The counterargument is that, unlike Robert Gates, Panetta doesn’t have the credibility to get the Defense Department to accept serious cuts. This seems both perfectly plausible to me and completely insane. No one asks whether the Department of Health and Human Services will accept budget cuts, or whether the Labor Department is willing to downsize. But the Pentagon gets treated differently. Whereas most federal agencies simply had to make their peace with the federal government’s increasingly equal treatment of gays and lesbians, the military held onto Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for decades, and a core part of the Obama administration’s strategy to overturn it was getting the military to produce a report showing that overturning it wouldn’t be a problem. Unlike other agencies, which could never have gotten away with demanding that gays hide their sexuality, it wasn’t until the military gave us the go-ahead that DADT could be abolished.
There’s something about the way we defer to the military on military matters in ways that we don’t defer to other agencies on their areas of expertise that makes me very, very uncomfortable. If moving Panetta to the Defense Department is the Obama administration’s first step in treating the Pentagon more like every other agency, that’s a good thing indeed. But I wouldn’t be shocked to see articles in a few years explaining how the Pentagon easily resisted the latest round of cuts and it was foolish of Obama to put Panetta there in the first place.