- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Defense Secretary-designate Leon E. Panetta faces an early test when he takes office July 1, as the White House pushes for deeper cuts in defense spending and congressional Republicans say no way.

Whichever way Mr. Panetta goes, the Pentagon will see a change in style.

Though outgoing Secretary Robert M. Gates is a career civil servant who served Republican and Democratic presidents, Mr. Panetta, currently the CIA director, is a career Democratic politician who knows 2012 is crucial for President Obama politically.

Panetta was a pleasant surprise at the CIA,” said Loren Thompson, who directs the pro-business Lexington Institute. “The Pentagon is a much bigger place, and nobody expects him to stick around long enough to figure it out.

“I think the priority mission for Panetta is to get the president re-elected — making sure, as under Gates, the Pentagon is not a problem for a campaign that is focused elsewhere.”

With the first stage of the reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan settled this week and the drawdown in Iraq continuing, Mr. Panetta’s tenure may be dominated by the budget.

Mr. Gates‘ last budget is now before Congress. At $670 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, it cements program cuts he made in Mr. Obama’s first years.

But the president wants more — about $40 billion a year through 2023. Those types of deep reductions would debut in Mr. Panetta’s first budget, which will be formulated this fall and sent to the White House and then Congress in February.

James Carafano, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said achieving those kinds of cuts is unlikely, despite White House rhetoric.

“First, there are left and right limits,” he said. “On the one hand, Obama has waved a hand and says he wants cuts, but much of those can and will be pushed to out-years.

Panetta will be faced with readiness concerns, and the fact there are no more easy procurement cuts or [Gates-ordered] ‘efficiencies.’ So its not clear that Panetta can do much on that front.”

With major decisions on Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya settled, Mr. Panetta “has two tough years of trying to square the circle. Basically he’ll just try to be the ‘good soldier’ for the president,” Mr. Carafano said.

At his June 9 Senate confirmation hearing, Mr. Panetta pledged: “My No. 1 job will be to ensure that America continues to have the best-trained, the best-equipped and the strongest military in the world in order to make sure that we protect our country.”

On Capitol Hill, Democrats are pushing for defense cuts in ongoing debt-reduction talks with the White House and Republicans. Most Republican members oppose draining the Pentagon, citing harm done to the armed forces in the post-Vietnam 1970s and the post-Cold War 1990s.

If Mr. Panetta signs on to the White House’s smaller military blueprint, he will face a brawl with the GOP.

Joe Kasper, a spokesman for House Armed Services Committee member Duncan Hunter, California Republican, asserted: “Mr. Hunter says no to defense cuts. But if any reductions make it into whatever agreement should come out of the negotiation, there will definitely need to be some type of analysis on potential impact to national security and global operations.

“National security needs to be viewed through a long-term lens. While it might be tempting to thin the defense budget in the interest of furthering discretionary budget savings, there are direct consequences with doing that.”

Said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican: “Proposing to cut defense spending by nearly $500 billion in the coming decade without first conducting the necessary due diligence to determine what our nation’s basic defense requirements will be is an invitation to other countries to challenge America’s supremacy.”

In a political party lacking a national security star [the Pentagon has been run by Republican secretaries since the Clinton administration], Mr. Panetta emerged at CIA as a strong Democratic voice for defending America.

Mr. Panetta, who turns 73 on Tuesday, pushed his officers abroad to take risks in battling al Qaeda. In Washington, he argued for more aggressive airstrikes on terror suspects in Pakistan and Yemen.

It was Mr. Panetta’s CIA who found Osama bin Laden holed up in a walled compound in Pakistan, where Navy SEALs killed the al Qaeda leader.

Mr. Panetta begins work at a much larger institution. There are nearly as many workers at the Pentagon alone as the roughly 30,000 CIA officers and analysts. He will oversee 2.2 million uniformed active and Reserve troops and a complex, multibillion-dollar acquisition system.