WASHINGTON – On his first day as Pentagon chief, Leon Panetta said his top priorities are preserving U.S. military power despite budget cuts, defeating al-Qaida, stabilizing Afghanistan and forging a "real and lasting partnership" with Iraq.
Panetta huddled Friday with the Joint Chiefs of Staff shortly after taking the oath as the nation's 23rd secretary of defense, signaling that he intends to follow the example of his predecessor, Robert Gates, in building ties with the military brass. He said he would, like Gates, put a premium on advocating for the needs of troops and their families.
"Rest assured that ... I will fight for you," he said in a Fourth of July video message to U.S. troops worldwide.
He sounded the same theme at his swearing-in, which was closed to reporters. According to a Pentagon spokesman, Marine Col. David Lapan, Panetta said during the brief oath-taking ceremony in his new office, "There is no higher responsibility for a secretary of defense than to protect those who are protecting America."
The former eight-term congressman and one-time White House budget chief is likely to begin visiting troops in the field this summer. Gates flew to Iraq the day after he was sworn in, to show his support for the troops.
Panetta came to the Pentagon after 2½ years as CIA chief, a tenure highlighted by the May 2 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. At age 73, Panetta is the oldest incoming defense secretary in history and the first Democrat to run the far-flung Defense Department since William J. Perry completed his tenure in January 1997.
With Panetta replacing Gates, the pieces of President Barack Obama's rejiggered national security team began falling into place. Panetta's replacement at the CIA, Army Gen. David Petraeus, was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday, as was Ryan Crocker, the veteran diplomat who takes over as U.S. ambassador in Kabul later this month.
Petraeus' designated successor, Marine Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, is on track for Senate confirmation shortly and is tentatively scheduled to assume command in Kabul in mid-July.
In a written message to all military and civilian Pentagon employees, Panetta made clear that he recognizes the budget challenges he will face, and he pledged not to allow a money crunch to weaken the military.
"There will be no hollow force on my watch," he wrote.
His predecessor two times removed, Donald H. Rumsfeld, wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece Friday that Panetta's main challenge, beyond successfully concluding the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, will be fending off White House and congressional "raids" on defense spending.
"The conventional wisdom seems to be that, as a former budget director, Mr. Panetta will know how to skillfully draw down the Pentagon in the 'postwar' period to come," Rumsfeld wrote. "We ought to wish him success in proving the conventional wisdom wrong."
Panetta expressed confidence that he can strike an appropriate balance between defense needs and budget constraints.
"While tough budget choices will need to be made, I do not believe in the false choice between fiscal discipline and a strong national defense," he wrote. "We will all work together to achieve both."
On his watch later this year, Panetta may face an Iraqi government request that some of the roughly 47,000 U.S. forces still in the country stay beyond the end of this year, when all U.S. troops are supposed to go home.
In his Friday message, Panetta said the U.S. would "continue our transition out of Iraq" but not abandon the Iraqis.
"We must cement a strategic relationship with the Iraqi government, one based not solely on our military footprint there but on a real and lasting partnership," he wrote, adding that it is in U.S. interests to see Iraq become a stable democracy.
Robert Burns can be reached at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP