Panetta promises Gates 2.0 at Pentagon

Leon Panetta signaled that his agenda as Pentagon chief would track closely with that of his predecessor Robert Gates, during confirmation testimony Thursday before a Senate panel full of admirers of the outgoing Defense secretary.

Numerous times during his confirmation appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Panetta aligned himself with Gates, the man he would replace at the Department of Defense. 

Panetta, a former White House budget director expected to help President Obama trim the Pentagon’s spending, offered few details of how he will lead the vast department. Instead, his strategy was to put members at ease by suggesting Pentagon policy would remain consistent with that of Gates.

With congressional and public support souring for the Afghanistan operation, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMulvaney aims to cement CFPB legacy by ensuring successor's confirmation Trump mocks McCain at Nevada rally Don’t disrespect McCain by torpedoing his clean National Defense Authorization Act MORE (R-Ariz.) pressed the nominee on how many U.S. troops he thinks can be removed this year.

McCain pushed Panetta on whether he agrees with Gates’s push for a “modest” drawdown.

At first, Panetta said only that he “agrees with the president’s statement” that the coming partial pullout will be significant. He then said he has yet to form an opinion on how many troops should be pulled out.

At one point McCain said that seeking his opinion on Gates’s stance “is not inappropriate.”

Embedded in Panetta’s reply was this line: “He and I generally walk hand in hand on these matters.”

Panetta also sounded Gates-like in issuing a warning to the Pentagon’s vast bureaucracy, which senators said would fight his attempts to begin carrying out Obama’s desired $400 billion in national-security cuts over 12 years.

The nominee said it is his belief that the only way to manage such an entity is through “focused, hands-on management,” noting that kind of management style “is the only way I know how to do business.”

What’s more, Panetta referenced the internal DoD budget-trimming efforts and hardware program moves Gates made in the last few years.

“Those are reforms I intend to carry on,” the current CIA director vowed. 

Panetta also spoke of bringing “discipline” to Pentagon budgeting, again striking a Gatesian tone. 

 Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate defense aide now with the Heritage Foundation, said, “The confirmation hearing playbook used by Mr. Panetta was to borrow heavily from Secretary Gates’s positions on tough questions and managing the department.

“The rest of the time, he simply deferred to President Obama’s positions in matters of foreign policy,” Eaglen said.

“Panetta is signaling that he will stick with the Gates priorities, but fiscal and political pressures could preclude that,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute and industry consultant. “The longer Panetta stays, the more likely it is he will develop convictions different from those of Gates.”

Gates proved an expert manager of the Pentagon bureaucracy and its many processes, firing program managers, relying on small groups to make decisions and using budget gag orders. 

“The big question is whether Panetta will be able to get things done the way Gates could,” Thompson said. “The answer to that question could hinge on whether his deputy is a strong manager.”

 Panetta, in at least two exchanges with senators, also quoted his own father in summarizing his philosophy about national defense: Freedom requires security.

On Afghanistan, Panetta provided the panel his definition of what the U.S. objective there is, nearly 10 years in: “The fundamental mission is to provide sufficient stability so [that nation] is never again a safe haven” for al Qaeda and similar groups.

Obama administration officials and lawmakers in the last week have begun to describe goals for the Afghanistan operation that are diminished from an earlier vision of a clear U.S. win and development of a fully functional Afghan democracy.

 Lawmakers from both parties are increasingly pushing for a sizable U.S. troop withdrawal this year. Many have cited concerns about the escalating costs of the military and nation-building operations, which have produced limited returns.

 The House late last month narrowly defeated an amendment to a Pentagon policy bill that would have required the removal of all American forces.

 On Iraq, Panetta told the panel “it is clear to me” that a request from Iraqi officials to keep some U.S. forces there beyond this year “will be forthcoming.” Under an existing pact, all U.S. military forces must leave this year.

 The defense industry was listening intently for any indication of the next secretary’s stance on Obama’s envisioned national security cuts.

 Panetta kept his cards close, saying he agrees with his predecessor’s wishes that the reductions be strategy-focused and designed to avoid creating “a hollowed force” like the one created by 1990s Pentagon cuts.

 Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate left in limbo by Trump tweets, House delays Senate moving ahead with border bill, despite Trump GOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border MORE (R-Texas) noted Panetta was OMB chief when those cuts were made. The nominee shot back that his tasking was to provide the Defense Department “a number” to cut, but what was cut “was a decision that was made at the Pentagon.” 

 For good measure, Panetta noted those Clinton-era Defense cuts were necessary to reach agreement on a balanced federal budget pact with a Congress that was then controlled by the GOP.

Alarms about his budget comments came quickly from conservatives.

“Mr. Panetta seemed to predetermine the outcome of” a just-launched presidentially ordered national security review “to justify up to $400 billion in defense cuts by saying he didn’t think it would result in additional risk,” Eaglen said. “Panetta basically said the $400 billion goal of defense spending cuts as part of deficit reduction is a done deal.”