Panetta Leaves Legacy of Service, Leadership, Partnership
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 26, 2013 History likely will record Leon E. Panetta first as the CIA director who got Osama bin Laden. But over his 19 months as defense secretary, the former spy chief also got a crack at solving the problems of some 3 million battle-weary people -- while running two wars and warding off a budget meltdown.
To understand how he did it, you have only to listen to his words. In his final major speech Feb. 6, which he directed to the students in a Georgetown University audience here, the secretary urged them to action on behalf of the nation. As he prepares to leave government, Panetta told them, he’s reminded of what he has told other students: leaders must be prepared to face and manage risk.
“I still say it when I get a chance, and I say it to you: that we govern in our democracy either through leadership or through crisis,” he said. “If leadership is there, and … [those elected] are willing to take the risks associated with leadership, to make the tough decisions that have to be made, then hopefully crisis can be avoided. But if leadership is not there, if it's absent for whatever reason, then make no mistake about it, crisis drives policy in this country.”
That’s exactly what is happening -- crisis is driving policy in the United States, he said.
“It has become too politically convenient to simply allow a crisis to develop and get worse,” he said, “and then react to the crisis. … I understand the mentality. Why do I have to make tough decisions that anger my constituents -- raise their taxes, cut their entitlements? Why do I have to do those decisions when I can simply stand back and allow crisis to occur?”
The price of governing by crisis, Panetta said, is “you lose the trust of the American people. You create an aura of constant uncertainty that pervades every issue and gradually undermines the very credibility of this nation to be able to govern itself.”
He said to stay ahead of crisis, leaders first must take responsibility, then must work for consensus.
Panetta, who loves a punch line, told the students about a priest and a rabbi who go to a boxing match together to help them better understand each other. The rabbi, seeing one fighter cross himself before the match, asks the priest what the gesture means. “Nothing, if he’s not willing to fight,” the priest says.
The secretary has cautioned young audiences – U.S. and other countries’ troops, students and cadets around the world -- that freedom, democracy, and even the simple security to raise a family in peace don’t survive without sacrifice.
“[It] doesn't mean a thing if you are not willing to fight for the American dream -- the dream that my parents had,” he said at Georgetown. “The dream of giving our children a better life. The dream of maintaining a government of, by, and for people. That torch of duty is now passing to a new generation, and with it passes the responsibility to never stop fighting for that better future.”
So in 19 months at DOD, Panetta fought for a strategy-based approach to defense budgeting, and for government leaders to take responsibility in making it law. He fought to keep the nation focused on its troops and their accomplishments in Iraq, where forces have since completed their mission, and in Afghanistan, where they remain. He fought against troop suicide and sexual assault in the ranks, and fought for equal treatment of same-sex couples and more military jobs for women.
Panetta fought, as his record shows, the way his troops do: effectively and with discipline, often using a coalition approach. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could have been summing up the Panetta defense doctrine when he said recently that he likes to fight alongside his friends.
The secretary took that “with partners” approach everywhere -- inside the Pentagon, while working with Congress, and during talks with leaders of the 34 nations he visited, some repeatedly, on 45 stops as leader of the world’s strongest military.
“Reaching across the aisle” has a different meaning in the Pentagon, where civilian appointees and military members have been known to follow different courses. Panetta, for his Georgetown audience, recounted how he and the department’s senior leaders developed the defense strategy DOD is now carrying out.
“I had everybody in the room, something that, you know, was not exactly that prevalent in the past,” the secretary said. “Military over here, civilians over here, and not that often did they come together to really work to resolve policy. And my approach was, I have to be able to work as a team if we are going to be able to take on this challenge.”
Same with Congress: even as he chastises that body for its “partisan dysfunction,” as he did at Georgetown, the secretary praises the members for their support to troops.
Panetta’s likely last appearance before Congress as secretary was Feb. 7, when he testified on the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, Libya. He told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee they have his deepest thanks “for the support and friendship that I've had with all of you on both sides of the aisle.”
Each time he hit the road for Afghanistan, NATO headquarters, the Asia-Pacific region, South America, the Middle East or Europe, Panetta took with him a determination to make friends and build consensus. He explained to Asia-Pacific leaders in 2012 that the U.S. pivot to the region has real implications for rotational troop deployments, training and engagement. And he invited European leaders in 2013 to join that pivot, because the Asia-Pacific region holds critical economic and security importance for the entire world.
