(WASHINGTON) — In one of his final speeches as defense secretary, Leon Panetta on Wednesday urged Congress to get its act together and warned that political dysfunction in Washington “poses a threat to our quality of life, to our national security, to our economy, to our ability to address the problems that confront this country.”
Speaking to students and faculty at Georgetown University, Panetta said overcoming the dysfunction is “perhaps the most urgent task facing this nation and facing all of us.” He said the current budgetary crisis creates uncertainty and doubt that “undermines the men and women in uniform who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to protect this country. It puts at risk our fundamental mission of protecting the American people.” And that, he said, is “a high price, a very high price, that could be paid as a result of governing by crisis.”
Panetta said, “we govern in our democracy either through leadership or through crisis” and right now “crisis drives policy in this country.” He added, “it has become too politically convenient to simply allow a crisis to develop and get worse and then react to the crisis.” He called that kind of leadership “the easy way out” that comes with a long-term “price to be paid,” which is losing 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,” he said, referring to last December’s Fiscal Cliff and the pending across the board “sequestration” cuts that could occur in March, which Panetta has repeatedly warned could hollow out the military.
Panetta warned Wednesday that the “pervasive budget uncertainty” creates a “serious risk…that threatens our security and threatens our economic future.”
Panetta took digs at the “so what” attitude among members of both parties to “see how bad it can get in order to have the other party blink.” It happened in the 1995 government shutdown and he fears what’s going on today will lead to a similar political backlash.
“Same damn thing is going to happen again if they allow this to occur,” said Panetta. “Those that do not learn the history — the lessons of history are bound to repeat the mistakes that were made, and we are about to see that happen again.”
“This is not a game. This is reality,” warned Panetta.
Panetta warned that if sequestration takes place, the department’s 800,000 civilians will have to miss up to 22 days of work and could face a 20 percent cut in their salaries.
On the military operations side of things he said training and maintenance cuts could put two-thirds of the Army’s brigade combat teams outside of Afghanistan “at a reduced readiness level.” And he warned that global naval operations would have to shrink, possibly by as much as a third in the Western Pacific which means “this whole idea about trying to re-balance (to the Pacific) will be impacted.”
“These steps would seriously damage the fragile American economy, and they would degrade our ability to respond to crisis precisely at a time of rising instability across the globe, North Africa, to the Straits of Hormuz, from Syria to North Korea,” he continued. “We would have no choice but to implement these kinds of measures if Congress fails to carry out its basic responsibility to the American people. This is no way to govern the United States of America.”
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