At his confirmation hearing Thursday, Secretary of Defense nominee Leon Panetta faced questions from Democrats and Republicans alike about President Barack 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 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.”
The last time Panetta was involved in decisions about defense spending he served in the White House during the Clinton administration when 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 President Bill Clinton approach “might not have been the best way to achieve those savings.”
Almost two decades later, a Democratic president is again entertaining the prospect of deep defense cuts. And 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. No one 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.
Fresh from what seems to have been responsible leadership of the CIA in fighting the nation’s covert wars, 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.
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 Panetta will too.
For when Panetta takes the oath as our 23rd secretary of defense, he won’t swear to support and defend his president or his former colleagues in Congress. He’ll swear that he’ll “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and that he “will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office.”
That means protecting defense.
Jamie M. Fly is the executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. William Kristol is the editor of The Weekly Standard, where this article appeared.