Amid a continuing war in Afghanistan, a new operation in Libya, ongoing military efforts in Iraq and a failing foreign policy doctrine, President Barack Obama has proposed cutting the already overstretched U.S. military by $400 billion. And today, he is expected to nominate CIA Director Leon Panetta to serve as Secretary of Defense, replacing the retiring Robert Gates. As Panetta stands for confirmation, the Senate must ask whether Panetta is the right man for the job of helping to provide for America’s defense.

The Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano, Ph.D., writes that there are five main questions the Senate should pose to Panetta to determine whether he will honestly assess what the U.S. military needs to ensure a common defense or merely go along with the president:

1. Defense budget: President Obama has repudiated his own defense review (the Quadrennial Defense Review), which he delivered in 2010 and which by law is supposed to provide an honest assessment of project needs. Now, his recent decision to pick an arbitrary goal of $400 billion in defense cuts over the next decade—and then ask for a review to justify it—will be your first job in office. Why should we trust you to do anything but rubber-stamp his demands?

2. Vital priorities: Do you agree that instead of cutting defense, the next Secretary of Defense should be focused on helping the U.S. military win in Afghanistan, identifying a clear plan for the United States with and in Iraq beyond December, avoiding mission creep in Libya while actually helping create a coherent strategy for the Arab “Spring,” and crafting a clear, more effective policy toward Iran to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power?

3. China: We need a rational, credible plan to counter the People’s Republic of China’s large-scale military modernization program. Can you deliver on a plan that will ensure that the U.S. remains a capable stabilizing military force in Asia—one that never has to fear intimidation from China?

4. Missile defense: Since entering office, President Obama has negotiated the New START nuclear agreement with Russia that has diminished U.S. stature as a nuclear power. He has cut back U.S. missile defense posture to what he believes is just-enough, just-in-time missile defense, rather than building robust defenses that would answer potential threats. Do you think that was smart? Would it not have been wiser to do everything within his power to ensure that the U.S. and its allies have the most robust defenses possible against threats from Iran and North Korea?

5. Homeland protection: The U.S. must be better prepared for protecting the homeland. Despite all its rhetoric, this Administration actually cut the number of specially trained and equipped military forces that would respond to a weapons of mass destruction incident. That seems wrongheaded. Will you do more to ensure the homeland is adequately protected, including for emerging threats like cyber attacks?

These questions are vitally important in light of what the Panetta pick could mean for the military. The Hill reports:

Shifting Panetta to DOD “probably means bigger cuts to the defense budget,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.

“Secretary Gates was strongly committed to maintaining a robust defense posture, but Panetta will be more interested in getting along with the White House, which must find ways of cutting the deficit,” Thompson said. …

“Putting Panetta in as defense secretary means Obama now has an ally at the Pentagon,” said one senior GOP congressional aide. “He will be more inclined to agree with the president on a number of issues where Gates might have pushed back or disagreed with the president.”

Making arbitrary cuts to the military and walking in lock-step with the president is not what America needs from the person responsible for directing our armed forces, defending our homeland, and ensuring that our military has all that it needs to execute its mission around the world. It needs a strong leader who can help turn around the Administration’s sad record on foreign policy and national security while also pushing back against dangerous cuts to defense. The Senate must now determine whether Leon Panetta is up to the task.

Quick Hits: