CQ WEEKLY – IN FOCUS
Nov. 27, 2011 – 5:08 p.m.
Panetta: Strategizing for Defense
By Megan Scully, CQ Staff
When asked at a recent news conference whether he believed the National Guard Bureau chief should become a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary
“This guy” on his immediate left was Gen.
Panetta’s quick and accommodating response drew chuckles from the media. But it’s a statement that underscores the strategy he has used during his first several months on the job to assimilate himself into the culture at the Pentagon and among hawks on the Hill. He has accomplished that by siding repeatedly with the military brass on policy issues andactively cultivating strong relationships with both the Republican and Democratic leaders of the congressional defense committees.
As a result, in his nearly five months on the job, Panetta has forged a broad coalition, whose support will be key as he implements a plan to cut defense spending by a projected $450 billion over the next decade. Those cuts — with another nearly $500 billion on the way as a result of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction’s inability to devise a deficit-cutting plan — will force the Pentagon to face hard realities about the military’s operations and plans. The choices could, however, also put him at odds with this new coalition of allies, forcing difficult choices between defending the military community he runs and backing the president he serves.
Employing the same strategy that won him friends at the CIA during his directorship, Panetta moved early at the Pentagon to demonstrate that he is in sync with the generals and admirals, including his opposition to the Guard chief’s promotion. He has also trod carefully on delicate matters such as the recent revelations on the mishandling of the remains of dead servicemembers at Dover Air Force Base, taking a diplomatic, rather than aggressive, management approach.
An eight-term House member, Panetta ingratiated himself with defense-oriented lawmakers by becoming an impassioned spokesman in the campaign to prevent deeper cuts to the Pentagon budget. He even went so far as to tell the House Armed Services Committee that Obama agreed with him, although the White House had not yet weighed in publicly on further defense cuts.
In doing so, Panetta has won over unlikely political allies, including conservative Republicans.
The first real test of Panetta’s influence as Defense secretary may come as a result of the joint committee’s failure. McKeon and others want to overturn the so-called sequestration scheduled for January 2013, but Obama has pledged to veto any bill that undoes those cuts.
Despite his concerns that the cuts would jeopardize the nation’s security, Panetta has backed the president, saying in a statement last week that Congress should avoid “an easy way out of this crisis.”
“Congress cannot simply turn off the sequester mechanism, but instead must pass deficit reduction at least equal to the $1.2 trillion it was charged to pass under the Budget Control Act,” he said.
Without the backing of military leaders and key lawmakers, Panetta’s job would be far more challenging as defense budgets decline — a fact that the secretary, a skilled politician and an expert in budgeting, knows better than almost anyone.
Panetta: Strategizing for Defense
“He’s not just your ordinary congressman,” says Dov Zakheim, former Pentagon comptroller. “He knows his budgets inside and out. So he’s got to balance his budget cutting with support from the military, which is why I think he’s being as vocal as he is and why he is working the Hill.”
Even with that support, his job won’t be easy at all. “When you tell people they have to change, they don’t want to hear that,” says Jacques Gansler, a former Pentagon procurement chief who is now a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. “It has to be done with skill.”
‘Dealing With an Ax’
McKeon acknowledges that he was skeptical when Obama first named Panetta to be the next defense chief. What jumped immediately to mind, McKeon says, was the Clinton-era drawdown in defense spending that Panetta oversaw as chief of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
“I thought, ‘Oh, gee. I’m dealing with an ax,’” McKeon says.
But the chairman’s concerns were quickly assuaged by assurances from Panetta that he didn’t take the top job at the Pentagon to hollow out the defense budget.
Since then, the two men have met numerous times, including a recent dinner at the Pentagon with the most senior members of both parties on the Armed Services panel. McKeon credits Panetta with taking the initiative to build a close relationship with lawmakers, calling his outreach efforts nothing short of extraordinary.
“I think he’s just a great, stand-up guy,” McKeon said in a recent interview. Then, realizing how effusive his praise for Panetta had become, McKeon stopped himself. “I don’t want to get him in trouble with the White House,” the California Republican said sheepishly.
During his first five months on the job, it appears Panetta is taking a page from his own playbook at the CIA, where he quickly became an unwavering advocate for the agency and relied heavily on the advice of veteran officials and lawmakers with decades of experience on the issues. In turn, he won the loyalty of an intelligence community that had initially bristled when Obama first chose him to take over the agency.