In Afghanistan, Panetta strove to maintain both a strong NATO coalition and a close partnership with the Afghan government and its forces. The phase of the Afghanistan conflict Panetta oversaw included an escalating number of “insider attacks,” with 34 reported in 2012. He also was called to respond to incidents such as the Quran burning of Feb. 21, 2012, in which U.S. troops allegedly burned religious materials at the Parwan detention facility near Bagram, Afghanistan, inciting days of violent demonstrations.
Less than a month later, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly murdered 16 Afghan civilians in Kandahar province’s Panjwai district. While the secretary displayed personal grief at such happenings, he also reacted with perseverance. Speaking to reporters about the killings later that month, Panetta gave a characteristic response.
“War is hell,” he said. “We’re going to run into these kinds of incidents. That’s the nature of conflict, but we can’t allow those kinds of incidents to undermine our basic strategy. We’re on the right track, and we have to stick to it.”
The secretary maintained that strategic focus through the end of the U.S. “surge” and the start of pulling troops out of that country. In October 2012, he told NATO leaders that staying the course in Afghanistan’s coming phases meant “first, strong coalition partnership with Afghan forces; second, effective response to insider attacks; and third, careful evolution of the campaign.”
In a statement Feb. 11, Panetta said he welcomes President Barack Obama’s announcement that 34,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan will return by this time next year. The plan supports ground commanders’ recommendations, he said, and “puts us on the right path to succeed in Afghanistan.”
The secretary added, “Our troops on the ground will continue to be in a tough fight, and they will continue to face real challenges, but our fundamental goal is now within sight.”
Panetta said at Georgetown that another fundamental goal in national defense is protecting the nation’s computer systems.
“The developments that have taken place in the cyber arena have been incredible over these last 10 years,” the secretary said in response to a student’s question. He added that 21st-century technology makes cyberattacks a primary threat to U.S. national security.
“There is no question, in my mind, that part and parcel of any attack on this country in the future, by any enemy, is going to include a cyber element,” he said.
Panetta served as an Army intelligence officer from 1964 to 1966, later representing his home state of California in Congress from 1977 to 1993. He was also chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget during Bill Clinton's presidency.
The secretary's legacy of public service extends into his life outside Washington. Panetta and his wife, Sylvia, in 1997 founded the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University, Monterey Bay. The institute provides study opportunities in government, politics and public policy. The institute also sponsors other activities, such as a reading program that recruits hundreds of volunteers from communities around Monterey to work with children in kindergarten through third grade.
He told Georgetown students his “very core principles and values,” instilled through his Catholic upbringing and education, are faith, hard work, giving something back and knowing the difference between right and wrong: “that sense of conscience that is so important, particularly in public service.”
So at U.S. bases around the world, in palaces and defense ministries and Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Panetta has exhorted men and women to give back to their nations, urged governments to work together to make the world safer, and praised his troops for their service.
During his January visit to an Army airborne unit based in Italy and recently returned from Afghanistan, Panetta said Americans are “safe in their homes … because of those who are willing to go off to far places, and fight an enemy that has made clear they will not hesitate to attack our country, and to attack innocent men and women -- and children.”
The secretary’s most lasting legacy may be his example of selfless service, leadership and good partnership. During a DOD farewell tribute to Panetta on Feb. 8, Dempsey offered his view of what he called Panetta’s “parable of the individual and the institution” over his nearly 50 years in government.
“For those nearly five decades, you've never yielded to cynicism, you've always believed in the goodness of governing well, and your character and competence have set the example,” the chairman said.
Dempsey continued, “Mr. Secretary, you have made our nation safer. You have made our men in uniform -- and women -- stronger. And you have prepared us to meet the challenges ahead in our time and in the future. And for that, you've earned our eternal esteem.”
Panetta returned the compliment, noting that he and Dempsey have testified to Congress together 11 times and faced 10 Pentagon news conferences side by side.
“As we used to say when I was in the Army, there isn't anyone I'd rather be in the foxhole with than Marty Dempsey,” he said. “I cannot tell you what a privilege it has been to work with you and to work with all of the service chiefs. We've dealt with some very tough issues, and there is no way -- no way -- that I could have done this job without your support, without your loyalty, and without your dedication.”
During his retirement phase, Panetta likely is to continue tackling challenges with a partner’s help: Sylvia Panetta, currently director and formerly co-director with her husband of the Panetta Institute, also has teamed with him in raising three sons and spoiling six grandchildren.
“She has endured extended absences and long hours and the demands that come with public service, but she has always been there,” Panetta last week said of his wife of 50 years. “And I will never be able to thank her enough for her constant love and support. Her Valentine gift is both of us going home together.”