PENTAGON: After a year of pleading, cajoling, wheedling, warning and whining, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has clearly reached the end of his rope when it comes to sequestration and Congress.
Panetta and other senior defense officials have repeatedly argued the country must avoid sequestration because any deals would mean instability over time and thus pose a threat to the defense strategy. However, they have clearly accepted that Congress cannot act until after the elections (after all, they ran out of town last week, desperate to get reelected).
Thus we saw the secretary in his only animated moment during an hour-long news conference today, leaning across his desk and sweeping his arm, declaiming: “I’ll take whatever the hell kind of deal they can make now with sequestration.”
The U.S. “can’t maintain a strong defense for this country if sequestration is allowed to happen,” he added. And even “the shadow of a sequester creates a problem for us” because it impairs the military’s ability to plan.
“We need stability. That’s what I’m asking Congress to give me, some stability,” he added.
Of course, nothing can happen until the elections happen. If the outcome is close, we may see even more gridlock. Or, a minor miracle may occur and our elected representatives actually do something. However, Congress will most likely cobble together some ill-shaped compromise to get everyone through the first few months of the new reality.
Perhaps more revealing than Panetta’s display of frustration with sequestration was his very careful answer to a question about a more fundamental issue — what holes have been found and are being filled in by the administration. Panetta admitted, when pressed by my colleague Kate Brennan, that the military won’t be making “modifications to the basic strategy that we have developed.” But it seems clear from recent comments by other senior defense officials that a strategy relook is underway. Frank Kendall, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and other stuff, said so at the ComDef conference the first week of September, noting that the administration’s strategy building had been “rushed.” Panetta said carefully that, “if there are changes [to the strategy] they will be made in the margin.” Sounds to this observer as if there’s more there there than Panetta is willing to admit.
Panetta appeared to distance himself from Air Force Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan’s comments on the F-35 brouhaha. That was when Bogdan declared earlier this month that the relationship between the JSF program office and Lockheed Martin was “the worst I’ve ever seen.”
“I don’t know that I would portray it in those terms,” he said.
But the defense secretary also made clear he understood where Bogdan was coming from.
“There are tough negotiations going on,” that he said would “ultimately” be solved. But the general appeared to get a signal from his boss that he might want to temper his rhetoric, even if it is true. Or Panetta may be, very cleverly, playing the good guy to Bogdan’s bad guy as a signal to Lockheed that they better move off the base and reach an agreement on the LRIP five contract.