By Mike Mount
In his final press briefing as defense secretary, Leon Panetta expressed concern over how the world will view the United States if it fails to avert steep budget cuts due to take effect in two weeks.
"What they (other countries) worry about is what I worry about, which is whether or not we can govern and whether or not we can face the tough decisions that have to be made and resolve those," Panetta said on Wednesday about the budget uncertainty.
Mandatory budget cuts impacting much of the government, also known as sequester, would kick in on March 1 if no deal is struck between the White House and Congress to avoid, defer or otherwise soften them.
For the Pentagon, sequester would mean almost $500 billion in cuts over 10 years. For 2013 alone, some $46 billion in reduced spending would result in "a serious disruption in defense programs and a sharp decline in our military readiness," Panetta said last week.
As he prepared to leave Washington for his home in California should his planned successor, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, be confirmed by the Senate later this week, Panetta said other countries are watching to see if the U.S. government can come together and solve the problem.
"There is a nervousness out there about whether, in fact, ultimately, we can rise to the challenge of governing ourselves and finding answers to the tough issues we are confronting," Panetta said.
"That's why I've said when we talk about national security, I think the greatest concern I have for our national security is that budget uncertainty and that inability to govern and find solutions," Panetta said.
Panetta said he was pleased President Barack Obama sought to explain in Tuesday's State of the Union address that budget cuts would have negative consequences on military readiness.
"There are jobs that are being lost, there's readiness that has been impacted," Panetta, a former congressman and White House budget director, said.
"The uncertainty is hurting people, and it's hurting our country, and members of Congress need to understand that they were elected to protect the public, not to hurt the public. And I hope they'll remember that as they hopefully work towards a resolution of this issue," he added.