As has been rumored for some time now, President Obama is expected to announce this week his decision to appoint Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta to replace Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The move comes as part of a significant restructuring of the president’s security team. General David Petraeus will reportedly replace Panetta at CIA, General John Allen will replace Petraeus, and Ryan Crocker will replace Karl Eikenberry as US Ambassador in Kabul.
Gates has been on his way out for some time now and will officially depart this summer, leaving behind some big shoes to fill, in more ways than one. Above and beyond Gates’ admirable legacy, Panetta will face the issues left behind: Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya on top of a massive deficit and impending defense cuts. The job won’t be an easy one.
Choosing Panetta, former head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), signals the president’s commitment to taking a hard look at the Pentagon budget at a time when few, certainly not the Republican leadership, are even willing to offer it up for discussion.
Panetta will be the first Democrat in the post since William J. Perry left at the end of Bill Clinton’s first term. Panetta’s long history as a Democratic congressman, impressive budget track record, and close connection with the ongoing wars make him uniquely suited to the job. He was no doubt chosen for his close connections with both the White House and Capitol Hill.
But beyond the credentials, here’s my honest two cents: I’ve heard rumblings of discontent from those who fear Panetta may not take a big enough ax to the Pentagon’s budget. There is not, in my honest opinion, a SecDef on earth that would cut Pentagon spending the way some would like… Panetta represents a choice who is highly informed on budget issues, coming into the position with a goal, clearly set out by the president, to cut the budget. To me, that’s great news.
A bigger ax is not always better. The Pentagon budget has grown without restraint, and as Gates said, the “gusher” has to be turned off. But this isn’t just a spigot that can be quickly turned in the other direction. What is needed now is someone to take a very close, responsible look at where the waste lies, conduct an audit, a comprehensive review, and make a well informed decision about the security of the United States. This will, no doubt, involve cuts, but the strategy has to come before the math.
Again, I don’t mean to use the phrase in the same way Gates did. His comments during the ongoing budget debates in congress were directed at those who wanted to cut more than he did no matter the cut, something that is equally irresponsible. Though Gates made great strides in cutting inefficient and wasteful programs, there are, no doubt, more than a few left over. The new SecDef’s job is to find those programs, and if any realistic candidate for the job can and will, this is the one.