WASHINGTON — Leon Panetta, the nominee to be the next secretary of defense, ducked gentle questioning Thursday from the Senate Armed Services Committee about President Obama's plans to reduce U.S. troops in Afghanistan and to cut defense spending by $400 billion over the next 12 years.
Panetta revealed little, saying he's yet to be confirmed by the Senate. But that appears to be a mere formality, as the committee's confirmation hearing was more of a love fest than a grilling for the popular 72-year-old Panetta.
Obama nominated Panetta to succeed Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who's stepping down June 30 after serving at the Pentagon for 4 1/2 years under former President George W. Bush and Obama.
"I can't thank you enough for being willing to do this job after being CIA director," gushed Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "So now some hard questions."
Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., pressed Panetta on whether he agreed with Obama's statement that the upcoming troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would be significant. Levin has said that he wants to see at least 15,000 service members return from Afghanistan. Panetta didn't give Levin a number and simply replied, "I agree with the president's statement."
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top-ranked Republican on the committee, went in the opposite direction, asking Panetta whether he thinks that the president should exercise caution in the number of troops withdrawn. McCain has argued that no more than 3,000 service members should be brought home from Afghanistan starting in July.
"So would you agree with Secretary Gates' repeated statements that withdrawals in July should be, quote, modest?" McCain inquired.
Panetta said any withdrawal should be conditions-based but quickly added: "Senator, if I'm confirmed, I'll obviously arrive at a decision myself that I'll have to ultimately present to the president. But I'm not in that position now, and the decision really does rest with General Petraeus and Secretary Gates and the president," Panetta said.
McCain told Panetta he has deep reservations about plans to cut $400 billion in defense spending by 2023, saying that "defense spending is not what is sinking this country into fiscal crisis."