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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Look out for Leon

Talleyrand wishes the new American Secretary of Defence, Mr Leon Panetta, much success in his new job. It won’t be easy – though not just for all the usual reasons of running one of the world’s largest bureaucracies with so many vested interests and being charged with responsibility for the lives (and sadly, the deaths) of so many thousands.

Mr Panetta faces an additional challenge relating to character. He is widely seen – with some justification – as one of Washington’s premier wise men… street-smart from the start and a survivor of many bureaucratic and political battles. Most of all, he has been considered a “can-do” man – from his work to save Monterey Bay to his salvaging of the Clinton White House to, most recently, his popular and successful stewardship of CIA.

We should remember, however, that one of the reasons Mr Panetta’s predecessor in the Pentagon, Robert Gates, was so highly regarded was for his caution, even cynicism. More often than not, he was the hesitant voice in the room, saying Mr President, hang on, maybe you should consider this, or have you thought about that?  From early days in the Nixon, Carter and Reagan administrations, Mr Gates learned well the perils of policy enthusiasm. Ultimately, as has been pointed out already by a few people, he may go down in history more for what he did not do as Secretary of Defence, or for what the USA did not do on his watch, than for what he did.

“Can-do’ism” is the credo of the American military. But, when budgets are shrinking along with the will of the American people and America’s allies for forward military policies, it poses some risk. Mr Panetta has been quoted in his last post to the effect of, if it hadn’t been for us, this or that never would have got done (who better, in fact, than a son of Calabria to master the CIA!). But we already know what the American military can do when it sets it sets its mind to it. Its problems come when political masters demand that it do too much, especially too much of the wrong thing. Doing more with less can lead to big and very costly mistakes.

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