Amid speculation that he will excuse himself from President Barack Obama's second-term national security team, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said today his immediate goal is to finish the job he began in 2010.
"It's no secret that at some point I'd like to get back to California," Panetta told reporters traveling with him on his fourth official trip to the Asia-Pacific region. "It's my home." The secretary and he and his wife, Sylvia, founded the Panetta Institute for Public Policy there in 1997.
But in Washington, Panetta said, he is grappling with defense issues that range from looming spending cuts and budget issues to long-term planning in Afghanistan, "and the president and I are working very closely to make sure that we meet those defense challenges."
Right now, the secretary said, his most important focus is to meet his immediate responsibilities in the Defense Department.
In Afghanistan, coalition forces are gradually leaving the war zone in advance of the plan to withdraw foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
There, Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is developing options for the post-2014 U.S. presence in Afghanistan that the secretary said the White House and defense officials are now reviewing.
"My hope," Panetta said, "is that we will be able to complete this process within the next few weeks. I'm confident that we're going to be able to get to the right number for the post-2014 presence."
The secretary said Allen presented several options based on missions in Afghanistan that include counterterrorism, training and assisting the Afghan army and the ability to provide enabling capability.
"All of those are being carefully reviewed [to] determine the best course in order to have an effective enduring presence in the post-2014 period" in Afghanistan, Panetta added.
A harder job for the defense secretary will be to try to influence the outcome of the intractable problem of sequestration, a mechanism in the 2011 Budget Control Act that would trigger another $500 billion across-the-board defense spending cuts over the next decade, in addition to $487 billion in cuts already programmed, unless Congress identifies equivalent savings by January. Sequestration would require leaders to make very hard choices to ensure the department maintains technological superiority, maintains faith with its workforce and achieves the necessary cuts, the secretary said.
Since President Barack Obama's Nov. 6 re-election, Panetta said, some members of Congress have been speaking hopefully about finding a compromise on the issue.
"I really do think that, coming out of the election, this is a real opportunity for both Republicans and Democrats to address the fundamental challenge that faces this country with regards to our deficit," Panetta said.
From his own experience in dealing with budget deficits, the secretary said the only fair and effective way to reach an agreement on the bottom line is to consider all key areas of the federal budget.
"The fact is that we have addressed the discretionary area, taking almost $1 trillion out of discretionary areas, including almost half a trillion dollars from defense alone," Panetta said. "I think the responsibility now for both Republicans and Democrats has to be to look at what savings could be achieved on entitlements and what additional revenues need to be on the table as well."
The Defense Department already has made a significant contribution to deficit reduction, the secretary said, adding that the department has taken $487 billion over 10 years out of the defense budget "in a responsible way that's tied to a defense strategy that will take us into 2020 and beyond."
Before Congress looks for any more money from the Defense Department, Panetta added, "I want to see some progress with regards to both entitlements and revenues."
If Congress decides to delay the decision -- what Panetta calls "kicking the can down the road" -- he said the unsolved issue will represent a cloud over the Defense Department that is an unwelcome source of uncertainty.
Even when such issues are resolved, a reporter asked, does Panetta intend to stay on as defense secretary for four more years?
"Who the hell knows?" the secretary responded. "My experience in Washington is you'd better do this day to day."