Stay the course — that was the message CIA Director Leon Panetta, President Barack Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, brought to the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing Thursday.
“If confirmed, my number-one job will be to ensure that America continues to have the best-trained, the best-equipped and the strongest military in the world to ensure that we remain protected,” he said. “We are no longer in the Cold War. This is more like the blizzard war — a blizzard of challenges.”
Panetta, the first Democrat nominated for the post in nearly 20 years, stressed in his testimony that he would maintain many of the policies he would inherit from his predecessor, Robert Gates, who was originally nominated by President George W. Bush and plans to retire June 30. Panetta’s careful answers were designed to reassure senators concerned about the unfinished business Gates is leaving behind, such as the coming withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and looming Pentagon budget cuts.
“Director Panetta’s nomination to be secretary of defense represents change, but brings an impressive level of continuity as well,” committee chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said.
Added John McCain of Arizona, the committee’s top Republican: “One of the key criteria we should be looking for in a secretary of defense is continuity.”
Panetta is expected to win easy confirmation, and was careful not to risk that standing. In written answers to prepared questions from the committee, he largely followed the existing Pentagon line that progress in Afghanistan is “fragile and reversible,” and any withdrawal of U.S. troops should be based on conditions on the ground.
When pressed, he said the decision on how many troops to withdraw will be made by Obama based on recommendations from Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
“I have confidence that General Petraeus and the president will make the right decision,” he said.
Panetta, a former Office of Management and Budget director, promised he would apply his experience to ensure that Obama’s call for $400 billion in savings from national security spending will not jeopardize the nation’s safety. The White House has not said how much of that savings would come from the Pentagon, but the department likely would bear the largest burden.
Gates has ordered a review to identify ways of meeting the president’s demand but has expressed concern about budget pressures on U.S. military capabilities and warned that the latest round of cuts would force contentious choices about military benefits and strategies, among other things.
“I do not believe … that we have to choose between strong fiscal discipline and strong national defense,” Panetta said.
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