WASHINGTON — Leon Panetta, the nominee to be the next secretary of defense, ducked gentle questioning Thursday from the Senate Armed Services Committee about President Barack Obama's plans to reduce U.S. troops in Afghanistan and to cut security spending by $400 billion over the next 12 years.
Panetta revealed little, saying he's yet to be confirmed by the Senate. But that appears to be a mere formality, as the committee's confirmation hearing was more of a love fest than a grilling for the popular 72-year-old Panetta, the current CIA director, a former White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, and a former congressman from California.
Obama nominated Panetta to succeed Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who's stepping down June 30 after serving at the Pentagon for four and a half years under former President George W. Bush and Obama.
"I can't thank you enough for being willing to do this job after being CIA director," gushed Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "So now some hard questions."
Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., pressed Panetta on whether he agreed with Obama's statement that the upcoming troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would be significant. Levin has said that he wants to see at least 15,000 service members return from Afghanistan. Panetta didn't give Levin a number and simply replied, "I agree with the president's statement."
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top-ranked Republican on the committee, went in the opposite direction, asking Panetta whether he thinks that the president should exercise caution in the number of troops withdrawn. McCain has argued that no more than 3,000 service members should be brought home from Afghanistan starting in July.
"So would you agree with Secretary Gates' repeated statements that withdrawals in July should be, quote, modest?" McCain inquired.
Panetta said any withdrawal should be conditions-based but quickly added: "Senator, if I'm confirmed, I'll obviously arrive at a decision myself that I'll have to ultimately present to the president. But I'm not in that position now, and the decision really does rest with General Petraeus and Secretary Gates and the president," Panetta said, referring to Army Gen. David Petraeus, the head of coalition forces in Afghanistan, who's been nominated to replace Panetta as CIA director.
McCain told Panetta he has deep reservations about plans to cut $400 billion in defense spending by 2023, saying that "defense spending is not what is sinking this country into fiscal crisis."
Panetta said he shared concerns expressed by McCain and Gates that the reduction could cut into the meat and muscle of America's military if it carried out "some kind of automatic, across-the-board cuts" by "implementing some kind of formulaic approach to cutting defense."
But he quickly added that a comprehensive review of the plan is under way.
Panetta's main message to the committee: Expect little change under his leadership.
"If I'm confirmed, my number one job will be to ensure that America continues to have the best-trained, the best-equipped and the strongest military in the world to ensure that we remain protected," he said. "We are no longer in the Cold War. This is more like the blizzard war: a blizzard of challenges."
One of those challenges, Panetta said, is Pakistan, a U.S. ally that's come under greater scrutiny after Osama bin Laden was found — and killed by U.S. Navy SEALs — hiding in a massive compound there.
"We have to work at developing a relationship of trust with the Pakistanis," Panetta said. "I don't know that we're totally there yet. I mean, there are some areas where, frankly, we have good communications. ... But there are a number of areas where, frankly, we don't have that level of trust or communication capability."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington