Commentary

Leon Panetta’s Conventional Wisdom

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.

The most important issue facing the Pentagon today is how to operate with less money.”

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.

Panetta also failed to press for major economies in military spending where they could be most easily achieved: Europe. Nowhere is the free ride on U.S. military power more ludicrous. The members of the European Union possess a combined economy and population greater than that of America, yet trail the U.S. in military outlays and even more so in effective military power. The Europeans even dragged America into an unnecessary war in Libya because they lacked the resources to properly prosecute it.

Europe is capable of handling all conceivable threats, including from Russia, but has chosen not to since it can rely on Washington. Although Secretary Panetta repeated his predecessor’s complaints about anemic European defense efforts, reductions continue even in the militaries of the largest European states—Britain, France and Germany. And no amount of whining from Washington is going to change that.

Yet after Europe made clear its lack of enthusiasm for defending its own nearby interests, Panetta advanced the idea of a NATO “pivot” to Asia: “I strongly believe that Europe shouldjoin the United States in increasing and deepening defense engagement with the Asia-Pacific region.” He may also believe in the tooth fairy.

Despite Washington’s fiscal straits and the demonstrated tendency of allies to take advantage of America’s defense free ride, Panetta pressed to “rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region” by enhancing the U.S. presence in Asia, adding ships and introducing U.S. Marines to Australia—enough to irritate but not enough to deter China.

Regional politics has grown more turbulent with conflicting territorial claims throughout the South China Sea and Sea of Japan. Unfortunately, ill-prepared U.S. allies, most notably Japan and the Philippines, are seeking American military backing to enforce their disputed sovereignty over rocks of peripheral value. Yet it was Washington’s defense guarantee which for years encouraged these nations to under-invest in their militaries and avoid defense cooperation with their neighbors.

At the same time, Panetta made the preposterous claim that the “pivot” had nothing to do with containing Beijing. “Our goal is to work closely with all of the nations of this region to confront common challenges and to promote peace, prosperity, and security for all nations in the Asia-Pacific region,” he declared. As for China, Panetta added: “I think it is in both our nations’ interest to work toward a healthy, stable, reliable and continuous military-to-military relationship.”

But when he told an audience in 2011 that “We will play an essential role in promoting strong partnerships that strengthen the capabilities of the Pacific nations to defend and secure themselves,” it was obvious from whom he thought they needed to be defended. The Chinese are not so stupid as to believe that an American military buildup along their borders is just an attempt to, say, promote cultural exchange among naval personnel. And the more Washington appears to threaten Beijing, the harder the latter will work to develop forces capable of deterring American intervention in what China sees as its affairs.

As if these wars and potential wars were not enough, Panetta appeared to fully support the drone-dominated de facto wars in Pakistan and Yemen. Indeed, on his watch the role of drones steadily expanded. When asked about the sovereignty of those nations, he responded that “This is about our sovereignty as well.” Although drones are a cheap and convenient mode of war, he confronted none of the important challenges they pose: the morality of killing noncombatants, legality of presidential killings and consequence of increased hostility to America. There may be answers, but he failed to give them.

Leon Panetta has been no worse than the average defense secretary and is better than the worst of them—Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld on his second go-around, for instance. Panetta may have faced significant constraints from his boss, but there is no evidence that he ever tried to be a transformational chief. His failure to accommodate a rapidly changing world will be Leon Panetta’s most important, and most disappointing, legacy at the Pentagon.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.