By Jim Garamone
Success in Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan does not mean the U.S. military should be dismantled, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said here today.
Panetta spoke to more than 1,200 people at the McConnell Center on the campus of the University of Louisville. He spoke of the need for public service and how that has played in the successes and challenges confronting the Defense Department.
"We have begun to drawdown our forces and transition to Afghan-led security responsibility, and we have seen the level of violence go down," the secretary said. "Our goal is that by the end of 2014, the Afghans will have the responsibility to govern and secure themselves."
Panetta addressed the recent spate of killings of International Security Assistance Force troops by Afghans. "Let me be very clear," he said. "The brutal attacks that we have seen on our troops in the last few days will not change or alter our determination to see this through."
The United States has successfully weakened al-Qaida, and decimated its leadership, including killing Osama bin Laden. "We have demonstrated that we will continue to do everything possible to protect our citizens and our security," he said.
The United States remains indispensible to a stable and secure world, the secretary stressed. The NATO operations in support of government opposition forces in Libya last year are an example, he said.
"I had the opportunity to visit Tripoli last December, and was deeply moved by the determination of the Libyan people to forge that better future for themselves," he said.
Panetta said foreign leaders -- from old allies to new partners -- consistently tell him they want to increase their partnerships with U.S. military forces.
None of these goals can be achieved without U.S. military members who are "willing to serve their nation, willing to put their lives on the line, willing to die to protect their country," he said. "We owe it to them to learn the lessons of the past and to build a better future for them and for their children. That means that as they return home, we must embrace them and support them in communities like this across the country -- whether it's by helping them pursue an education at schools like Louisville, or providing assistance in finding a job or starting a business."
Maintaining the military is a priority, but one in danger because of the national debt, Panetta said. The United States must maintain the strongest military in the world, must maintain effective diplomacy and must build a strong economy, he said.
"We are still a nation at war in Afghanistan; we still face the threat from terrorism -- terrorists are still in Somalia, still in Yemen, still in North Africa and they still continue to plot attacks on this country," he said.
There still is a dangerous proliferation of lethal weapons and materials, the secretary said. Iran and North Korea still threaten global stability. There still is continuing turmoil and unrest in the Middle East. Rising powers in Asia continue to test international relationships, and there are increasing cyber intrusions and attacks, he said.
"At the same time, we face an additional threat to our national security which must also be confronted, and that is long-term debt and high deficits," he said.
"As someone who has spent much of my life in public service working on fiscal policy, I believe that if the country doesn't control and discipline its budgets, it will inflict severe damage on our national security. It would deprive us of the very resources we require at the Department of Defense, and it would also hurt the quality of life of the American people, something that is equally important to our broader national security."
It is not a choice between national security and fiscal responsibility, Panetta said. "We have to be willing to make difficult decisions about how to reshape our defense strategy, how to maintain our military strength for the future while also doing our part to reduce the deficit," he said.
The department has done that and is putting in place budgets that reduce defense spending by $487 billion over 10 years.
The force will be smaller, but will be more agile and ready to deploy anywhere in the world and win, all while building partnerships around the globe, Panetta said. "We are going to maintain and even enhance our presence in vital regions of the world like the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region," he said.
"We must continue to invest in new capabilities like cyber, and unmanned systems, space and the continued growth of special operations forces," Panetta said. He added that those capabilities will be crucial for a strong defense in the future, as will maintaining a strong reserve component and industrial base.
Deficit reduction cannot be done soley on the back of the Defense Department, the secretary said. "We have done our part," he said.
"Now it's time for Congress to step up to the plate and make sure that we do not devastate our national defense by allowing this mechanism called sequester to go into effect," he continued. The additional $500 billion in automatic, across-the-board defense cuts became law when Congress passed and the president signed the Deficit Reduction Act last year.
"We still need additional deficit reduction, but that must be made through a balanced deficit reduction plan, which will involve making tough decisions not just on defense, but every other area of spending and revenues," he said.
The key to breaking Washington gridlock, Panetta said, "has to rest with people that are willing to exercise leadership, to find compromises, to make sacrifices in order to find answers."
As policy- and law-makers confront the debt crisis, "all of us in Washington need to demonstrate the same leadership that we count on from our troops in battle," the secretary said. "They make sacrifices in order to achieve their mission. Surely those of us in Washington can make sacrifices in order to govern this nation."
Americans have always been able to overcome crisis and adversity, Panetta said. "But we can't just sit back and count on things to work out -- it will take leadership and sacrifice and willingness to fight to secure that dream for the future," he said.
"If we can summon that spirit of leadership, service and sacrifice -- and fight for what's right -- I believe that we can turn crisis into opportunity, and demonstrate to the world that this resilient American spirit will endure for our children, their children, and beyond."