With military at ‘turning point,’ defense chief Leon Panetta avoids bold moves


Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s approach reflects a management style that throughout his career has placed a premium on consensus over major reforms and collegiality over bold thinking, said officials who have worked with him. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)
September 3, 2012

For most of the past year, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has stressed that the vast military complex over which he presides is at a “strategic turning point.”

A decade of grinding guerrilla war is drawing to a close. Defense budgets are shrinking. The implication is that major changes are coming to the military.

So far, however, Panetta has cut few major weapons programs and steered clear of any bold moves aimed at remaking the military for this new era. The watchword for Panetta’s tenure, senior defense officials said, has been “humble.”

“He’s told the service chiefs to be humble in their predictions of warfare,” one senior official said.

Panetta’s approach reflects a management style that throughout his career has placed a premium on consensus over major reforms and collegiality over bold thinking, said officials who have worked with him. “He has always run a happy, productive shop,” said former ambassador James Dobbins, who worked closely with Panetta in the Clinton White House.

Because he has not spent his career in the national security realm, Panetta has tended to rely more heavily on the Pentagon’s top generals for advice than his predecessors did, senior military officials said.

In an interview describing his defense strategy, Panetta said he has helped craft an approach that hedges bets against a range of potential enemies. “It really does provide maximum flexibility,” he said. “The military is going to be smaller, but it is going to be more agile, more flexible and more deployable so that it moves fast and stays on the cutting edge of technology.”

Panetta’s vision is notable for some of the big questions left unanswered. A highly touted promise to shift the military’s focus to Asia has produced little in the way of major new deployments. Nine months after it was unveiled, there is scant evidence of how it will be implemented.

“This is a time when you would expect an intense focus on where we want to go and what we want to be,” said Andrew Hoehn, a senior vice president at the Rand Corp. and a former Pentagon strategist. Hoehn said such a debate does not appear to be happening inside the Pentagon or in the presidential campaigns, which have largely ignored national security issues.

Although the war in Iraq has ended and troops are being withdrawn from Afghanistan, Panetta has not pressed the ground forces to conduct a tough and detailed examination of their performance in the two long and costly wars, said Eliot Cohen, a military historian at Johns Hopkins University and an adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign.

In recent years, Army and Marine Corps officers have tended to blame their struggles on the State Department and other federal agencies, which were unable to provide the necessary help to rebuild the war-torn countries’ governments and economies.

Cohen said the finger-pointing has prevented the ground services from acknowledging their own shortcomings, such as their inability to produce a core of experts in the culture, politics, history and languages of the two countries where they have spent most of the past decade fighting.

Panetta said he would like to see the military do more in this area. “I think we have to look at the lessons that we draw, particularly from these last 10 years of war,” he said. “I’m not satisfied. I think more needs to be done.”

The Obama administration’s defense strategy, meanwhile, plays down the likelihood of the military fighting major counterinsurgency wars in the coming years. To that end, Panetta has ordered the Army to shrink to about 490,000 soldiers by 2017, a reduction of about 80,000 that will leave the force slightly larger than it was before Sept. 11, 2001.

A leadership contrast

A surprise pick to run the CIA in 2009, Panetta had spent most of his career as a congressman from California and a deficit hawk in the Clinton administration, including a stint as White House chief of staff.

Even after 21 / 2 years at the CIA and 14 months at the Pentagon, Panetta’s speeches tend to steer clear of the kinds of detailed policy prescriptions and tough questions that were routine under Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, his immediate predecessor.

“Do we really need 11 [aircraft] carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?” Gates asked a Navy audience in 2010. He also challenged the Marines to consider whether, in an era of increasingly precise cruise missiles, they would be called upon again to storm an enemy’s shore — a question that cuts to the core of the Marines’ identity. Gates’s goal was to encourage lower-ranking officers to challenge military pieties.

By contrast, Panetta sometimes sounds more like a congressman representing the “Pentagon district” than the leader of the world’s largest military. He talks frequently about his parents, who immigrated from Italy. And he regularly rails against the possibility that the Pentagon will have to absorb $500 billion in automatic cuts if Congress cannot agree on how to trim $1.2 trillion in government spending. The cuts, triggered under an arcane process known as sequestration, would come on top of an already mandated $487 billion in reductions.

“It’s mindless, and it will . . . do incredible damage to our national defense,” Panetta said last month in a speech in New York.

As he did during his days as a congressman, Panetta spends most weekends in California, commuting home on a military jet at a cost of more than $800,000 as of this spring, the latest figures available.

In the interview, Panetta played down the value of speeches that question the military’s most prized programs or press its officers to embrace new or unpopular ideas.

“I don’t think it’s smart to challenge the services publicly,” he said. “My style has always been to basically work with a team and have everybody feel part of the team.”

Generals approve

The Pentagon’s top generals say they appreciate Panetta’s less-confrontational style.

“Gates was trying to challenge all of us,” Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, said in an interview. “Secretary Panetta just operates differently. He has been very transparent with the chiefs and allowed us to participate much more than we have in the past.”

Panetta’s backers note that he is leading the Pentagon at a different time than Gates, who presided over a growing defense budget and could afford to raise tough questions without worrying that they would be used as fodder for cuts.

Panetta also faces a greater array of threats than did Gates, whose time in the Pentagon was dominated by Iraq and Afghanistan.

The current list of crises stretches from growing unrest in Syria and Iran’s nuclear ambitions to a new leader in North Korea and rising tensions between China and its neighbors around the South China Sea. He’s overseeing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan amid unrelenting Taliban attacks.

“For the first time in a decade, the urgent priority mission is not staring us in the face,” said Michele Flournoy, who recently stepped down as the Pentagon’s top policy official.

Panetta acknowledged the challenge of confronting myriad threats in an era of diminished resources. But he rejected criticism from those who say he lacks a vision or hasn’t pressed hard enough for change.

“What kind of world are we going to be dealing with in the future?” he asked. “I think it’s going to look a lot like what we’re looking at now.”

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