My Kingdom For a Comprehensive Discussion Of Defense and National Security Policy

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on May 16, 2011

Having been witness to a confab regarding fiscal and economic policy, I decided to be part of a defense and national security policy talk as well by attending this event with Donald Rumsfeld. As readers will recall, I met Secretary Rumsfeld once before, and by going to today’s event, I had the chance to thank him for giving me an opportunity to interview him via podcast. During today’s event, I and others also had the chance to ask the Secretary all sorts of questions regarding his career, as well as questions affecting defense and national security policy, after the Secretary made some brief comments concerning the writing of his book.

When it was my turn at the microphone, I noted that within the next month or so, the Senate would hold confirmation hearings to determine who would be the 23rd Secretary of Defense, and that thus far, the overwhelming majority of the commentary concerning Leon Panetta’s nomination revolved around his experience with budgets, and how he might use that experience to cut the Pentagon’s budget, given the current fiscal pressures we face. But of course, there is a great deal more to being Secretary of Defense than dealing with the Pentagon budget, so I asked Secretary Rumsfeld what other issues he would focus on discussing were he a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and were he able to ask questions of Leon Panetta.

In response, the Secretary noted that cyberwarfare continues to remain a threat to the American way of life, given the degree to which we are dependent on the Internet in conducting our lives. He referenced the Dark Winter exercises, and the truly scary results of those exercises. And he emphasized the need to augment our intelligence capabilities, noting quite properly that to fail to do so would be to invite hundreds of thousands, or even millions of deaths due to a lack of intelligence concerning existing and emerging threats. All of these issues, along with efforts to further reform the Pentagon in the teeth of opposition from the Iron Triangle, need to be discussed–in addition to the Pentagon budget–during the course of Director Panetta’s confirmation hearings, according to Secretary Rumsfeld.

Secretary Rumsfeld’s conclusions seem non-controversial, in addition to seeming correct. So, the question is why we haven’t expanded our discussion of the challenges facing the next Secretary of Defense beyond talk about what the next Secretary of Defense might do regarding the Pentagon budget.

I was one of those people who did a double-take when Leon Panetta was named Director of Central Intelligence. He had no intelligence background, and I worried that he would be in over his head, and treated like an outsider by a hostile intelligence community. But give the intelligence community their due; they gave Panetta every chance to succeed. And give Panetta his due; my concerns notwithstanding, by all accounts he did a good job of winning the trust and respect of the CIA. It helped, of course, that he protected the Agency’s turf from encroachment by Dennis Blair, the Obama Administration’s first Director of National Intelligence, and he also protected the Agency from efforts to get it enmeshed anew in the debate over torture. But Panetta also acquitted himself quite well in the operation to kill Osama bin Laden, and has proven himself a serious player in the national security field.

So why are we treating him like a green eyeshade who coincidentally is about to get access to guns and bombs? If Panetta has shown to all that he is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the design and implementation of national security policy, why not open the line of issues to be discussed to include the topics Secretary Rumsfeld brought up during the course of his discussion? Oh, I am sure that members of the Senate Armed Services Committee will ask Panetta questions that don’t have to do with the Pentagon budget. But in general, the media–and we as a polity–have done a pretty poor job of bringing up those questions, and those issues; focusing instead on the budgetary challenges awaiting the next Secretary of Defense to the near exclusion of all other topics.

This is myopic. I am glad Osama bin Laden is dead, and I think his death means a real victory on multiple fronts for the United States. But there are still threats out in the world, as Secretary Rumsfeld succinctly and accurately pointed out in his response to my question. It’s high time we had ourselves a serious talk about those threats. After all, making budgetary ends meet is not the only issue that’s going to keep Leon Panetta up at night if and when he is confirmed as the 23rd Secretary of Defense.

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