In a rare moment of bipartisan agreement, the Senate on Tuesday voted unanimously to confirm CIA chief Leon Panetta as the next Defense secretary.
Panetta, who sailed through his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month, will succeed Robert Gates at the Pentagon on July 1 during a particularly crucial time for the Defense Department, both at home and overseas.
From his first day on the job, Panetta will be tasked with implementing the start of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan; President Obama is to announce the plans on Wednesday.
Like others before him, Panetta has called progress in Afghanistan "fragile and reversible," but he said he believes that the administration can begin to significantly reduce the U.S. presence there. During his confirmation hearing, Panetta also said that any cuts to the deployed U.S. force should be based on conditions on the ground and should not put at risk plans to pull combat troops out of the country by 2014.
Panetta's thinking appears to be in line with Obama's. The president is expected to announce plans for a "phased withdrawal" that would bring one combat brigade, or about 5,000 troops, home over the summer and begin pulling out a second brigade by the end of the year.
As he implements the Afghanistan drawdown, Panetta must also manage the military's ongoing operations in Iraq and Libya--and the latter could become an early political challenge for the new Defense secretary despite his strong relationships on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers are growing increasingly frustrated with Obama's refusal to seek congressional approval for the Libya operations, and some are agitating to cut off funding for the effort.
Within the Pentagon itself, the former Office of Management and Budget director and House Budget Committee chairman faces the daunting task of cutting the Defense Department's budget, which has more than doubled during the last decade, including war funding. Obama has announced plans to slash $400 billion from security spending over the next 12 years, and the military's budget is expected to bear the brunt of those reduced.
The Pentagon is now undergoing a "comprehensive review" to determine which areas--including force structure and missions--should be cut. Panetta said he agrees with the approach that the department is taking to find the cuts, and said that the Pentagon must "look at each area and determine where we're going to achieve savings in order to protect defense."