Strong Defense Rests on Strong Congress, Panetta Says
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 13, 2013 The current lack of effective partnership in government is his biggest disappointment as he leaves Washington after 50 years of public service, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said today.
Panetta told Pentagon reporters during what he called his final news conference here that his Defense Department team has achieved remarkable things.
“First and foremost, we've kept the country safe,” he said. “Secondly, we have … [dedicated] ourselves to bringing two wars to a conclusion, the war in Iraq and now we're well on the way to bringing the war in Afghanistan, hopefully, to a conclusion, as well.”
Military members serving under him have weakened terrorism and strengthened cooperation with their counterparts in intelligence, he added. And together, he said, military and civilian defense leaders crafted and put in place a defense strategy that “really makes good sense for this country, in terms of the force we need for the 21st century.”
The secretary added that as the son of Italian immigrants, he’s also proud to have led the effort to “expand opportunities for everyone to serve in the military.” Panetta’s acts as secretary included expanding the number of jobs for servicewomen, and increasing the rights of same-sex couples with military members.
“And I'm proud of the care that we continue to provide for our wounded warriors and for their families,” he said. “They are truly deserving of whatever we can provide because of the sacrifices they've made.”
The secretary said he has put a lot of burdens on the military in working through tough decisions.
“And, you know, they always responded. They responded … [with] dedication to country and dedication to the military. We've been able to do some historic things as a result of that,” he said.
In turning to what threatens those achievements, Panetta expressed some frustration.
“I’m sorry about this, but I’ve got to say it,” he said. “All of the work that we do here to try to make this country strong and develop a strong defense” depends on a strong partnership with Congress, the secretary said.
“What should be and what our forefathers, I think, envisioned as a strong bond between an administration, an executive branch, and a legislative branch … is not as strong as it should be,” he said. “Oftentimes, I feel like I don't have a full partnership with my former colleagues on the Hill in trying to do what's right for this country.”
When he served in the House as a representative from California, Panetta said, there was a customary form of speech between members who disagreed: “With the greatest respect, I disagree with my friend.”
What makes Congress work is that it’s a place to fully debate political and ideological differences, he said.
“That's the whole purpose of our forefathers fashioning that legislative branch, to debate fully those differences,” the secretary added. “But there are also some lines that are there that make that process work.”
Without mutual respect and courtesy among those seeking to resolve differences, those lines break down, Panetta said.
“Everybody's got legitimate points, but there's a way to express it in a way that complements our democracy, doesn't demean our democracy,” he said. “And I think, you know, what you see on display is too much meanness.”
Panetta said he has spoken to leaders around the world during his extensive travels as secretary. Leaders everywhere, he said, see the United States as a nation with strong values and a strong military.
“I think what they worry about is what I worry about, which is whether or not … we can govern and whether or not we can face the tough decisions that have to be made,” he said.
Panetta noted he repeatedly has said the biggest threat to U.S. national security “is that budget uncertainty and that inability to govern and find solutions.”
As a step toward better government and a better world perception of the nation, he said, “somehow the members both in the House and Senate side have to get back to a point where they really do respect the institution that they're a part of.”