Robert Gates is due to retire as defense secretary in three weeks, but his named successor, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, said Thursday he plans to continue Gates' policies.
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he spoke of bolstering defense spending, staying the course in Afghanistan and Iraq, treating al Qaeda as a standing threat and maintaining the most powerful military in the world.
“Secretary Gates and I pretty much walk hand in hand on these issues," Panetta said at the hearing.
U.S. forces have made progress in Afghanistan, but these gains are "fragile and reversible," Panetta said, choosing a phrase often used by Gates. He also said that any withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan "should be conditions-based," again echoing Gates' formula for determining the size of the troop reductions that President Barack Obama has promised to make next month.
When Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) approvingly quoted Gates' answer to critics of the Afghan war's cost -- "the most costly thing of all would be for us to fail" -- Panetta dutifully replied: "I agree with you fully on that issue."
Just one minor complaint was raised about the United States' continued presence in Afghanistan. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) observed that building and training Afghanistan's security forces will cost American taxpayers $12.8 billion this year -- almost half of the entire Afghan gross domestic product of about $30 billion, most of which comes from international donations. "And that says to me that we are going to have to continue to be a major contributor to paying for those security forces forever, virtually," she said.
"So tell me how this ends. I just don't see how it ends."
"I think if we stick with it," Panetta replied carefully, "if we continue to provide help and assistance to them that -- I think -- I think there is going to be a point where Afghanistan can control its own future."
After a pause, he added: "We have to operate on that hope."
Surprisingly, given the long list of scary threats and challenges that Panetta said lie ahead, three hours of questions and testimony produced barely a ripple of disagreement or challenge to his views, suggesting the Senate will quickly confirm him to guide the Pentagon during the final 18 months of President Obama's first term.
In a swirling reshuffle of his national security team last month, Obama named Panetta to the Pentagon and Gen. David Petraeus, currently the top commander in Afghanistan, to take his place as CIA director. The president also nominated Army Gen. Martin Dempsey to take over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Adm. Mike Mullen, the current chairman, retires in September.
Gates, a Republican and former CIA director who was named to the Pentagon by President George W. Bush in 2006 and kept on by Obama, was generally well-regarded on Capitol Hill, even though his views on the Afghan war and defense spending were often at odds with those of congressional Democrats.
Panetta, a California Democrat who served for 16 years in Congress before becoming President Clinton's budget director, sat impassively as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking Republican on the committee, savaged the Pentagon's dismal record of major cost overruns on costly weapons programs. "We have terrible, out-of-control costs with virtually every weapon system … it's simply not affordable for us to continue business as usual," McCain thundered. "We have got to get our arms around this."
"I agree with you fully on that issue," Panetta replied when McCain came to a stop.
In an abbreviated version of the annual threat briefing he gave as CIA director, Panetta reminded the Senate committee that the Cold War, with its comfortable one-adversary environment, is long over. "This is more like the blizzard war -- a blizzard of challenges that draws speed and intensity from terrorism, from rapidly developing technologies, and the rising number of powers on the world stage," he said.
Panetta weighed in on al Qaeda, saying that the group is in "disarray" and that the killing of Osama bin Laden was "a significant victory" against terrorism. "No question it impacted on their capability, on their command and control capabilities," he said.
Yet he cautioned that while the death of al Qaeda's founder and leader "has weakened them," they still remain dangerous. "We have got to keep the pressure up," he said, against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, against the one thousand al Qaeda fighters he said were still active in Iraq, and in Pakistan, where the CIA has been conducting drone attacks against al Qaeda leaders.
Like Gates, though, Panetta was unable to articulate a convincing strategy to end the safe havens that al Qaeda and Taliban fighters enjoy in Pakistan, and demurred on the issue of whether the United States ought to maintain military forces in Iraq after December, when under a U.S.-Iraqi agreement all American troops are to be withdrawn.