Leon Panetta's Conventional Wisdom

The outgoing secretary of defense wasn't terrible, but he turned an uncritical eye on U.S. defense policy.

Despite a rough confirmation hearing, former Republican senator Chuck Hagel is likely to be confirmed as secretary of defense. Thus will end the public career of Leon Panetta, who also served as CIA director, White House chief of staff, director of the Office of Management and Budget and member of Congress.

His experience at OMB led some to hope that he would lead the Pentagon into a new world of limited resources. But he turned out to be a reincarnation of Ronald Reagan’s first Defense Secretary, Caspar Weinberger. Known as “Cap the Knife” from when he headed OMB, Weinberger turned into “Cap the Shovel,” promoting a large-scale military build-up even as deficits rose dramatically.

Unfortunately, Secretary Panetta has similarly used his influence and bully pulpit for ill. The most important issue facing the Pentagon today is how to operate with less money. September 11 sparked a global campaign against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, two lengthy wars and several more limited operations. Military outlays exploded.

The wars are winding down and al-Qaeda is much weakened. We have seen how an aggressive, interventionist military policy creates more enemies than it kills. And Washington’s fiscal position has collapsed. Even Panetta acknowledged that “We’re facing a huge budget crisis in the country.” Military outlays must be reduced.

Yet rather than propose reasonable cuts, he engaged in scare-mongering, proclaiming that we “cannot maintain a strong defense for this country if sequester is allowed to happen.” Even though America would retain the world’s most advanced and powerful military and remain allied with every major industrialized state other than China and Russia, Panetta warned that reductions would “decimate defense” and “totally hollow out the force.”

He also told Congress that the cuts would “undermine our ability to meet our national security objectives and require a significant revision to our defense strategy.” Yet such a revision is long overdue. He worried that the cuts would reduce America’s “ability to be … engaged around the world” and “ability to support the Afghan war.” However, the collapse of hegemonic Communism and rise of allied states should reduce America’s role and U.S. participation in the Afghan war should cease. Military spending is the price of our foreign policy, and the price today is far too high.

Panetta also publicly opposed accelerating America’s exit from one of its longest and least-justified wars, Afghanistan. The shift from counterterrorism to nation-building in Afghanistan came very early under President George W. Bush and failed to deliver honest and competent governance in Kabul.

Yet last year Panetta declared: “I do not believe that there is any reason at this point to make any changes with regards to our strategy and for the process of drawing down.” He also promised to “stay the course.” Finally, he gave the most clichéd answer of all: “I think because of those that have paid the price for this war we owe it to them to stick to this mission and get it finished.” But that means more Americans must die for a tragic mistake.

At least Panetta last year suggested a faster shift away from combat. Even so, while supporting the end of America’s combat mission in 2014, “it does not necessarily mean an end to all combat for U.S. forces,” Panetta emphasized. In pointing to Iraq as a model for America’s exit from Afghanistan, he nevertheless failed to express what he hopes will be a long-term if not permanent military presence.

Unfortunately, Panetta did not appear to learn any lessons from the lengthy debacle in Iraq. After the extended conflict following America’s unnecessary invasion, he lobbied to keep U.S. personnel stationed there. Yet residual force would not have limited Iranian influence, and American troops likely would have become the target of the rising violence in Iraq today. They would have been especially vulnerable if Washington attacks Iran.

Panetta’s final judgment on Iraq was striking: “I really think that most Americans really feel that regardless of why we got into this we’re leaving with our chins held high, that we have really given this country an opportunity to be able to not only govern itself, but to enjoy the hope of democracy.” After Americans endured tens of thousands of casualties, triggered bloody strife within Iraq, and empowered Iran, he concluded that “all of us have to feel good about what’s happened.”

The debacle in Iraq had no evident, or at least public, impact on his willingness to use force against Iran. “If they continue and if they proceed with a nuclear weapon, we have options that we are prepared to implement to ensure that that does not happen.” As a red line he declared that “we cannot allow them to develop a nuclear weapon.” He repeated the mantra “we’ll keep all options, including military action, on the table to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon” at last year’s AIPAC conference.

Even more striking, he admitted that there was no imminent threat. “Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us.” He never explained why this possibility warranted war, how such a weak state even with a few nuclear weapons could endanger the United States, and why Tehran could not be contained. He never contemplated the possibility that constantly threatening the Iranians with death and destruction might increase their interest in developing a nuclear deterrent.