Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, once a deficit hawk, has led a full-throated… (Melina Mara/Washington…)
The last time the Pentagon was forced to shrink, two decades ago, one of its nemeses was a determined deficit hawk named Leon E. Panetta.
As chairman of the House Budget Committee and later as budget director in the Clinton administration, Panetta was an unforgiving enforcer of the bottom line as the United States grappled with record-size debts. As the largest government agency, the Pentagon found itself a frequent target of his whip, especially as it struggled to justify its missions in the aftermath of the Cold War.
“I think the most dangerous threat to our national security right now is debt, very heavy debt, that we confront in this country,” Panetta lectured then-Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a hearing in 1992. “I don’t question anything you’re saying in terms of the role that this country ought to perform. My problem is how the hell are we going to pay for it?”
Today the shoe is on the other foot. After directing the CIA for 21/2 years, Panetta took over the Defense Department in July, shortly after President Obama said he would reduce national security spending by as much as $465 billion over a decade.
A month later, Congress and the White House announced a much heavier potential blow: as much as $600 billion more in defense cuts unless a special congressional committee can agree by December on another way to reduce the deficit.
Panetta, 73, knew the first hit was coming, but the second left the Pentagon in shock. The military brass had seen its annual budget roughly double since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and was unprepared for a decade-long reversal of fortune.
Since then, Panetta has led a full-throated campaign to resist what he says would be a “catastrophic” setback for national security. He has called the prospect of the extra $600 billion in cuts “a disaster” and a “crazy doomsday mechanism” that would “hollow out” the military with “a goofy meat-ax approach.” He has implied that he might quit if the Pentagon isn’t spared, saying: “It will not happen under my watch.”
His sharp rhetoric — including suggestions that lawmakers cut Social Security and Medicare instead of squeezing more out of the Defense Department — has turned heads in Washington, where some former colleagues wonder what happened to the exemplar of thrift they used to know.
“Apparently a mind-meld was performed on him, maybe while he was at the CIA,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who said the Pentagon budget deserves a buzz cut. “Panetta used to boast about the accomplishments that he’s now demonizing. It’s just excessive. I cannot rationally explain it.”
In an interview, Panetta said he remains devoted to fiscal discipline. The Pentagon, he noted, has demonstrated that it is willing to sacrifice for the good of the country by accepting the first round of cuts.
But taking away $600 billion more, he said, would force an immediate and deep reduction in the armed forces when the United States is still at war in Afghanistan and confronting terrorists, Iran, North Korea and other threats.
“Frankly, my fundamental beliefs have not changed,” said Panetta, the first Democrat to lead the Pentagon since William J. Perry resigned in 1997. “Throughout the 40 years I’ve been in Washington, I’ve always worked hard, particularly with regards to the budget issues. Frankly, I never thought that this country would be careless enough to put itself into deep deficits again and have to face all of these difficult choices that we’re facing now.”
When he ran the House Budget Committee, Panetta was an instrumental player in the deficit-control pact that Democrats negotiated with George H.W. Bush in 1990, forcing the president to renege on his “Read my lips: no new taxes” oath. Three years later, Panetta was the architect of President Bill Clinton’s first budget, which was bitterly contested but led to years of surpluses.
As budget director, Panetta worked out of an office near the White House that had been formerly assigned to the secretary of war. He ruthlessly held agencies to their spending targets. When Defense Secretary Les Aspin complained that the Pentagon had been shortchanged $50 billion, Panetta dressed him down in public. Aspin, already wobbly after a series of other missteps, resigned soon after.
Panetta’s approach won him few friends in the Defense Department. In December 1993, syndicated columnist Jack Anderson wrote that Aspin’s replacement as Pentagon chief would have to confront a “daunting array” of adversaries: “North Korea, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Somali warlords, Haitian military rulers and Leon E. Panetta.”
Panetta said he was just doing his job at the Office of Management and Budget, carrying out orders from the top.