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.”
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.”