WASHINGTON — As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's plane returned home Saturday night, completing his final official overseas trip, his staff gathered to salute his time as Pentagon chief and present him with a symbol of his tenure: a plastic meat ax.
After 19 months at the helm of the world's largest military, Panetta may go down in history as the CIA director who got Osama bin Laden. But his time in the Pentagon came at a critical moment — dominated by the nation's fiscal crisis and an endless struggle to protect the defense budget from billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts that he has repeatedly likened to a meat ax.
For President Barack Obama, Panetta's experience as a congressman and as budget director in the Clinton administration made him the perfect choice to take on Capitol Hill as the fiscal cliff loomed. So for the last year and a half, Panetta has cajoled, convinced and at times castigated lawmakers in his effort to protect the defense budget.
Lawmakers "just got to suck it up and take on some of the risks," Panetta told soldiers at a stop in Vincenza, Italy, during the trip. He said he tells lawmakers, "I've got men and women in uniform that put their lives on the line in order to fight for this country — you can have a small bit of the courage they have to do what you have to do."
The budget battle has eaten up much of his time, even as he oversaw the military's final, formal days in Iraq, the start of the last drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, and the end of the successful NATO campaign to end Moammar Gadhafi's reign in Libya.
And while the fiscal debate still rages on, those who worked with him on the Pentagon's E Ring say he was often effective in his dealings with Congress because he was comfortable on Capitol Hill and he spoke the language.
Panetta's personal style also drove his daily interactions. Unlike former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who read voraciously and could never have too many details, Panetta is a people person. He wants to see one or two pages of talking points and then sit down, face to face, to talk things through.
He's brought his affable personality and infectious, shoulder-shaking laugh to the diplomatic front. Meetings with Middle East leaders sometimes started with a bear hug, or ended in an invitation to go for drinks.
And as he returned to his family's ancestral homeland during his final trip for meetings with leaders there, Panetta — the self-described son of Italy — delivered the first few sentences in Italian.
His more genial style was underscored as he gave one of his final policy speeches at King's College in London. Gates, in his last speech, slammed NATO members for relying on the U.S. to carry the brunt of military responsibilities and said the alliance faced a "dim, if not dismal future." Panetta, instead, used his swansong to gently prod allies to be more flexible and creative and to not let budget constraints prevent them from facing security challenges that come up.
Panetta's Pentagon tour saw its share of controversy in the military, with prostitution scandals, spikes in sexual assaults and suicides, and ethical lapses by a handful of senior military leaders. His tenure was much shorter and not nearly as tumultuous as those of his two predecessors, Gates and Donald H. Rumsfeld. The Pentagon agenda had largely been set before Panetta replaced Gates, and the administration saw no need for a major course correction.
However, Panetta drew from his two years as CIA chief to escalate the use of drones for both counterterrorism strikes and intelligence gathering. While he profited from Gates' campaign to dramatically increase investments in drones, he expanded their use to target the al-Qaida affiliates around the world. And he opened up the public debate over them a bit when, on the tarmac at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, Panetta became one of the first U.S. officials to talk openly about the CIA's use of killer drones — long a taboo subject.
During speeches in the last week, as he set the table for his legacy, Panetta talked repeatedly of the war on al-Qaida. The man behind the raid that killed bin Laden wants to ensure that the targeting continues, and that it blocks the terror network from gaining footholds in North Africa, Somalia and Yemen, and from returning to its bases in Afghanistan.
Panetta insists that al-Qaida's leadership has been decimated. But he acknowledges the fight is far from over and victory not yet in reach. In fact, he spent much of his last trip dealing with the hostage crisis in Algeria, where Islamic militants linked to al-Qaida attacked a natural gas complex in the middle of the Sahara desert.
Sometime next month, Panetta will leave the Pentagon, finally returning home to his beloved walnut farm in Carmel, Calif. In the farewell ceremony on board his military plane, the son of Italy thanked his staff for working to protect America, saying he believes they made the world safer.
In turn, they presented him with a cake. Across the top was written: Arrivederci.
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