As he did at the CIA, Panetta has initiated daily meetings with senior civilian and military officials, including Dempsey, during which he seeks updates from them and takes their pulse on a range of national security issues.
“He believes it’s important to discuss the issues of the day, discuss problems, have situational awareness about what may be coming down the pike,” says a senior Pentagon official who works closely with the secretary and requested anonymity.
Panetta’s rhetoric on the budget cuts — including calling the looming $500 billion in additional across-the-board cuts “catastrophic” — has grabbed headlines and given heft to the charge against them led on Capitol Hill by McKeon and other hawks.
But with budgets declining at the Pentagon after a decade of wartime increases, some observers wonder whether Panetta may need to abandon his nice-guy approach to shake things up at a Pentagon and among defense hawks reluctant to change.
Panetta: Strategizing for Defense
Charles Battaglia, a former staff director of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee and executive director of the 2005 base-closing commission, questions whether the Pentagon needs a tougher hand to force difficult decisions. Comparing Panetta’s track record at OMB and the CIA with his time at the Pentagon, Battaglia says Panetta becomes “captured” by an organization and immediately goes to bat for it.
“Obviously he’s got to stand up for Defense,” Battaglia acknowledges. But he also stressed that the new secretary’s approach may not be helping matters.
Doomsday scenarios of the effects of further cuts to the Pentagon budget as laid out by Panetta and senior military officials fail to acknowledge that the military has survived previous — and far more severe — drawdowns, Battaglia says. The secretary, he says, needs to take a realistic look at the military’s future strategy and requirements and make some decisions that could draw strong and heated opposition from his new coalition.
“I hope that he’ll face up to that here,” Battaglia says.
The Pentagon official argues that Panetta is making the difficult choices. But, for Panetta, the process must involve conversations inside the department, as well as with the White House and Congress.
Once the Pentagon develops the overall strategy, decisions will be made on where to cut — and some people, including some of his allies on the Hill, will not be happy.
“He is eyes-wide-open when it comes to the politics of the defense budget,” the official says.
McKeon acknowledges that there may be some fights ahead with Panetta, particularly once Congress gets the details on which accounts the Pentagon wants to cut. Members of his committee already are frustrated by cuts to weapons systems and other defense accounts made by Panetta’s predecessor,
“I can guarantee you we will have differences of opinion,” McKeon says. “What I want to do is maintain the relationship so we can discuss it in a professional way.”
On the surface, Panetta’s approach at the Pentagon has differed from that of Gates, who still was popular on Capitol Hill and among military leaders despite a far more aggressive management style than Panetta has shown so far.
In March 2007, less than three months into his tenure as Defense chief, Gates quickly fired Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey over news of grossly substandard conditions for patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In June 2008, he sacked Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and the service’s chief of staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, over high-profile nuclear-related blunders.
The firings demonstrated Gates’ no-nonsense approach to management, as well as his low tolerance for headline-grabbing mistakes, and reminded the military who ran the department.
Panetta: Strategizing for Defense
By comparison, no one has been sacked yet over the grisly news at Dover despite a report by the independent Office of Special Counsel blasting the Air Force investigation into the matter. Instead, Panetta has ordered an independent review of overall operations to evaluate changes that must be put in place at the mortuary. He has also directed Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley to determine whether the service’s disciplinary procedures were adequate.
McKeon doesn’t disagree with Panetta taking some time to look into the problems at Dover, saying that firing people as a gut reaction isn’t necessarily the right way to go. On the other hand, he says, the Pentagon shouldn’t “take forever gathering all the facts.”
Panetta’s ultimate response to Dover could be a test of his management and a pivotal moment in his tenure as Defense chief. Will he call for more accountability, a move that will show a tough-love and take-charge approach? Or will he avoid fracturing his coalition, place his full faith in military leaders and back the Air Force’s response?
“You have to investigate. The question is, once the investigation is over, what happens?” Zakheim says. “Nobody’s going to call him indecisive if heads roll after an investigation. But if nobody’s head rolls, we’ve got a problem here, I think.”
FOR FURTHER READING: Supercommittee, p. 2490; Pentagon’s many missions, CQ Weekly, p. 2435; past drawdowns, p. 2262; sequestration in debt limit law (PL 112-25), p. 1754; Panetta at CIA, 2009 CQ Weekly, p. 1196.