What's The Matter With Leon Panetta?
Posted by Michael Cohen
This past Friday, President Obama announced that he would be sending 100 combat equipped soldiers to Central Africa to help the governments of the region combat the Lord's Resistance Army, which is a particularly nasty and nihilistic terrorist organization that operates along the Ugandan border. It's a pretty straightforward intervention and one that is even codified in US law.
Yet here is what Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had to say about it in an interview with CBS News:
Pelley: Did you have reason to believe that this part of Central Africa was becoming a haven for terrorism?
Panetta: There are elements there that either have ties to al Qaeda or that represent the forces of terrorism on their own. And that's what's dangerous.
Why Leon, why?
The United States is not sending troops to Central Africa to combat al Qaeda (at the very least that's not what the President of the United States told Congress about why he was sending troops to Central Africa). The al Qaeda presence in the region is at best, infinitesimal. Going after the LRA with 100 non-combat US troops should be defensible on its merits without some silly Al Qaeda angle thrown into the mix. So why would Panetta make a comment like this? It all has the odor of a transparent effort bolster the domestic case for military intervention by linking it somehow to terrorism and al Qaeda.
In isolation this gaffe would not be a huge deal, but it fits a disturbing pattern of misstatements and overblown rhetoric from Panetta. Back in July in his first trip overseas as Secretary of Defense he said that the US was in Iraq because of al Qaeda and 9/11; he also pledged to keep 70,000 US troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014. The latter is in contradiction of US policy that was announced by President Obama only a month before and the former is in contradiction of the truth.
On the issue of keeping US troops in Iraq beyond the December 31, 2011 departure date Panetta has taken the odd approach of publicly negotiating with the Iraqi government in public - a surefire way to prevent any deal from actually occurring.
But it's on defense spending where Panetta has really gone off the deep end -- taking on maximalist, almost apocalyptic, positions including calling potential cuts "catastrophic," "draconian" "doomsday"-inducing and akin to America "shooting itself in the head." This tracks with he said in August, when he wrote only days after the hard fought debt limit deal was signed that automatic cuts to the DoD budget "would undermine the military’s ability to protect America and its vital interests around the globe" and that such a move would "do real damage to our security." This is bizarre hyperbole, particularly sincePanetta hasn't identified a single way in which these cuts will "hollow" out the US military.
In fact, as Ben Armbruster pointed out recently when pushed to identify what risks would come from these reductions in current military spending (a fiscal outlay that far surpasses US spending during the Cold War) the best example that Panetta could point to was that the US presence in Latin America and Africa would have to be reduced. And why? Because according to Panetta the US would need to maintain a presence in the Middle East and the Far East.
It's funny that sounds a bit like "prioritizing" - no wonder it was so confusing to the head of the Defense Department.
In a speech last week at the Woodrow Wilson center Panetta offered a litany of "threats" that continue to face the United States, "terrorism, nuclear proliferation, rogue states,cyber attacks; revolutions in the Middle East, economic crisis in Europe, the rise of new powers like China and India." It reads a bit like the Pentagon's current greatest hits.
According to Panetta, "all of these changes represent security, geopolitical, economic and demographic shifts in the international order that make the world more unpredictable, more volatile and, yes, more dangerous." That these words are practically identical to the ones spoken by Mitt Romney at the VFW convention in August are disturbing enough; that by any appreciable measure the world today is far less dangerous than any point in recent history only compounds the strategic incoherence of Panetta's statement.
I asked Bill Hartung, who is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy and a defense budget expert how he would rate the absurdity of these comments on a scale of 1 to 10 . . . his response was 12. And Hartung should know - he served on the Sustainable Defense Task Force which outlined about one trillion dollars in defense cuts over ten years that would NOT turn the military into a hollow force.
If one wants to argue that defense cuts will be bad for US military preparedness and national security that's obviously an appropriate argument (even if it is, in my view, wrong). But Panetta has gone far beyond that, employing scare tactics, fear-mongering and apocalyptic warnings to make his argument. Worst of all by suggesting that its not defense spending that should be cut, but rather entitlement spending like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security he's basically siding with Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill and undercutting the President and Democrats in Congress who are currently negotiating with Republicans about additional cuts to the budget.
It's not enough that Panetta is using inflammatory rhetoric to make his case for preserving the Pentagon's bloated budget; he's also feeding Republicans the attack lines they can use against Democrats if defense cuts do actually occur.
All of this seems at pace with a Sec Def who seems preternaturally focused on making sure everyone at the Pentagon likes him. Whatever one thinks of Robert Gates tenure at DoD he at least occasionally demonstrated the ability to speak some difficult truths to the military. Panetta, on the other hand, seems more inclined to offer chest thumping and flag-waving.
As Spencer Ackerman devastatingly pointed out last week his recent speech to the AUSA convention was a pander-ific performance that glossed over the reality of austerity politics and pledged that significant cuts in the DoD budget will "not happen on my watch.”
And then there was this, "This nation needs an Army that can deter any potential aggressor — an expeditionary Army able to deploy to distant battlefields and, upon arrival, decisively overwhelm any enemy land force,” Panetta said. “And if an enemy does challenge us in a conventional land war, we need an Army that can, as General George Patton used to say, ‘Hold the [enemy] by the nose and kick them in the ass.’” To listen to Panetta talk about the the threats facing the United States, the importance of a big ass-kicking Army and the need "to make sure that rising powers understand that the United States still has a strong defense" you'd think that either Panetta has been asleep for the past ten years or Max Boot is now writing his speeches.
It is almost as if Panetta is so desirous of approval from the military brass that he is going out of his way to sound as tough as he possibly can. Indeed, when he was in Iraq over the summer even the Washington Post remarked on his "salty" language and occasionally martial tone with the troops.
I understand that a new Secretary of Defense wants to be respected in the building, but Panetta is taking this way too far - and trying way too hard.
Of course there's another explanation for Panetta's obsequiousness - he is deeply inculcated by the notion that Dems are vulnerable on national security and they must do a good job of seeming "tough" enough to run the military. After all, who can forget this priceless Panetta quote captured in Bob Woodward's "Obama's Wars" about Obama'sfall 2009 review of Afghanistan policy:
He told other principals, "No Democratic President can go against military advice, especially if he asked for it." His own recommendation would be, "So just do it. Do what they say." He repeated to other key White House officials his belief that the matter should have been decided in a week.
If one didn't know better (and there really is not much reason to suspect otherwise) Panetta is another in a long list of Democrats whose inclination is to approach national security issues through the narrow prism of domestic politics. His public statements sound like those of a Democrat too insecure to talk sensibly about the future of the US military and national security policy.
Panetta is the first Democrat to be Secretary of Defense in more than 14 years he should start behaving like it, rather than a caricature of how Democrats are supposed to act on foreign policy and national security.