Shadow Government

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Panetta’s contradiction

For months, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been warning in the starkest possible terms that the $600 billion in defense spending cuts will be catastrophic.  He has said they will do irreversable damage to America’s defenses, even invite aggression.  Which makes it all the more curious that Panetta has also fully endorsed President Obama’s commitment ...

TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images
TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images
TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

For months, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been warning in the starkest possible terms that the $600 billion in defense spending cuts will be catastrophic.  He has said they will do irreversable damage to America's defenses, even invite aggression.  Which makes it all the more curious that Panetta has also fully endorsed President Obama's commitment to veto any effort to prevent those cuts from occurring.

Panetta attempted to explain the contradiction by suggesting the problem isn't the cuts themselves, but the process by which they are to be determined: "When there's a mechanism like sequestration, which is this kind of blind meat-ax approach to putting that in place if you don't do the right thing, there's something wrong ... if it happens, it could do lasting damage, obviously, to defense policy in this country. And it will."

For months, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been warning in the starkest possible terms that the $600 billion in defense spending cuts will be catastrophic.  He has said they will do irreversable damage to America’s defenses, even invite aggression.  Which makes it all the more curious that Panetta has also fully endorsed President Obama’s commitment to veto any effort to prevent those cuts from occurring.

Panetta attempted to explain the contradiction by suggesting the problem isn’t the cuts themselves, but the process by which they are to be determined: "When there’s a mechanism like sequestration, which is this kind of blind meat-ax approach to putting that in place if you don’t do the right thing, there’s something wrong … if it happens, it could do lasting damage, obviously, to defense policy in this country. And it will."

His explanation is disingenuous.  The sequestration provides DOD a topline spending figure, not a blueprint by which the department brings itself into alignment with its budget.  The Secretary of Defense has wide latitude to determine where to make cuts and develop a strategy to secure White House and Congressional support for his priorities.  It is the Secretary of Defense’s job to run a process of determining where to accept risk in the defense program.  The Secretary’s ability to lead that process inside the Defense Department and to effectively promote the defense program to the Congress that provides its funding hinges crucially on whether he can persuade both the military and the Congress he has rightly assessed the nature and magnitude of threats we face and the seriousness of his program for addressing them.

Panetta is badly corroding his credibility by claiming that the cuts will destroy our defenses but that he supports making the cuts.  Advocating both these positions ought actually to disqualify him from continuing at the helm of the Defense Department.  If Panetta oversold the threat of cutting so severely in to defense spending, he should recant his earlier positions and provide a substantive explanation why he now believes the budget strictures required by sequestration are manageable.  If he continues to believe the proposed cuts endanger American security, he ought to challenge whether those cuts should be enacted.

Which is it?  Either the cuts are catastrophic and must be avoided, or the president should veto any attempt by Congress to prevent them taking effect.  Panetta cannot have it both ways. 

UPDATE:  George Little, Pentagon press secretary, responds:

"I read your blog with interest, particularly because it contains basic errors.  First, the sequester mechanism does require the Department of Defense to make across-the-board cuts.  You suggest that the Secretary would have wide discretion if those cuts were to kick in.  He wouldn’t.  Second, the Department has already agreed to more than $450 billion in cuts over ten years.  We can achieve those hard-but-manageable savings by prioritizing our budget decisions based on sound strategy.  If we move to sequestration, which would add another $500-$600 billion in cuts to the Department, we wouldn’t be able to make decisions based on sound strategy.  We’d be forced by the Budget Control Act to slice the defense budget across the top.  That’s certainly no way to make the right choices for our national defense."

Schake responds: 

I didn’t say the sequester would mean no across the board cuts, but that the Secretary would have latitude in deciding where in DOD to take those cuts.  The topline is what is affected, not DOD’s choice about where inside its budget to take the cuts.  I also didn’t say that DOD hadn’t taken earlier cuts.  If the Secretary can’t make a sound defense strategy and accompanying program, he shouldn’t support the President’s refusal to veto any changes that would reduce DOD’s sequester cuts.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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