By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - On his last trip abroad as U.S. defense secretary, Leon Panetta was asked what he thought of "Zero Dark Thirty," the movie about the intense manhunt and daring raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
"You know what," chuckled Panetta, who as CIA director oversaw the raid two years ago. "I lived it. It's a great movie, but I lived it."
As he heads home to California, the 74-year-old Panetta will inevitably be remembered more as the CIA director who got bin Laden than as the Pentagon chief who oversaw shrinking defense budgets and the winding down of the Afghanistan war.
But military officials and analysts say Panetta, who had decades of public service but just 19 months as defense secretary, also left a mark on the Pentagon.
He removed barriers to women in direct combat jobs, which had limited their ability to reach the highest ranks. And he oversaw the lifting of the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
Panetta helped fashion a U.S. defense strategy for the post-9/11 era and won military chiefs' support for $487 billion in cuts to defense spending, all while maintaining a sense of collegiality and consensus, officials said.
Senate Republicans, who verbally browbeat Panetta's likely successor, Chuck Hagel, at his confirmation hearing, praised the outgoing defense chief, not least for trying to hold the line on even deeper budget cuts.
"Nobody was more passionate, no one was more outspoken than Leon Panetta and I am grateful," said Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, who nonetheless disagreed with his decision on gays in the military.
Revolutionary change did not mark his tenure, and some fault him for being too eager to find consensus. He leaves behind a Pentagon that is two weeks away from deeper, across-the-board spending reductions that he railed against for months.
"He is a Washington insider, a budget expert and he was an excellent caretaker for DoD during a very contentious presidential election year where defense was in fact a relatively big issue," said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Defense secretary was not a job Panetta coveted.
After the intense months that led up to the raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the CIA chief was done, officials said, and ready to return to California and the walnut farm where he grew up collecting the fruit his Italian immigrant father would shake from the trees.
Panetta is fond of saying when he decided to pursue a career in public service, his father told him he was well-trained for Washington because "you've been dodging nuts all your life."
But Obama wasn't ready to let Panetta return to his California nuts. Facing huge deficits after a decade of war and the worst economy in a generation, he wanted Panetta's budget expertise at the Pentagon.
Panetta declined, but Obama pressed harder and by June 2011, he was at work in the defense secretary's office along the Pentagon's E-ring corridor.
The shift to Panetta from Defense Secretary Robert Gates brought a marked change in tone to the Pentagon. Where Gates tended to be serious, reserved and formal, Panetta was humorous, irreverent and casual.
Between them, officials and analysts say, they restored civilian-military ties that were badly frayed by the disputes in the early Bush administration over the handling of the wars.
Both men were keenly interested in the young troopers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Panetta's gift was his ability to light up a room with laughter, even if that room was a hospital ward filled with veterans recuperating from war wounds, military officials said.
"He brought a fiery energy, enthusiasm and humor to the job, and a genuine fondness for soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen," General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an email.
Announcing the decision to allow women in combat, Panetta praised the troops, male and female. "They're fighting and they're dying together. And the time has come for our policies to recognize that reality," he said.
Panetta's candor was legendary; another military official likened him to an "open-faced sandwich." Continued...