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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Panetta’s Farewell Warning: Do Not Let U.S. Become ‘Another Failed Empire’
Panetta’s Farewell Warning: Do Not Let U.S. Become ‘Another Failed Empire’
By Sandra I. Erwin



After running the Pentagon for nearly 20 months, the nation’s 23rd defense secretary, Leon Panetta prepares to bid farewell and, in one of his final speeches in office, issued a bleak warning about the state of the nation.

It was less than two years ago when Panetta’s predecessor Robert Gates took his parting shot at Washington by urging the political establishment to fix the nation’s fiscal problems so the United States can remain a superpower.

Things have only gotten worse since Gates charged Congress to get moving. And Panetta clearly acknowledged so in a speech Feb. 6 at Georgetown University.

Gridlock and “partisan dysfunction” in the political system now threaten “our quality of life, our national security, our economy, and our ability to address the problems confronting the nation,” Panetta said.

Among the challenges the United States faces, he said, are grappling with record debt and deficits, global warming, worldwide poverty and pandemics, terrorism, Iran and North Korea, rising hostile powers, turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and a rising wave of cyber attacks.

“How we confront these problems will in many ways determine the future course of America,” Panetta said. “It will determine whether the United States will be a leader in the 21st century or just another failed empire in history.”

Economic resilience and the strength of diplomatic and military institutions are essential to the nation’s future success, he said. But, above all, it is the “effectiveness of our political system that underpins everything we do as a country.”

Echoing the frustration he has expressed many times during his tenure, Panetta blamed a culture of “government by crisis” for the current fiscal problems that are crippling the Defense Department and undermining the U.S. military.

“It has become too politically convenient to allow crisis to drive the issues. … You create an aura of constant uncertainty that pervades every issue and [this malaise] gradually undermines the credibility of the nation,” said Panetta. “My greatest concern today is that we are putting our national security at risk by lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis.”

Looming across-the-board spending cuts scheduled for March are the latest chapter of a long saga that began when the Budget Control Act was passed in August 2011. Since then, Panetta said, the Defense Department and other agencies “have been living under a serious shadow – the shadow of sequestration.”

Before this melodrama spun out of control, the Pentagon already had been taking steps to cut spending, Panetta reminded the audience.

“After a decade of blank check defense spending, the leaders of the department – the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the service chiefs, service secretaries, and myself – strongly believed that we could meet this challenge to reduce the defense budget while still maintaining the strongest military in the world and honoring commitments to service members and military families,” he said. But these reductions “needed to be implemented on the basis of a new defense strategy, rather than the approach taken in the past of simply cutting spending across the board.”

He called on Congress to fix the mess. “The President yesterday issued a stark warning about the consequences of these deep, indiscriminate cuts, and he urged Congress to at least pass a smaller package of spending cuts and tax reforms to delay sequestration until a permanent solution is developed,” said Panetta. “It is difficult to believe that the Congress will simply stand aside, fail to make the decisions necessary to resolve this crisis, and allow the defense, economy and quality of life in America to be irreparably damaged.”

That said, Panetta acknowledged his is not optimistic that Congress will come around. “Time and again, they have postponed action, and instead have fallen into a pattern of partisanship, gridlock, and recrimination.”

Panetta said he fears that a “dangerous and callous attitude is developing among some Republicans and Democrats alike that these dangerous cuts can be allowed to take place in order to blame the other party for the consequences.”

This is no way to govern, he said. “This budgetary crisis creates uncertainty, it creates doubt and distraction … and it puts at risk our fundamental mission of protecting the American people. And worst of all, it is a self-made crisis.”

Photo Credit: Defense Dept.

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