In his final days as defense secretary, Leon Panetta today railed against a Congress he decried as increasingly "callous" in its approach to governing, and warned that an ongoing "pattern of constant partisanship and gridlock and recrimination" in Washington would gravely threaten America's national security, economy, and military readiness.
Panetta, in remarks at Georgetown University this morning, outlined the nation's major global defense challenges - from cyber attacks to ongoing instability in the Middle East and North Africa - and laid out the U.S. strategy for managing and meeting those challenges.
Despite all the best efforts of the Department of Defense, however, he argued that "this strategy and our ability to effectively confront the security challenges that I talked about, is at a very serious risk. Not because of our capability... [but] the pervasive budget uncertainty that threatens our security."
Panetta has been a consistent, vociferous critic of the $1.2 trillion, across-the-board cuts that are scheduled to hit both defense and non-defense discretionary funding on March 1, and today he reiterated his belief that the so-called "sequester" cuts would trigger the "most serious readiness crisis that this country is going to confront in over a decade."
Already, he said, the department is living not only on a diet of temporary budgets but under "the shadow of sequestration, this legislative madness that was designed to be so bad - so bad- that no one in their right mind would let it happen."
Actually letting the cuts go into place, he argued, would "seriously damage a fragile American economy, and they would degrade our ability to respond to crisis precisely at a time of rising instability across the globe."
"But time and time again we've postponed action and instead have fallen into a pattern of constant partisanship and gridlock and recrimination," Panetta said. "It is a basic responsibility to be able to fund the government. My fear is that there is a dangerous and callous attitude that is developing among some Republicans and some Democrats that these dangerous cuts can be allowed to take place in order to blame the other party for the consequences."
Panetta warned Congress against continuing along a path wherein "crisis drives policy," and the prevailing attitude is "let's see how bad it can get in order to have the other party blink."
"That is a high price - a very high price - that could be paid as a result of governing by crisis," he said. "The ultimate result of that is to lose the trust of the American people... So what I would like to urge is that the leaders of Congress do what's right for this country."
Panetta is expected to officially step down as soon the Senate confirms a defense secretary to replace him. Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., has been nominated for the job and is expected to squeak through confirmation votes in the coming weeks.