Panetta cements his legacy with lifting of female combat ban

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s decision to end the ban on women in combat this week has helped cement a legacy at the Pentagon that will long out-live his tenure there.

Lifting the ban is likely the final act in Panetta’s four-decade career in government service that began under the Nixon administration.

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Panetta signed the order Thursday along with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey to potentially open up hundreds of thousands of new positions to women, in what was described as a historic culture change for the military.

Defense analysts said that lifting the ban could be viewed as the culmination of a decades-long shift opening up military service to everyone, which began with President Truman’s order to de-segregate the military after World War II.

Explaining the rationale for the change, Panetta looked toward the future and talked about the opportunities he wanted his for his grandchildren.

“When I look at my grandsons and my granddaughters — I've got six grandchildren, three grandsons and three granddaughters — I want each of them to have the same chance to succeed at whatever they want to do,” Panetta said at the press conference announcing the move.

“In life, as we all know, there are no guarantees of success. Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier. But everyone is entitled to a chance.”

The end of the ban comes at the tail end of Panetta’s tenure at the Pentagon, as he prepares to retire to his California walnut farm and President Obama has already nominated his successor, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).

Panetta won’t be ushering in the changes — they won’t begin until May — but it still could be what’s remembered most about his relatively short 18-month tour as Pentagon chief, which has been focused on budget cuts and a new military strategy. The end of the ban also follows the implementation of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which has largely occurred without incident on Panetta’s watch.

“These are two of his major legacies I think he will be quite proud of leaving the department,” said retired Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“Those are very big deals … this one in a lot of ways will have a bigger impact on the force because it’s been such a longstanding tradition in some ways,” Barno said.

Some critics have questioned the timing of the move — as Panetta will almost surely be gone by the time the military service chiefs submit their plans for implementation in May — and suggested he was pushing the move with a legacy in mind.

“This was a stunt,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

“The fact that he didn’t do any due diligence on the Selective Service… isn’t that a question one would ask?” Pletka said, referring to Panetta’s comments that he didn’t know who would decide whether women now had to register for the draft.

Senior defense officials, however, emphasized that Panetta has been working on this issue for more than a year along with the service chiefs, who unanimously signed off on ending the ground combat ban.

“This was not a snap decision by the secretary of Defense,” a senior defense official told reporters Thursday.

Doug Wilson, a former assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs, said the end to the ban on women in combat roles had been under discussion for the past couple of years was a decision “whose time had come,” regardless of who's in charge.

But he credited Panetta's leadership for its warm reception.

“You haven't seen a lot of blowback on the women in combat decision, you didn't see a lot of blowback on the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and its aftermath, and you did not see a lot of blowback on the strategic guidance decision that framed $489 billion in mandated cuts. All of those had remarkable consensus,” Wilson said.

“And I think the common element was that you had a secretary of Defense who made clear that while he was in charge, he was going to make sure that every stakeholder had his or her say.”

It may be too soon to say where lifting the ban on women in combat will rank among Panetta’s accomplishments in his government career.

Panetta began as a Republican in the Nixon administration, where he resigned as director of the Office of Civil Rights over enforcing civil rights laws. He later switched parties and became a Democratic congressman, eventually chairing the House Budget Committee.

Under the Clinton administration, Panetta was director of the Office of Management and Budget and White House chief of staff for the second half of Clinton’s his first term.

Before he was Obama’s secretary of Defense, Panetta was a surprise pick to be the president’s first CIA director, where he oversaw the operation to kill Osama bin Laden.

The news that the ban was being lifted caught many by surprise this week, including advocates who have argued for years it should be ended. Greg Jacob, policy director at the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), said his organization was gearing up to fight a lawsuit filed last year along with the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge the ban.

Since the news became public, there’s been an outpouring of praise from military advocates for female service members, Democrats and many Republicans.

There’s also been some caution and opposition expressed surrounding the implications of the ban ending, but it’s been nowhere near the level of concern that surrounded the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“Given the almost uniformly positive reaction, Panetta picked the right issue and right timing on this, not only for his own legacy but for President Obama and Senator Hagel too,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It will go down as an important decision.”

— Julian Pecquet contributed.