President Barack Obama’s reshuffling of his national security team signals that the White House is likely to continue focusing heavily on its counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East and South Asia — while also preparing for pitched budget battles on Capitol Hill.
Just days before the killing of Osama bin Laden, Obama named CIA Director Leon Panetta as defense secretary and Gen. David Petraeus as CIA director.
Both appointments can be viewed as recognition of the prominent battlefield role of special operations and the CIA. The Navy SEALs, who conducted the mission in Pakistan, flew from Afghanistan under the CIA’s command — highlighting the steady growth of the CIA’s operational role in counterterrorism and U.S. covert actions in Pakistan since 2001.
The military and CIA rely increasingly on special operations forces. Their close cooperation in the bin Laden raid seems a useful model for future actions under Petraeus and Panetta in their new posts.
The White House is now opting for continuity and trusted players in its inner circle. With fighting in Afghanistan set to intensify, as usually happens in the summer, and tensions escalating with Pakistan, the president’s security policy is likely to face a critical test in the months ahead.
Congress could grow increasingly skeptical of the continued partnership with Pakistan, even as the Pentagon is slated to begin its initial drawdown of forces in Afghanistan in July. To face these challenges, Obama seems intent on maintaining his national security team, which has developed a solid rapport forged in the crucible of tough decisions about Afghanistan, Libya, the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and the tracking of bin Laden.
Panetta is a strong choice to lead the Pentagon. His direction of the bin Laden raid gives him new prominence in the eyes of the public and lawmakers. It also marked the CIA’s growing role in the U.S.’s important conflicts over the past decade. In addition, Panetta’s earlier jobs as budget director and chief of staff in the Clinton White House prepare him for the looming battles over defense spending cuts.
Petraeus comes to the CIA with battle-tested experience. He’s known for aggressively pushing the use of intelligence, special operations and interagency partners in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite his frequent testimony before Congress, Petraeus is taking his first job inside the Beltway since he rose to fame with counterinsurgency in the Iraq War. By placing the celebrity general at the CIA, and behind a black curtain of secrecy, some now say the president is co-opting a viable moderate Republican presidential challenger.
Yet Petraeus succeeded in what some have labeled his previous herculean tasks — turning around the faltering war in Iraq and then replacing Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the top commander in Afghanistan at a moment’s notice. So there’s little reason to think he might fail at Langley.
Politically, the president’s choices avoid the distraction of prolonged confirmation fights. Neither Panetta nor Petraeus, who both have deep constituencies in the Senate, is likely to face a serious challenge. This is likely to help the president avoid drawn-out confirmation battles that could prove politically harmful as he revs up his reelection campaign.
The changes are also a wise move for the coming defense budget wars. Petraeus has a strong track record for persuading Congress to support him on even politically risky endeavors. The furious fight over funding the war in Iraq is just one example of his acumen on the Hill.
The CIA’s budget is classified and somewhat less of a political football. Still, Petraeus is a good choice to deal with rising budget pressures and can likely ensure the agency’s missions maintain their funding levels.
Once at the Pentagon, Panetta, a former Democratic congressman from California, may have to walk a fine line to keep the services happy while implementing the substantial defense cuts that the president wants. Finding an additional $400 billion in cuts will certainly be painful to some in the military establishment.
The nominations of Panetta and Petraeus recognize the reality facing the administration in coming years. The Pentagon and the CIA are likely to be working closely to fight terrorism abroad and budget wars on the Hill. Obama needs a trusted team in key national security positions that is capable of both wartime leadership and political brinkmanship.