New U.S. defense chief sees tough budget choices

WASHINGTON: Leon Panetta was sworn in as U.S. defense secretary Friday promising to keep the military strong while making tough choices on defense spending cuts.

Panetta, who as CIA director helped oversee the operation that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden two months ago, arrives at the Pentagon at a moment of transition in the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and intense debate over the American role in Libya.

But the budget battle may be as big a challenge as the wars he will inherit.

President Barack Obama has called on the Defense Department to come up with $400 billion in cuts over 12 years as he struggles to reduce the country’s $1.4 trillion deficit and $14 trillion debt.

Panetta, in a message to U.S. forces around the world, said that would “require us all to be disciplined in how we manage taxpayer resources.”

“While tough budget choices will need to be made, I do not believe in the false choice between fiscal discipline and a strong national defense. We will all work together to achieve both,” he said.

The 73-year-old was greeted upon arrival at the Pentagon by Marine Lieutenant General John Kelly.

Kelly, the senior military assistant to outgoing Pentagon chief Robert Gates, will continue in the position under Panetta, who must oversee a faster-than-expected Afghanistan drawdown announced by Obama last month. About a third of the U.S. forces in the country will be withdrawn by next summer.

In a long career that included positions as White House chief of staff and budget director, Panetta was also an army intelligence officer in the 1960s. He promised to keep the U.S. military the strongest in the world, despite the fiscal pressures.

Panetta must also oversee a total withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of the year, even as rising violence raises questions about that country’s future.

Panetta told Congress last month he expected Iraq to eventually ask Washington to keep some U.S. troops in the country beyond the end-2011 deadline for their withdrawal. He made no mention of that prediction Friday, stressing only the need to cement a strategic relationship with the Iraqi government as “we continue our transition out of Iraq.”

“It is in America’s interests to help Iraq realize its potential to become a stable democracy in a vitally important region in the world,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 02, 2011, on page 11.




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