I used to say to the students at the Panetta Institute that we govern in our democracy either through leadership or through crisis. If leadership is there, and there are those that are elected who are willing to take the risks associated with leadership, then hopefully crisis can be avoided.
But if leadership is not there, if it’s absent for whatever reason, then make no mistake about it, crisis drives policy in this country.
Today, crisis drives policy. It has become too politically convenient to simply allow a crisis to develop and get worse and then react to the crisis. As somebody who was in politics as a representative for 16 years, I understand the mentality. Why do I have to make tough decisions that anger my constituents — raise their taxes, cut their entitlements? Why do I have to do those decisions when I can simply stand back and allow crisis to occur?
But make no mistake about it, there is a price to be paid. And the price to be paid is that you lose the trust of the American people. You create an aura of constant uncertainty that pervades every issue and gradually undermines the very credibility of this nation to be able to govern itself.
My greatest concern today is that we are putting our national security at risk by lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis to budget crisis. I [had been] director of the Office of Management and Budget. I knew very well the Department of Defense had a responsibility to be able to do its part in dealing with the fiscal crisis in this country.
Every budget summit that I had been a part of in the Reagan years, in the first Bush years, during the Clinton administration — every budget summit, we knew that defense had to play a role in trying to be able to control our deficits. Soon after I became secretary, I was handed a number of $487 billion, almost a half-trillion dollars, that I was to cut out of the defense budget. It was contained in the Budget Control Act, and I was required to be able to get that number of savings over the next 10 years.
After a decade of blank-check spending in the Department of Defense, it was important to us, the leaders of the department, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the service chiefs, the service secretaries and myself, who strongly believe that we had to meet this challenge of reducing the defense budget. But we have to do it in a way that did not simply hollow out the force.
[When] we’ve come out of every other period, every other war, we made a terrible mistake of hollowing out the force. Coming out of World War II, coming out of Korea, coming out Vietnam, coming out of the Cold War the attitude was, cut out defense. And so it was cut across the board. And it hollowed out the force. So we said, we cannot repeat that mistake.
And the best way to do that is to then establish a strategy. What is the defense strategy we want in order to create the force that we need? Not just today, but in the future, the force of the 21st century. And how do we do this in a way that also meets our commitments to our service members and to our families, so we don’t break trust with them?
And during the course of my first six months as secretary, we worked together as a team. I had everybody in the room, something that, you know, was not exactly that prevalent in the past. Military over here, civilians over here, and not that often did they come together to really work to resolve policy. And my approach was, I have to be able to work as a team if we are going to be able to take on this challenge.
And to their credit, they did that, both military and civilian leaders. And we consulted with the president, we consulted with the national security team at the White House as we went through this. And everybody endorsed the policy and strategy that we came up with. It has five key elements.
The first is that we know we’re going to be smaller and leaner coming out of these wars. But we can be, as a force, agile, flexible, quickly deployable and at the cutting edge of technology. That can be an effective force for the future. Yet we can be smaller.
Secondly, it was important for us to project power into the Pacific and into the Middle East. Those are the key areas where we have some serious problems. North Korea, Iran, we need to have a power presence in those areas, because that’s where the greatest potential for conflict was.
Third, we need to maintain a presence elsewhere in the world. And so what was developed was an innovative idea of rotational deployments where we would send our forces into countries, Latin America, Africa, Europe, other places, to train, to exercise, to work with that country, to develop their capabilities, to develop new partnerships, new alliances, so that they can become part of this security force for the future.
Fourthly, we have to [defend against] more than one enemy at a time. If we’re in a war in North Korea, and at the same time the Strait of Hormuz is closed, we have to be able to respond to both of those conflicts.
And lastly, this can’t be about cutting. It has to be about investing. Every time we’ve gone through budgets, you cut, find savings, but at the same time, you establish priorities. Budgets are not just numbers. Budgets are about priorities. And so what are our priorities that we have to invest in for the future?
So we made the decision we have to invest in things like cyber, in unmanned systems, in special operations, in space, all of which will help us be on the cutting edge of the future. Invest in the ability to mobilize quickly. Invest in the ability to maintain, as I said, that decisive technological edge in the future and maintain our defense industrial base.
The last damn thing we need if we face a crisis is to somehow contract out that responsibility to another country. So we have to maintain the core industrial base that we need. The skills that are essential to our ability to maintain a strong national defense.
Excerpted from remarks by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Feb. 6 at Georgetown University, Washington.