WASHINGTON — As he prepares to retire to his California walnut farm this month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is still fighting the battle that has consumed his entire tenure at the Pentagon: an increasingly desperate campaign to persuade Congress not to whack defense spending.
In recent days, Panetta, 74, has uttered near-apocalyptic warnings about what will happen if Congress does not do something by March 1 to avert a "doomsday scenario" under which the Defense Department could be required to slash $43 billion in spending in the next seven months, and as much as $500 billion in the next decade.
During a visit to a U.S. military base in Italy last month, he questioned lawmakers' courage, contrasting their inaction to his troops' willingness to give their lives for their country.
"You take the worst risks of all, which is that somebody may shoot you and you may die," Panetta said. "It's a hell of a risk. You know, all we're asking of our elected leaders is to take a small part of the risk" that might upsets some constituents.
At a farewell ceremony Friday at Fort Myer, Va., President Barack Obama praised Panetta, saying, "No one has raised their voice as firmly or as forcefully on behalf of our troops as you."
Obama also urged Congress to work out a new deal with him to avoid what he called "massive, indiscriminate cuts that could have a severe impact on our military preparedness."
It is the same message that Panetta has delivered, so far to no avail, almost every day since he took over as defense secretary in July 2011. The next month, he was saddled with the task of shrinking the military after Obama and Congress agreed to cut $487 billion in projected defense spending for the next 10 years.
But that was just the first swing of the ax. Under the rest of the deal, the Pentagon would be forced to cut $500 billion more in the same period if lawmakers and the White House could not come up with another, more palatable way to reduce the nation's record deficits.
It appears highly unlikely that Congress and the White House will reach a deal to spare the Pentagon before Panetta retires. It will fall to his successor — Obama has nominated former senator Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., for the job — to manage any further cuts.