Panetta slams Congress, political gridlock in farewell

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in one of his final addresses before departing Washington, blasted the political budget gridlock in Congress that is gripping the U.S. government as a national security threat.

"This is no way to govern the United States of America," Panetta said, in a fiesty speech at Georgetown University that called for greater leadership from the next generation of political leaders.

Panetta, one of Washington’s eldest lifelong public servants, said he leaves the Pentagon most concerned about the military’s budget uncertainty. It is the result, he argued, of a lack of non-partisan leadership from Republicans and Democrats to end the threat of sequestration after more than a year and a half of warnings from his Pentagon office and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“As I leave government, I believe we are at a critical crossroads in the life of our country,” Panetta said, in Georgetown’s ornate Gaston Hall. “The U.S. will need,” he said, “military, diplomatic, economic and political leadership so see the nation through.”

“The most urgent task facing the nation and all of us,” Panetta said, is “overcoming the partisan dysfunction in Congress that poses a threat to our quality of life, our national security, our economy, and our ability to address the problems confronting the nation.”

Panetta said the bipartisan stagnation on Capitol Hill has created “an aura of constant uncertainty that pervades every issue and gradually undermines the credibility of the nation.”

Here is a key passage:

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. But time and again, they have postponed action, and instead have fallen into a pattern of partisanship, gridlock, and recrimination. And not only have they failed to come together around a big plan to reduce the deficit, they have also failed in their basic responsibility to pass appropriations bills that provide the resources and certainty needed to run the government.

My fear is that there is a dangerous and callous attitude 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. That same attitude led to a government shutdown in 1995 that badly hurt the American people and politically damaged those who were blamed for that crisis. Those who do not learn the lessons of history are bound to repeat the mistakes that were made.

Panetta recounted an oft-repeated list including civilian furloughs and operational cutbacks that DOD would have to impose if sequestration is enacted this spring. But this time he directly tied those cuts to negative effects in regions of the world gripping current headlines.

“They would degrade our ability to respond to crisis precisely at a time of rising instability across the globe  -- from North Africa to the Strait of Hormuz, from Syria to North Korea,” he said.

Panetta acknowledged that his parting admonition for Washington is not a new one for politicians, but insisted it was true to his values.

“After spending most of my life working in Washington, I am not naïve when it comes to the messy realities of governing in this democracy. It has become something of a cliché for former members of Congress like myself to harken back to bygone days of bipartisanship and consensus. Make no mistake, governing has never been easy. From the budget battles of the Reagan administration to the government shutdowns of the Clinton administration, I’ve been witness to division, partisanship, and gridlock. They are enduring features of our political system, but they can also be a crutch for leaders to use in shirking their responsibilities.”

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