign promise to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year, but the country’s fragile political and security environment puts at risk nearly 10 years of U.S. efforts to stabilize it.
Both Gates and Mullen have hinted to the Iraqis that time is running out for an agreement to keep U.S. troops there past the expiration of the current deal. Iraqi military leaders have expressed interest in a long-term U.S. presence, but Iraqi political leaders — pushed hard by anti-American and nationalist elements in the governing coalition — are wary of an extension.
Both Gates and Mullen will be gone by Dec. 31, so the decisions will largely fall to Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Obama’s nominee to replace Mullen. The big question is whether there’s a desire in the United States to maintain a significant presence in Iraq. Incidents such as the deaths of five U.S. troops Monday in a rocket attack on their Baghdad base will keep Americans wondering: What if something goes wrong?
As Panetta confronts these challenges, he also will have to decide whether he represents a significant change from Gates, who has also served as CIA director. Some analysts have referred to Panetta as a “status quo” choice who won’t shake up the Pentagon bureaucracy or radically alter its direction.
“He didn’t do that with the CIA,” said James Carafano of The Heritage Foundation. “Even if he wanted to do that [at the Pentagon], the politics aren’t going to let him.
“The danger for Panetta is: What happens if things go really south?”
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