The announcement Tuesday that the Senate confirmed Chuck Hagel as the next secretary of defense finally telegraphed the message outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been waiting for. It's all over.
After a rocky confirmation process, marred by partisan disputes over qualifications, Panetta may finally kick back at the California walnut farm he so often references and uses as a metaphor for Washington politics. (His "dodging nuts" line always gets a laugh.) Panetta, who was called to visit NATO after his farewell party, watched the Senate returns on Hagel from the West Coast, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
In an E-mail circulated to DoD staff moments after Hagel's successful confirmation, he cited the accomplishments he says have defined the Pentagon and military at large since taking office in July 2011.
It queued up a new uncertainty: What is Hagel, the decorated Vietnam veteran and two-term Nebraska senator, getting himself into?
U.S. News got a copy of the letter and broke it down with defense experts to grade Panetta's claims, and what kind of Pentagon Hagel inherits after his 7:30 a.m. swearing in on Wednesday.
"Because of all of your hard work, your sacrifice, and your dedication, we've kept this country safe."
"We've been safe, but our interests have suffered," says Steven Bucci, a retired Special Forces soldier and Pentagon official under Donald Rumsfeld, now with the Heritage Foundation.
There have been no successful attacks on U.S. soil while Panetta has been in office, but threats against Americans abroad continues to rise. U.S. diplomatic facilities in Libya and Yemen are particularly threatened.
"Current information suggests that al-Qaeda, its affiliated organizations, and other terrorist organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in multiple regions, including Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East," the State Department warned in a Feb. 19 notice. "These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics including suicide operations, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings, and bombings." Chris Griffin, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, says Panetta has always been "a passionate advocate for those at the front lines of our nation's defense," both during his tenure at the Pentagon and as director of the CIA. He specifically cites Panetta's oversight of the bin Laden raid.
"I'm proud of the courage and commitment you've displayed in combat, and for your determination to defeat our enemies, prevail over significant challenges in two wars, and give the people of Iraq and Afghanistan a chance at a much brighter future."
The conclusion of the war in Iraq was overseen by Panetta's predecessor, Robert Gates, Bucci points out. The situation in Afghanistan remains tenuous before the sloping reduction of U.S. combat troops, leading up to a full withdrawal by the end of 2014.
Inspector general reports have criticized Afghan's ability to maintain security without U.S. support. The future of U.S.-Afghan relations appears rocky after Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he would banish special operations forces for alleged torture and abuse, and has forbade Afghan forces from calling in U.S. airstrikes.
"I'm proud of the gains we've made in weakening Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups."
Experts agree that al-Qaeda in the Middle East has taken a big hit during the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the threat is not diminished worldwide.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has made headlines during a two-month-old battle between French and African forces in Mali, and the hostage situation at an Algerian natural gas plant. However, experts question how much of the force consists of hard liner al-Qaeda operatives versus the other indigenous fighters.
Panetta himself said in November, as a part of his overtures for more defense spending, that the al-Qaeda threat has diminished in Afghanistan but has spread to the world's stage.
"Together we're keeping our military agile, flexible, and ready; we're rebalancing our force posture; we're building new partnerships and investing in new technologies."
This has as much to do with Congress' mismanagement as with Panetta and his staff, says Jacob Stokes, a defense research analyst with the Center for a New American Security.
"[Panetta's] legacy will be overshadowed by the steep cuts scheduled to begin less than a week after his retirement," says Griffin. "Starkly put – Panetta took the first lifeboat off the Titanic. The Pentagon is wholly unprepared for sequestration (as though it could prepare), and despite Panetta's warnings about 'meat axes,' the Pentagon under his leadership failed to sound the alarm about sequestration until it was too late."
"I'm proud of expanding opportunities for everyone in the military, because I believe everyone deserves a chance to serve."
Panetta oversaw two sweeping changes to restrictions on service members during his tenure: The repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in the Fall of 2011, and lifting the ban on women serving in combat earlier this year.
Panetta deserves "special kudos" for overseeing the implementation of the DADT repeal, says Griffin.
All branches of the military have until January 2016 to justify any positions that should continue to exclude women. Many schools, such as the Marine Corps' grueling Infantry Officers Course, have stated they will not change any of their standards to accommodate women.
"I'm proud of what we've done to help and care for returning service members, veterans, and their families, who've sacrificed so much especially over this past decade of war."
"[This] is mostly due to the scope of the issues facing service members, veterans and their families. I couldn't give an 'A' in that range because there's so much left to be done," says Stokes.
"We are doing a lot, but more is still needed," says Bucci.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki was among the first to congratulate Hagel on his new position. George Little, the Pentagon press spokesman, said meeting with Shinseki would be among Hagel's first priorities, in order "to continue and deepen the strong partnership between the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs on common priorities for serving our troops, veterans, and military families."