April 27, 2011

How Leon Panetta Could Change Washington as Next Defense Secretary

Among President Obama’s 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.

Administration sources say President Obama plans this week to name CIA Director Leon Panetta to replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The changes are expected to be announced Thursday at the White House.

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’s 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’s 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 “an extraordinarily powerful team,” 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. “They’re very pragmatic, and they’ve gained strength from reinforcing each other and from developing what appears to be a very genuine rapport.”

This rapport was not necessarily Obama’s chief aim when he assembled his cabinet. He subscribed to a philosophy that involved facilitating debate “by bringing people together who weren’t likely to agree with each other, and didn’t have much of a relationship with him,” says Stephen Biddle, an adviser to senior military officials including Petraeus and a defense policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “In the next round, he may want to bring in people he has had more of a relationship with.”

This could, in turn, portend policy changes. “The 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,” Dr. Biddle says. “From 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’s fortress. What you get is a series of compromised stalemates.”

More shifts are in store for Obama’s 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 – an approach that Biden, too, has supported.

Read the full article at The Christan Science Monitor.