Posted: December 1, 2016 4:01 PM

Panetta, Thornberry: U.S. Must Be Clear with Security Policy Objectives, Enforcement

By OTTO KREISHER, Special Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Two veteran national security officials from opposite political parties agreed Dec. 1 that the United States needs to rebuild its military, re-establish its credibility with allies and potential adversaries, improve its ability to counter cyber threats and protect its space assets, and confront an aggressive Russia with strength.

Leon Panetta, a Democrat who served as defense secretary and CIA director, and House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican, also agreed that the Defense Department must be reorganized and become more agile to deal with the new and rapidly changing world threats.

During a joint appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS’) global security forum, both were critical President Barack Obama’s national security policies, particularly for failing to establish clearly what actions by potential adversaries are unacceptable and then enforcing those positions. Their criticism was focused primarily on actions against Russia and North Korea, but applied also to what they saw as uncertain policies and actions in dealing with the Islamic State extremists and Syria.

“If you don’t establish lines, Russia will realize that and take advantage of it,” Panetta said. “What happens today, [Russian Federation President Vladimir] Putin is seeing weakness and taking advantage of it, to create instability. That’s what they’re after.”

It is important for the president and Congress to make clear, “there are lines they cannot cross, countries they just cannot walk into… The United States has to make clear it will not stand for that new form of aggression,” he said.

“Russia respects nothing so much as strength, and has contempt for weakness,” Thornberry agreed. “I would start with strength… We need to rebuild the military to show strength.”

The nation also has to be able to deal with hybrid warfare, he said, referring to Russian tactics that fall into a gap between peace and open warfare, such as the seizure of Crimea with the unidentified Russian troops, popularly called “the little green men.”

 “We need to understand it and develop ways to deal with it,” he said.

The two strongly agreed that U.S. credibility has suffered from the Obama administration’s failure to act on warnings, such as the “red line” against Syria using chemical weapons.

“You can’t do much against any of our adversaries in the world if we’re not credible in what we say,” Panetta said. “If we say we’re going to do something, we have to do it.”

The credibility a president gains from doing what he says he will do “is, in many ways, more powerful than any weapon system,” Panetta said.

The two also called for stronger U.S. actions to stop North Korea’s violation of U.N. prohibition on developing nuclear weapons and testing increasingly capable ballistic missiles.

Panetta said North Korea was difficult to deal with because of its “very unpredictable leader,” Kim Jong-un, and a lack of good intelligence.

To deal with North Korea, “we have to have a strong coalition,” and work with Russia, South Korea and Japan, he said.

Although the international sanctions against Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs “are fine,” Panetta said, “we have to make clear we will not let them continue do this without actions.”

Thornberry agreed and emphasized improving U.S. ballistic missile defenses and increasing forces in the Pacific, particularly the Navy.

“When we get down to 280 ships, there’s not a lot we can do. We need more capacity,” he said.

Because of the turmoil over South Korean President Park Geun-hye and the pending change in the White House, Thornberry said, “I don’t know where, but I think there will be a testing period in this transition.”

In a later panel, CSIS’ Korean expert Victor Cha predicted that “North Korea will challenge the [Donald] Trump administration almost immediately on taking office.”

When asked his priorities for the next defense secretary, Thornberry said, “we have to rebuild the military. The combination of sequestration, budget cuts and the pace of operations have really damaged readiness. Our No. 1 goal is to rebuild the military.”

The chairman also saw a priority in changing the institutions inside the military to deal with the new security environment.

“The old institutions and processes will not get us through the new threats,” he said.

While agreeing with Thornberry on the need to strengthen the U.S. military, improve cyber and space capabilities, Panetta said the Defense Department would not be able to do that without stable and predictable defense budgets so it can know what weapons and systems it can plan for. He urged an agreement to end the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), which limits spending and creates the threat of sequestration.

Thornberry said he thought it would be possible with the new Congress and the Trump administration to change the BCA to allow more defense spending.

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