Panetta faces challenges on spending, Afghanistan war

Leon Panetta will begin what is expected to be a swift confirmation on Thursday with testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Panetta, a former Democratic congressman from California who is the director of the CIA, is widely respected by members of both parties, and his confirmation faces few doubts.

That doesn’t mean his leadership of the Pentagon does not come with questions and challenges.

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Panetta is a former budget director in the Clinton administration, and one of his primary jobs at the Pentagon will be to reduce spending. That could put him at odds with lawmakers in the House and Senate, as well as Pentagon leaders.

He also has a tough act to follow in Defense Secretary Robert Gates, considered one of the best Pentagon leaders in history after serving both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, who asked Gates to stay on because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Gates found savings in the Pentagon’s budget in the last year, but has made it clear that additional deep cuts could hurt the nation’s armed services. 

Obama picked Panetta to lead the Pentagon because of his experience in helping President Clinton in the budget wars of the 1990s, but he faces a different dynamic more than a decade later. Record deficits have put the U.S. credit rating in question, and military leaders have said U.S. debt is itself a national security concern. 

At the same time, after a decade-long ramping-up of the military following the Sept. 11 attacks, it will be difficult to turn things around. House appropriators recently produced a spending bill for the Pentagon well below Obama's budget request, but it would actually increase spending year-on-year.

Panetta also faces a challenge in unwinding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The CIA has been heavily involved in counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, giving Panetta knowledge of the conflict likely to dominate much of his work for the rest of the year.

The administration is moving to withdraw troops from Afghanistan amid growing fatigue in Congress and with the public over the decade-long war. At a Wednesday confirmation hearing for Ryan Crocker, Obama’s nominee to serve as ambassador to Afghanistan, officials signaled goals for the conflict are being redefined.

Building an Afghanistan that is “a shining city on a hill … is not going to happen,” Crocker told the Foreign Relations panel. Instead of trying to fashion a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan, Crocker said, the goal should be “sustainable stability.”

Crocker was hesitant to declare definitively whether even that kind of progress is within reach. “I think we can get to sustainable stability,” said Crocker, who described progress in the country as hard but not “hopeless.”

Crocker testified to lawmakers whose patience with the war was wearing thin even before the release of a report Wednesday by Democratic staff on the committee that suggested most of the $18 billion the U.S. has spent on foreign aid and nation-building in Afghanistan has had little effect.

Armed Services will begin the open part of Panetta’s confirmation hearing Thursday morning before a closed-door session in the afternoon.