Leon Panetta’s confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense begin as the Pentagon – and our core security and defense objectives – face significant transition. Solid ground has been gained in the in the fight against al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders have been killed, their networks have been disrupted and experts assess the continuing threat to be “real, but not catastrophic.” Meanwhile America’s military, which has fought admirably for a decade, remains engaged in multiple wars and is in need of a sustainable strategy. Budgetary pressures and the demand for stronger civilian partners demand a strategic long-term review and hard choices about role and mission. This is an important time for effective leadership at the Pentagon.
Appearing before Congress yesterday, Secretary Gates again took up the cause of defense budget reform. Gates singled out two major weapons systems: the costly F-35 alternative engine and the outdated C-17. He urged Congress to cut funding for these systems or risk a presidential veto. This builds on the reform efforts begun at the beginning of the Obama administration, and continued by Gates throughout the year when he took such steps as firing the F-35 program manager and withholding $615 million intended to be awarded to Lockheed. At the same time, defense policy experts agree that Pentagon spending - which has skyrocketed in recent years - remains in need of major reform.
It is the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief to ask the tough questions and challenge our military and civilian bureaucracies to look past their own perspectives to provide the best answers. Even as these important debates continue, prominent neoconservative pundits remain bent on blasting the Administration for ‘dithering’ on its strategy. Not only does this reckless commentary ignore the complex reality of Afghanistan – one that can’t be reduced to an exclusive focus on troop numbers – but it runs against the emerging bi-partisan consensus that the President has behaved shrewdly in taking a deliberate approach to his strategy.
Yesterday Secretary Gates said the handover of security to Iraqi forces was going smoothly and that the withdrawal of U.S. forces could potentially be accelerated. Gates’ comments indicate that the U.S. is well on its way to removing its combat forces in accordance with the 19 month timeline outlined by President Obama and the Status of Forces Agreement signed by President Bush.It is now up to Iraq’s political leaders to do theirs. A strategy that progressives have promoted for more than four years – and which have come to have broad bipartisan support – is quietly moving forward
The White House issued its first veto threat yesterday, telling members of Congress that the president would not approve a defense budget containing wasteful Cold War-era weapons. President Obama and Secretary Gates are attempting to move the Pentagon in a direction that better prepares and equips our forces for both the challenges they are in and the 21st century challenges they are most likely to confront. After eight years of the Bush administration not making any tough choices, the Obama administration has laid out a strategy, set its priorities, and is making the tough tradeoffs.
This past weekend, two of America’s foremost experts on defense and security issues came out in full support of the President’s plans to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center. General Petraeus, CENTCOM commander, said that the detention center hurts our ability to maintain the moral high ground, harms our counterinsurgency efforts and serves as a major terrorist recruiting tool. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a career intelligence and defense official who has dealt with imprisoning terrorists for 20 years, said this past Monday that the U.S. has imprisoned terrorist suspects many times and conservative opposition amounted to “fear mongering.” The statements from Petraeus and Gates reflect a growing consensus among former senior officials, military officers, and national experts that Guantanamo must be closed. Yet conservatives continue political attacks that argue that closing Guantanamo will bring terrorists into our backyard and that its symbolic damage to America’s image is irrelevant.
Over the last eight years the defense acquisition process has deteriorated dramatically. 95 percent of the Pentagon’s major weapons programs are running two years behind schedule and $300 billion over budget.