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President Obama Shuffles His National Security Leaders

Familiar faces in new slots mean consistency in administration’s national security policy.

The changes in President Barack Obama’s national security team announced April 27 will put familiar faces in new jobs. The changes may also mean an acceleration of efforts to reach a settlement in war-torn Afghanistan. Otherwise, many in Washington, D.C., believe that little else will be different and that administration defense policies, including the handling of conflicts overseas and the trimming of budgets at home, will continue as before.

Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), will replace Robert M. Gates as secretary of defense. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, now in charge of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, will step into Panetta’s job at the CIA. These and other new personnel assignments are a signal that the administration – swamped in domestic debate about the federal deficit and debt – wants little controversy overseas. The appointments are expected to have little difficulty receiving Senate confirmation.

Gen. David Petraeus

Gen. David Petraeus, whom President Barack Obama has selected as the next head of the Central Intelligence Agency. DoD photo

“Given the pivotal period that we’re entering into, I felt it was absolutely critical that we have this team in place so we can stay focused on our mission,” said Obama. “I cannot think of a group of individuals better suited to lead our national security team during this difficult time.”

Other appointments include Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, to succeed Petraeus in Afghanistan and Ryan C. Crocker, former ambassador to Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon, will be asked to become ambassador to Afghanistan. Crocker will succeed Karl Eikenberry, a retired Army lieutenant general who has had strained relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Panetta, Petraeus, Allen, and Crocker all have solid track records managing America’s overseas conflicts. Many in Washington agree with Richard Wolf of USA Today who wrote that the nominations are “emblematic of the increasingly blurred lines between Obama’s defense and intelligence communities.” Panetta is best known as a Washington insider, who will enjoy smooth relations with Capitol Hill, not as an expert on defense acquisition, weapons programs, or military personnel issues. Panetta has overseen the transformation of the CIA from intelligence gathering to paramilitary operations and has been personally running the CIA’s controversial drone campaign using robot aircraft like the MQ-1B Predator to attack al Qaeda and Taliban redoubts in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan.

Leon Panetta

CIA Director Leon Panetta, whom President Barack Obama has selected to be his next secretary of defense. CIA photo

While Panetta was attending a White House meeting on Aug. 5, 2009, he gave the order for the drone strike that killed Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban leader linked to suicide bombings and the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. One of the “mission control elements” from which ground controllers operate the drones is located at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

Panetta’s experience as a past chairman of the House of Representatives budget committee and as director of the Office of Management and Budget in the 1990s will help him to shape the administration’s plan to cut $400 billion from defense spending by 2023. The need to find new programs to cut arises at a moment when all of the U.S. service branches are operating aging equipment and searching for practical ways to recapitalize.

Petraeus is the most celebrated U.S. military officer today, credited with achieving U.S. policy goals with a troop surge in Iraq before moving to Afghanistan. He is known for discipline, integrity, and for holding accountable people who serve under him. His detractors say he is too much of a number cruncher, placing too much value on body counts and captures of insurgents, and that the war effort in Afghanistan is being pursued too broadly, without a laser-like focus on those who directly threaten the United States. Petraeus is an experienced customer of the CIA’s product and is expected to push to make intelligence collection and analysis more open and more directly relevant to immediate policy goals. He will retire from the Army before stepping into his new job.

But Petraeus has difficult relations with Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of staff of the Pakistani Army. Moreover, as CIA director, he will face a broad range of issues that are new to him, including technology transfer, North Korean nuclear ambitions, and violent turmoil in the drug war in Mexico.

Observers in Washington are concerned that the Department of Defense and the CIA are becoming too much like each other and that too many military people are in top slots at civilian intelligence agencies. Even Gates, who will retire upon leaving the Pentagon, is a former CIA director. The director of National Intelligence, occupying a relatively new position who took over the former CIA director role as direct intelligence adviser to the president, is another military figure, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr.

The new Afghanistan commander, Allen, is a soft-spoken Marine who lacks the rough edges of some of his fellow leatherneck generals. Obama called Allen “a battle-tested combat leader in Iraq who helped turn the tide in Anbar province,” where Allen served from 2006 to 2008. Some in Washington say that the changes in Afghanistan indicate that the Obama administration wants to speed up efforts toward a negotiated settlement that will permit a long-promised reduction of the U.S. troop presence.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...