Micah Zenko

Offensive Maneuver

Why does Leon Panetta hate democracy?

Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images
Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images

Once upon a time, at the end of significant and sustained global military commitments, the White House sought to reduce a defense budget that had been awarded steady increases year after year. Ordered to make cuts by a White House-Congress budget summit agreement, the Pentagon undertook a series of reviews to adjust the U.S. military’s role in a transformed international environment. The National Military Strategy determined: "The real threat that we now face is the threat of the unknown, the uncertain. The threat is instability and being unprepared to handle a crisis or war that no one predicted or expected." The secretary of defense further warned that the United States still faced "[a] world that is full of instability, where there are threats and challenges to a stable world."

Despite its newfound concern over uncertainty, instability, and the unknown, the Pentagon’s updated military strategy allowed for a 25 percent reduction in defense spending over a five-year period. With the federal budget deficit having increased more than 50 percent over the preceding half decade, certain members of Congress sought even larger defense cuts of 40 percent over five years. During a contentious hearing, one of those congressional members — the House Budget Committee chairman — warned that "The days of big spending, free-wheeling defense budgets are clearly over." To which the secretary of defense fired back: "We’ve already cut the living daylights out of the defense budget, Mr. Chairman."

Sound familiar? Readers with long memories will recognize the year and the players: 1991, and the fight was between Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and House Budget Committee Chairman Leon Panetta over the first post-Cold War defense budget. Cheney won, and Pentagon spending was reduced by 25 percent over five years.

Today, the White House and congressional Republicans are racing to find an agreement to avoid sequestration, which would mandate $492 billion in defense cuts — roughly $55 billion per year — from fiscal years 2013 through 2021. This would be in addition to the $487 billion in lower spending that the Pentagon proposed over the same period. Even if sequestration is avoided, there reportedly will be limited additional reductions in U.S. military spending — cuts that many analysts and defense contractors believe are inevitable.

Like Dick Cheney 21 years ago, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has engaged in an exhaustive effort to avoid both sequestration and any further reductions in the Pentagon’s budget. The distinction between Panetta and his predecessors, however, is in the tactics he has employed to protect his bureaucratic turf. Panetta has belittled the process of deliberative democracy, told Congress how it should reduce the federal debt, and declared that the Pentagon cannot survive another penny in cuts.

Panetta has attacked the legislative branch of government for refusing to pass the defense budget that he requested on the timeline that he requires. In doing so, he compared service members’ "extraordinary examples of courage and sacrifice" to members of Congress who lack the "political courage" and "political guts" to avoid sequestration and pass defense authorization bills. As he declared in November 2011: "Dammit, if there are men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to be able to defend this country, then surely there have to be elected leaders who are willing to make the tough choices that are important to solving the problems in this country." 

According to Panetta, America’s elected leaders are not only cowards, they are national security threats. In August he noted: "Frankly, we also face the threat to our national security from a gridlocked political system that is unable to solve the serious problem that confronts this country." Last week, he further remarked: "I have to tell you one of the most disturbing things that I talk about — one of the national security threats is the question of whether or not the leaders we elect can, in fact, govern." This is an absurd and dangerous charge, and one that Panetta should answer for if he ever appears before Congress again. Panetta acts as if it is his role to provide oversight of Congress, rather than the other way around.

Another Panetta tactic is telling Congress exactly what federal spending should be cut, singling out entitlements — 90 percent of which go to the elderly, the seriously disabled, or members of working households. Starting with his first appearance before the House Armed Services Committee, he instructed Congress: "If you’re going to be responsible in dealing with the deficit, you have got to consider the mandatory programs." Two weeks ago, he offered: "I think the responsibility now, both Republicans and Democrats, has to be to look at the entitlement area, what savings can be achieved on entitlements." He also said, "I want to see some progress with regards to both entitlements as well as on revenues."

Imagine if Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius — whose fiscal year 2013 budget request is less than 15 percent of Panetta’s — told Congress that it should tackle the federal debt by eliminating the bomber leg of the nuclear triad? Just as nobody would take her serious for offering her opinion on federal spending outside of her agency, Congress should ignore Panetta.

Underlying Panetta’s instructions to Congress is his belief that there is no excess defense funding. In February, when asked by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad if there were any additional cuts he could imagine, Panetta replied: "What we have put in place I think represents an important step that we should stick to." Last week he declared: "My view right now is that we have done our part with regards to deficit reduction. And I sure don’t intend to put anything additional on the table." The Pentagon’s acquisition czar recently echoed Panetta, warning: "There aren’t a whole lot of things left in the budget that we can cut."

Panetta repeatedly offers two justifications for why the Pentagon cannot tolerate additional budget cuts. The first is that — just as Robert Gates did before him — Panetta directed the military to conduct "ongoing and new efficiency initiatives," which led to the $487 billion in suggested reductions. This purported act of self-sacrifice belies the fact that every federal agency receiving discretionary funding conducted an internal, "strategy-driven" review to identify where they could cut spending. The truth is that military spending grew 70 percent in the 10 years after 9/11, and equals 57 percent of federal discretionary spending. If the White House and Congress decide to reduce the federal debt through additional discretionary spending cuts, the defense budget will have to be included.

The other justification from Panetta — that I and others have noted — is the chronic habit of threat inflation. Unlike predecessors such as Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who primarily warned about "unknowns" and "uncertainty," Panetta’s catalogue of nightmares thickens in accordance with his time spent in the E-Ring and now ranges from the specific ("cyber Pearl Harbor") to the imprecise ("the whole issue of turmoil in the Middle East" and "turmoil elsewhere") to the non-existent ("the nuclear threat in Iran"). In public remarks at the Center for a New American Security last week, he used the word "threat" 30 times.

While decrying Congress for "poor stewardship and poor leadership," it is worth considering Panetta’s performance over pressing problems within the Pentagon under his watch and authority: sexual assaults of service members have continued to increase, as have suicides and discharges of senior uniformed officials for ethical lapses. Secretary Panetta has ordered Pentagon-wide reviews to counter these disturbing trends, and he speaks out against the military culture that allows them to continue. However, if leadership is "the acceptance of responsibility for an outcome," as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, defines it, then Panetta has failed.

Among his many selfless contributions over six decades of public service, Leon Panetta was the House Budget Committee chair, White House chief of staff, and director of the Office of Management and Budget. Today, however, he is the secretary of defense, and under the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, he is empowered to be "the principal assistant to the President in all matters relating to the Department of Defense," with "authority, direction, and control over the Department of Defense." These are monumental tasks for any one person, and rather than disparaging elected leaders and calling for cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, Panetta and his successors should dedicate their attention to seeing them through.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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