Libyan leader Moammer Gadhafi’s “days are numbered” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday at a joint appearance with Secretary of State Clinton, in Washington, D.C. In their first appearance together since Panetta succeeded Robert gates at the Pentagon, Clinton repeated her avoidance of explicitly calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, while insisting it was important to continue working with allies to further isolate Assad as the way to bring change to Syria. The event moderated by Frank Sesno of George Washington University was billed as a conversation with the two secretaries to discuss military-civilian cooperation going forward.
The two discussed everything from political reconciliation in Afghanistan, the recent violence in Iraq, famine in Somalia, to pension reform for the military. Security Clearance live-blogged the event
First question is from Sesno about the federal budget and the possibility of additional budget cuts to their departments –
Panetta says "we realize we are in a resource limitation" situation, but any further cuts beyond those already porposed would have "devestating" effects on our national defense. Panetta says it would break the faith with troops and their families. Clinton cites Panetta's role as budget chairman under her husband in which the federal government achieved a balanced budget as an example of what is possible. "We need to have responsibkle conversation about how we are going to prepare ourselves for the future," she says of dealing with long term challenges like the rise of China. Panetta says you must have a balanced approach that deals with both cuts and revenues.
Sesno asks Panetta question about CBS report on possibilty of reforming military pension and retirement system –
No decisions have been made Panetta says but theese are the kind of things you have to consider going forward. Panetta says you must think seriously about grand-fathering those already in the service with the present system (applause here from the audience which is comprised mostly of members of the military). "We've go tto look at everything and we should," Panetta says.
Question from audience about the teaching foreign language and culture training in current budget environment –
Panetta says he is a "big believer" in foreign language training, and cites his former role as CIA Director and knowing it is necessary to understand and operate in the world. Clinton says we should look for ways to coordinate the language training across the government to better streamline the way it is done.
Question from Sesno about those who say it is time to leave Afghanistan following tragic loss of Navy SEALs –
Panetta says "we cant forget the mission" of defeating Al Qaeda and allowing Afghanistan of becoming a haven again in which to plan attacks against the United States. Panetta says we have weakened the Taliban, and are helping build the Afghan army. "We are going in the right direction," Panetta says.
On the reliability of the Afghan government going forward, Clinton says part of the transition going forward is supoprting Afghan "reconciliation" which would include speaking to some members of the Taliban, says this must be Afghan ledf and owned political solution. On Karzai, Clinton says there is a "commitment" from the Karzai government on the political reconciliation process going forward. Says it is a "very strong signal" sent by Karzai who announced recently that he will not seek a third term as president.
Question from the audience on U.S. relationship with Pakistan–
Clinton says the relationship is of "paramount importance" and in the long term interests of both couintries. Clinton says Pakistanis have a viewpoint that must be respected of U.S. after U.S. pulled out of the region following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Panetta says relationship is "very complicated", because they have relationship with groups like the Haqqani group who also launch attacks across border in Afghanistan, but "there is no choice" but to maintain relationship with Pakistan becasue we are fighting Al Qaeda and they help the U.S. with that, and also because they are a nuclear power.
Question what is left of Al Qaeda –
It has seriously been weakend but they are still there and we must keep pressure on them. Panetta says this is not the time to pull out and we must keep pressure on Al Qaeda. Says death of Bin Laden "weakened" the group.
Question from Sesno about yesterday's attacks in Iraq –
Clinton says she deplores loss of life, but that recently the trajectory of violence in Iraq had been going down. Says Iraqis have more capacity to deal with violence but must exercise it such as naming defense and interior ministers to the long vacant posts to help coordinate the effort. Panetta says U.S. will have a long-term relationship with Iraq. Says we have established a "relatively stable" country through loss of blood and treasure. Clinton follows up and says the Obama administration is still following the Status of Forces Agreeement signed by the Bush administration and the Iraqi government which called for the U.S. military to pull out of Iraq by the end of 2011. However, she says there is a discussion the Iraqis are having internally and recently with the U.S. about a military training mission following 2011. If a country comes to us in a "normal diplomatic relation" saying they need military training it would be prudent for the U.S. to listen to a responsible request. She says the Iraqis have yet to do that.
Question from Sesno whether it is time for the U.S. to emphatically call for Syrian President Assad to step down –
"I think where we are is where we need to be," Clinton says. She says the world is seeing a "galvanizing international opinion against the Assad regime," but stops short of calling for Assad to leave. She cites strong statements from Arab League, Turkey, Saudi Arabia as examples of Assad's further isolation.
On Libya Panetta says his sense is the Gadafi's days "are numbered." Clinton says Libya is a "case for strategic patience" and notes that when the uprising started in March there was no opposition. Clinton heralds the current NATO-Arab alliance taking action running strike actions in Libya. "This is exactly the kind of world that i want to see" where the United States leads and other nations stand on the sidelines. "Part of leading is making sure you get other people on the field," Clinton says taking the analogy back to why the U.S. has not unilaterally called for Assad to step down. Says it must be collective.
On Somalia and the current famine crisis –
"On military side Panetta says U.S. military command AFRICOM is working with NGO's and otehrs on the ground to figure the best way the U.S. military can offer logistical assitance to getting food to the 12 million starving people. Clinton says nations like Ethiopia, Uganda and others are helping to pressure the militant group Al-Shabab that has been trying to block western aid to Somalia. She looks back to the 1992-93 U.S. led humanitarian response to famine in Somlia which culminated in the October 1993 "Black Hawk Down" episode, and says the U.S. should now lead a multi-layered effort to help "empower Africans themselves," to enable them to stand up for themselves agaisnt groups like Al-Shabab, and fight the famine.