Panetta Discusses U.S. Focus on Pacific, Middle East

WASHINGTON, March 9, 2012 — The Pacif­ic will be a grow­ing focus for the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary in the years to come, but the Mid­dle East also must remain a pri­or­i­ty, Defense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panet­ta said in Hawaii yes­ter­day.

The sec­re­tary is in Hon­olu­lu to pre­side at today’s change-of-com­mand cer­e­mo­ny for U.S. Pacif­ic Com­mand. Navy Adm. Robert F. Willard will pass com­mand of the largest U.S. com­bat­ant com­mand to Navy Adm. Samuel J. Lock­lear III.

In a meet­ing with local reporters, Panet­ta addressed the impor­tance of the Asia-Pacif­ic region to the Unit­ed States, but also field­ed ques­tions on Iran and Syr­ia. “As we empha­size and focus on the Pacif­ic and the region, this will remain a very impor­tant com­mand and base, and we will con­tin­ue to empha­size this region,” the sec­re­tary said.

Panet­ta also empha­sized that this is a his­toric time for the Defense Depart­ment.

“We’re at a turn­ing point after 10 years of war,” he said. “We’ve end­ed the mis­sion in Iraq, and we’ve turned a cor­ner in Afghanistan. We still have a war there, but I think we are on a bet­ter path toward tran­si­tion in Afghanistan.”

U.S. forces par­tic­i­pat­ed in NATO oper­a­tions that removed Moam­mar Gad­hafi from pow­er in Tripoli and gave Libya back to the Libyan peo­ple, he not­ed. “On ter­ror­ism,” he added, “we’ve scored sig­nif­i­cant suc­cess against the lead­er­ship of al-Qai­da, although ter­ror­ism itself remains a threat.”

These suc­cess­es must be viewed through the prism of eco­nom­ic dif­fi­cul­ties, Panet­ta said. The Unit­ed States is fac­ing severe bud­get prob­lems with record deficits and record debt, and Con­gress has man­dat­ed cut­ting $487 bil­lion from the defense bud­get over the next 10 years.

“This hap­pens at a time when we face some sig­nif­i­cant threats in the world,” he said. “We’re still fight­ing a war, we are still con­fronting ter­ror­ism. We have threats from Iran and from North Korea. We have the Mid­dle East in tur­moil, we have ris­ing pow­ers in the Pacif­ic, and we have the threats of cyber war.”

Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma direct­ed the Pen­ta­gon to devel­op a new defense strat­e­gy, Panet­ta told reporters, and lead­ers used this new guid­ance to make bud­get deci­sions. The strat­e­gy is the basis for build­ing the force need­ed for the future, and the shift­ing of focus to the Pacif­ic, he said. And the strat­e­gy puts the mil­i­tary on the right path while still doing the Defense Department’s part to solve the deficit cri­sis, he added.

The mil­i­tary will become a small­er and lean­er force, Panet­ta said, but it will be more agile, quick­ly deploy­able and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly advanced under the new strat­e­gy.

“Part of our strat­e­gy was to empha­size our pres­ence in the Pacif­ic and the Mid­dle East,” he said. “We are a Pacif­ic pow­er, and we will remain one.”

The Unit­ed States main­tains forces in the Pacif­ic “because we believe this is an impor­tant area eco­nom­i­cal­ly, mil­i­tar­i­ly, strate­gi­cal­ly and in terms of the allies that we have in this region,” the sec­re­tary said. But even in the mid­dle of the Pacif­ic, the Mid­dle East still is a con­cern, he added.

Reporters asked Panet­ta about U.S.-Israeli coop­er­a­tion on Iran. U.S. and Israeli lead­ers have dis­cussed Israeli mis­sile defense, and the two coun­tries con­tin­ue a very close mil­i­tary rela­tion­ship, he said. U.S. and Israeli lead­ers held a series of dis­cus­sions in the past week, the sec­re­tary not­ed. Iran obvi­ous­ly was a mat­ter dis­cussed at the high­est lev­els, he said, and the Unit­ed States under­stands Israeli lead­ers must make deci­sions they believe are in their country’s best inter­ests, and Amer­i­ca will do the same.

“When it comes to Iran, we have com­mon cause against Iran, [and] we have the same con­cerns as Israel with regards to [Iran] obtain­ing a nuclear weapon,” the sec­re­tary said.

The Unit­ed States has made it clear that a nuclear Iran is not accept­able, Panet­ta said.

“We are going to pre­vent them from obtain­ing a nuclear weapon,” Panet­ta said. “We are also going to ensure they are not going to close the Straits of Hor­muz.”

U.S. lead­ers believe sanc­tions against Tehran are work­ing, the sec­re­tary said. “We think diplo­ma­cy and hold­ing the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty togeth­er to apply that pres­sure needs to con­tin­ue and that’s the right way to go right now,” he added. “We hope Israel will con­tin­ue to be part of that inter­na­tion­al effort.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)