What Panetta leaves undone

With the news that President Obama’s replacement for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta could be announced as soon as this week comes the question: What does Panetta leave undone?

From budget watchdogs and industry advocates, not surprisingly one gets two very different answers.

Panetta, who replaced Robert Gates, the longest-serving defense secretary in Pentagon history, has never been considered a long-termer by folks in the building. He already was called out of retirement to head the CIA, and was halfway back to his home in Monterrey, Calif., before Obama and Gates begged the walnut farmer to stay in Washington a few more years.

So there’s always been a question of his commitment -- not to the troops or the job, but to leaving a significant legacy as a manager of the Defense Department.

“What we saw right away from Panetta when he came into office after Gates, he sort of abandoned the plans to cut some of the top brass there,” said Ben Freeman, of the Project on Government Oversight. Freeman said he’s no fan of Panetta, who surprised budget watchdogs by ignoring Gates’ detailed plans to reduce the number of general and admirals. Those brass, Freeman charges, live the lavish lifestyle now exposed to wider scrutiny thanks to the scandal surrounding Gen. David Petraeus.

“It’s really a shame Panetta didn’t follow through with what was a concrete plan to get rid of that waste.”

Panetta’s reputation as a budget chief also was supposed to help him press Congress to accept smaller defense spending. But the larger battle between the White House and Congress over the size of government has mostly sidelined Panetta for the better part of his tenure. Worse for the watchdogs, Panetta opened his doors to the arms industry -- treating the weapons-makers as stakeholders in national security decisions -- in a way his predecessors shunned.

“He sort of surprised us,” Freeman argued, “more generally, how much of an industry apologist in all of this, the rhetoric he’s used -- it’s almost verging on propaganda how he used to say sequestration was doomsday and catastrophic.” Gates, Freeman argued, really went after savings. But Panetta? “He’s been really more like politician” than focused on cutting wasteful spending.
Industry's perception of Panetta could not be more different.

Erin Moseley, senior vice president for government relations of BAE Systems, said Panetta’s ability and willingness “to communicate with industry and sit down and have a conversation with us…is immensely important.”

“Keeping us collectively connected,” she said, “especially in this fiscal situation we’re in right now -- not talking to each other is not an option.”

One man's propagandist is another woman’s “amazing advocate on the effect of sequestration and what would happen” for the defense industry on which the military relies.

On the other hand, Mosely said that, as part of acquisition reform, Panetta has imposed regulations that will only cause gridlock, and industry hopes his successor will be open to changes.

With defense spending in flux, many industry giants are turning toward foreign military sales, but those take much longer to push through due to U.S. government restrictions. Moseley said Panetta started a process to open doors with India, for example, that the next SecDef will have to continue.

“Foreign military sales, prioritizing India, following up with [a visit to India by Deputy Defense Secretary] Ash Carter -- those kinds of things become very beneficial because they put political weight behind conversations that are beneficial for the industry at large.”

UPDATE: Pentagon press secretary George Little offered this response via email to the above posting:

"Leon Panetta is one of the nation's top experts on the federal budget and is someone who has examined every nook and crannie of the defense budget--driven by a new defense strategy, not just numbers--to determine how we can achieve nearly $500 billion in savings over ten years while preserving the strongest military in the world.  Consistent with initiatives former Secretary Gates put in motion, he's directed efficiencies at all levels and isn't afraid to tackle tough issues, including assessing how we can keep faith with those who serve while trying to get a handle on rising personnel costs."

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images