Leon Panetta started work as Defense Secretary Friday morning. After he took the oath of office, Panetta issued a statement to the Department of Defense with a clear but familiar message. "Our nation is at war," wrote Panetta. We must prevail against our enemies. We will persist in our efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately defeat Al Qaeda." After some boilerplate language about supporting the troops and maintaining the superiority of the American military, Panetta hit on the question of the hour: the military budget. "I do not believe in the false choice between fiscal discipline and a strong national defense," he declared.
Discipline is precisely Panetta's challenge. As public opinion against America's foreign military engagements continues to soar, folks are digging deep into the specific numbers. NPR pointed out this week that the United States is spending more on air conditioning in Afghanistan and Iraq than it is on exploring the cosmos. Seriously, the military drops $20.2 billion on cooling costs in the Middle East. NASA's entire budget is roughly $18.5 billion. Congress isn't trying to hide from these numbers. The Hill reported Friday that "as few as 30 House Republicans would likely consider voting against a debt-ceiling deal that cuts $300 billion from security spending."
On her show Thursday, Rachel Maddow looked at the ballooning defense budget numbers, the public's widespread disapproval of the wars abroad, and the Senate's unanimous decisions to install Panetta as Defense Secretary and General David Patraeus as Director of the CIA:
"The Hill" newspaper released a poll last week showing 72 percent of the American people think we are involved in too many foreign conflicts overseas, a record number of Americans now favor removing the U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Heading into this year, 66 percent of Americans oppose the war in Iraq.
And the public, by and large, now opposes U.S. military intervention in Libya as well. And in that sort of environment, we just confirmed a new secretary of defense and a new CIA director in the span of a week and a half with zero dissent.
Not to say that these guys personally embody the problem, but where's the debate on this problem?
In the immediate future, the debate will happen on Capitol Hill and focus aggressively on the budget. So far, it looks like Congress is open to talking about solutions but pessimistic about deep budget cuts. "We need an honest debate on how much is needed to preserve our security, but let me say this--we can only substantially cut these programs at our nation's peril," Senator Daniel Inouye, head of the Appropriations Committee in charge of military spending, said in a statement.
The government seems otherwise willing to keep communication channels open. There's been a doubling down of the administration's attempt to engage online lately. The Department of Defense spokesperson Col. Dave Lapan tweeted Panetta's first words as Defense Secretary Friday morning: "Secretary #Panetta at swearing-in: "No higher responsibility for a Secretary of Defense than to protect those who are protecting America." Panetta is also already sending messages to the troops using the Department of Defense's YouTube channel. The White House meanwhile announced Thursday that Obama would host a Twitter town hall on July 6 to talk about the economy and budget concerns. "Twitter offers a compelling way to not only get information out but also to understand what people have to say about an issue," said Macon Phillips, the director of digital strategy for the president. "That is why we are doubling down on our online engagement efforts."
Well, the social media efforts are a starting point. We doubt that Patraeus will be doing the same at the CIA, though.