That warning came from Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta Thursday night at a dinner sponsored by Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, which had just given him its Eisenhower Award for excellence in leadership.
He called the dysfunction “a political crutch” and “not a part of the American spirit.”
Behind Panetta’s remarks is the frustration he feels looking at the current political deadlock in Congress over deficit reduction. He has been there before — as chairman of the House Budget Committee, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and chief of staff at the White House.
“One thing that I’ve learned over my career is that governing requires people coming together to get things done, not to pound their fists on the table and stand in the way,” he told an audience that included present and former government officials, members of Congress, defense industry representatives and dozens of college students.
The Obama administration’s defense strategy and budget now before Congress, Panetta said, came after tough internal Pentagon negotiations among senior military officers from all the services, who realize the budget crisis required compromises on personnel levels and weapons programs. No service got all it wanted or thought it needed. That proved, Panetta said, “it’s still possible to forge consensus and take the long-term view at the highest levels of government”
Panetta concluded by recalling that the nation got through World War II with “the greatest generation”; one lesson from Eisenhower, he said, was that “the service and sacrifice of a single generation can leave all of us a better life.”
He referred to today’s all-volunteer military, which for more than 10 years has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan as the “next greatest generation of Americans.”
“Surely, if this next greatest generation is willing to take the risks necessary to keep America safe, our political leadership should be willing to take the risks necessary to solve the problems facing this nation,” Panetta said.
Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates, last December gave the same type of lecture, in which he talked about Washington’s short supply of “civility, mutual respect, putting country before self and country before party, listening to and learning from one another, not pretending to have all the answers and not demonizing those with whom we differ.”
Gates, too, talked about politicians’ inability “to sustain bipartisan strategies and policies needed to address our very real and serious problems.”
There must be something good in the Pentagon’s water.