How Leon Panetta could change Washington as next Defense secretary
Leon Panetta, currently CIA director, is a close ally of Vice President Biden. But political realities could prevent him from adopting Mr. Biden's stance on US troops in Afghanistan.
Among President Obama‚Äôs greatest national security challenges has been deciding who will replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as the widely popular Pentagon chief prepares to leave his post this summer.
Coming to that decision has involved a delicate confluence of considerations. Who is suitably steeped in defense policy matters? Who will have credibility both with the White House and within the halls of the Pentagon? And equally important, how will a new Defense secretary affect the balance of power within Mr. Obama‚Äôs cabinet?
The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, scheduled to begin this summer, has no doubt factored into the deliberations about a defense chief. That official, and the entire national security team, will also have to grapple with the continued US presence in Iraq, the nuclear ambitions of Iran, and something closer to home: the difficult decisions that the Pentagon leader will have to make about the defense budget.
The White House has confirmed that on Thursday Obama will name Leon Panetta, currently director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as the next Defense secretary. And Gen. David Petraeus, now the top US commander in Afghanistan, will take Mr. Panetta‚Äôs place at the CIA.
It remains to be seen whether Panetta, like Secretary Gates himself, will align closely with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in defense policy debates, or with Vice President Joe Biden, who has lobbied hard to step up the pace of the departure of US troops from Afghanistan.
As it stands now, Gates and Secretary Clinton are ‚Äúan extraordinarily powerful team,‚ÄĚ says retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, who heads the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank that has served as a recruiting ground for the Obama administration. ‚ÄúThey‚Äôre very pragmatic, and they‚Äôve gained strength from reinforcing each other and from developing what appears to be a very genuine rapport.‚ÄĚ
This rapport was not necessarily Obama‚Äôs chief aim when he assembled his cabinet. He subscribed to a philosophy that involved facilitating debate ‚Äúby bringing people together who weren‚Äôt likely to agree with each other, and didn‚Äôt have much of a relationship with him,‚ÄĚ says Stephen Biddle, an adviser to senior military officials including Petraeus and a defense policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. ‚ÄúIn the next round, he may want to bring in people he has had more of a relationship with.‚ÄĚ
This could, in turn, portend policy changes. ‚ÄúThe power narrative of this administration on security issues has been an alliance between Clinton and Gates against the vice president and the national security adviser,‚ÄĚ Dr. Biddle says. ‚ÄúFrom what I can tell, neither of the camps has ever persuaded the other of its views, and neither one has made much effort at breaking into the other‚Äôs fortress. What you get is a series of compromised stalemates.‚ÄĚ
More shifts are in store for Obama‚Äôs national security team. The current term of Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ends later this year. He is widely expected to be replaced by Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
On Thursday, Obama will also announce a new ambassador to Afghanistan: veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker.
For now, the role of the next Defense secretary looms largest. Someone more closely aligned with Mr. Biden, analysts point out, could conceivably spur a renewed push for a speedier withdrawal from Afghanistan. Panetta is a longtime friend of Biden, with whom he served in Congress, and they have a history of supporting each other in White House power struggles.
During his time at the CIA, Panetta has intensified drone strikes against insurgents in Pakistan ‚Äď an approach that Biden, too, has supported.
Still, in Afghanistan, it‚Äôs another matter whether a stepped-up US troop withdrawal makes political sense. Currently, the US public is relatively quiet on the issue, Biddle points out. Polls that find the pubic generally supports bringing troops home also find that those people ‚Äúaren‚Äôt paying that much attention to the war,‚ÄĚ he says.
Quicken the pace of US troop withdrawals, and the GOP has new ammunition. ‚ÄúIt runs the risk of changing the politics of the war,‚ÄĚ says Biddle. ‚ÄúThe controversy level could increase radically ‚Äď and Republicans could decide it‚Äôs a chance to attack the president as soft on terrorism.‚ÄĚ Staying the course in Afghanistan, then, seems a prudent move going into the 2012 election season, he adds.
News of the expected nominations was greeted with skepticism in some circles. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, for example, questioned the choice of Petraeus (who will retire from the military before assuming the CIA post). The general is more a ‚Äúconsumer‚ÄĚ of intelligence than a producer, she argued. A White House official disputed this characterization, saying he was deeply steeped in intelligence matters.
In any event, his move is widely seen as a bid to bring further national security credibility to the administration. ‚ÄúPetraeus as CIA director brings complete fluency to the war in Afghanistan,‚ÄĚ Dr. Nagl says.
Petraeus is likely to support Biden‚Äôs push for an advisory and counterterrorism-focused mission in Afghanistan ‚Äď eventually. ‚ÄúPetraeus would argue that conditions on the ground need to be set first ‚Äď from the insurgency being diminished and the Afghan security forces being strengthened‚ÄĚ before the US military can do more advising and less fighting, Nagl says.
Ultimately, however, the new Defense secretary‚Äôs agenda is likely to be driven less by wars half a world away and more by budget matters ‚Äď a key concern for voters.
Panetta‚Äôs experience as former director of the Office of Management and Budget is likely to be ‚Äúhis single most important skill set,‚ÄĚ Nagl says. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs hard to imagine someone better for the job on paper.‚ÄĚ
Momentum has been gathering to make considerable reductions in the defense budget. ‚ÄúIf Gates has cut away the fat‚ÄĚ from much of military spending, ‚Äúthen increasingly we‚Äôre cutting away at muscle,‚ÄĚ says Andrew Krepinevich, president for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment in Washington.
Yet the pressure for cuts comes at a time when security challenges are increasing, analysts like Dr. Krepinevich argue. The challenge for the White House will be thinking strategically about which priorities can be trimmed ‚Äď and which cannot.
China, for example, ‚Äúis engaged in a military buildup trying to shift the military balance‚ÄĚ in the Pacific, says Krepinevich. ‚ÄúAre we going to be a counterbalance?‚ÄĚ
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who had been considered a possibility for the Defense secretary job, cited China on Wednesday as one of the most underestimated threats that the US military faces.
Also, the protests throughout the Middle East could mean changes in US relations. ‚ÄúTurkey, some former strong Arab allies like Egypt, and even Saudi Arabia are beginning to question their relationship with the United States,‚ÄĚ Krepinevich says.
Iraq, too, remains an area of concern for the Pentagon ‚Äď particularly if the Iraqi government requests that 20,000 US troops stay in the country after December, when all US troops there are slated to return home.
Moreover, Iran continues to pursue its nuclear ambitions.
These myriad pressures will keep building ‚Äď and stress the Obama administration, Krepinevich says.
‚ÄúTraditionally, when we‚Äôve drawn down our military budget, it‚Äôs been at the end of wars,‚ÄĚ he says. The current national security challenges are likely to mean that the ‚Äúworld will be a more dangerous place at the end of this decade than it is now.‚ÄĚ
Obama‚Äôs team will also have challenges prioritizing national security issues amid economic strains. So the president may decide when he appoints the new Defense secretary, ‚Äú ‚ÄėEnough of this cabinet of rivals,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ says Biddle. That would probably lead to ‚Äúless debate and more decision.‚ÄĚ