Leon Panetta's Legacy at the Pentagon Includes Afghanistan Drawdown, Trimmed Budget

How Panetta shaped the Pentagon in a year and a half at the Defense Department.

Jan. 7 , 2013 -- President Obama's decision to nominate Chuck Hagel as defense secretary marks the end of a a short but very active tenure for the current Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, a man who has held a breadth of official jobs in Washington - from Congressman to White House Chief of Staff and CIA Director - even as he split time between the nation's capital and his family's walnut farm in Monterey, Calif.

Though his time at the Pentagon has been relatively brief, Secretary Leon Panetta's impact at the Defense Department resonates through his oversight of the troop reductions in Iraq and Afghanistan and the spending cuts that will trim the Pentagon's budget by hundreds of billions of dollars in the next decade.

In April 2011, President Obama announced his selection of Panetta, who was director of the CIA at the time, to succeed then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Unanimously confirmed by Congress, he was sworn in July 1, 2011, and inherited the management of two wars: Iraq and Afghanistan.

"In an extraordinarily difficult time in terms of the Iraq war, Afghanistan war, the budget, dealing with major equipment problems, dealing with the prospect of the serious reductions in spending, coping with a deeply divided Congress, Secretary Panetta did an excellent job moving the program forward, building on the legacy of Secretary Gates," Tony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.

Although he oversaw the tail-end of the war in Iraq and the start of troop withdrawals in Afghanistan, some argue that Panetta did not necessarily create a new path forward in the wars but instead worked off the plans of predecessor Gates.

When it came to the two wars, "He was not a particularly historic secretary," Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said. "The main contours of the policies were shaped by his predecessor, and in Afghanistan, we still haven't figured out where we're headed next."

While he has managed to wind down two wars, Panetta has also been tasked with trimming the Pentagon's budget by hundreds of billions of dollars through planned and unplanned cuts. The so-called sequestration cuts would add an additional half a trillion dollars in cuts to defense spending in the next decade on top of the Obama administration's $487 billion in planned cuts in the same time frame.

Panetta, 74, has been a vocal critic of the "sequestration" cuts that were set to go into effect early in January but were delayed for two months as part of the deal to avert the "fiscal cliff."

While he thanked Congress for the decision to delay the sequester, Panetta warned that "the cloud of sequestration remains. The responsibility now is to eliminate it as a threat by enacting balanced deficit reduction. Congress cannot continue to just kick the can down the road."

An experienced Washington player (he was a California congressman), Panetta's previous experience as the chairman of the House Budget Committee and director of the Office of Management and Budget suited his oversight of the administration's planned cuts. O'Hanlon says that budget experience lends weight to his reputation as "the most adamant guy in town to say the cuts won't go further than this."

Said Cordesman: "I think he positioned the department well, so everyone in Congress understands the risks and costs of sequestration of cutting too much."

O'Hanlon said, "He's had a pretty nice message on the budget and he's managed the politics of this reasonably well. There hasn't been any big insurrection from the joint chiefs or other corridors that would have been expected.

"We don't know if sequestration is going to happen and we don't know if there will be any further budget cuts. It's an optimistic budget right now, and somebody else is likely going to have to go back for a second round for changes in forces and weaponry."

Shortly after he became Defense secretary, Panetta and Admiral Mike Mullen, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, certified that the military was prepared to end the two-decade old "don't ask, don't tell," a law that prevented homosexual service members from serving openly in the military.

"This is a historic day for the Pentagon and the nation," Panetta told reporters on the day of DADT's repeal in September, 2011. "As secretary of Defense, I'm committed to removing all barriers that would prevent Americans from serving their country and from rising to the highest level of responsibility that their talents and capabilities warrant.

"These are men and women that put their lives on the line in defense of this country; that's what should matter most."

When Panetta was first selected for the post at the CIA in 2009, some expressed skepticism about how he would perform because he lacked little to no intelligence or national security experience. But Panetta's handling of the CIA and Pentagon eased the worries of many skeptics.

The highlight of his leadership atop the CIA was the operation that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden.

"People learned: never underestimate Panetta," O'Hanlon said. "The Pentagon, if anything, seemed a little bit more conducive to him, more of a management problem. ... I think, overall, he's been pretty solid."

Cordesman said, "In a partisan Washington, survival is to exceed expectation.

"I think that what really counts here is not whether he exceeded expectations. What I think it is that he did well. He did well and did well over a very difficult time."

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events