At first blush President Obama’s shakeup of his national security team looks like a triumph of familiarity over boldness. The intelligence chief with little formal experience in defense will take the helm of the Pentagon in a time of war, while the preeminent military strategist and warfighter of his generation of officers will hang up his uniform to lead from behind a desk at the CIA. A Marine Corps general well known at the White House but with no combat command experience in Afghanistan will take charge of that war. And the retired diplomatic hero of the 2008 “surge” in Iraq is recalled to duty to try and work his magic once again in Kabul.
Anyone expecting the new national security team to signal a bold, new direction for the Afghan war or the Obama administration’s national security strategy will probably be disappointed by Thursday’s expected announcement. Obama has picked CIA Director Leon Panetta to replace outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; Afghan commander Gen. David Petraeus to take the helm of the CIA; and Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen to take command in Afghanistan, where he will be joined in Kabul by former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.
“I don’t see the picks as a dramatic departure, but President Obama has already shown that he is more interested in bold initiatives and waging his battles on the domestic front,” said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, who views the new team as essentially an extension of the Gates tenure, with its focus on pragmatism, centrism, and experience. “Given White House concerns that Democrats are perceived as weak on defense, and Obama’s own lack of national security experience, it makes sense for him to stick with a strong and experienced team like this.”
On closer inspection there is precedent for each of the new picks. Panetta’s lengthy resume of government service and reputation as a centrist who gets along with Congress, capped by a stint as director of the CIA, mirrors Gates's own path to the Pentagon. “When Gates first came to the Pentagon with his background in intelligence, a lot of people thought he was a curious choice,” said Krepinevich. “But what we’ve learned in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in counterterrorism operations is that the most critical dimension to this kind of fight is intelligence. In that regard, picking Gates made sense, and arguably selecting Panetta to replace him also makes sense.”
Administration sources say Panetta was reluctant to leave the CIA, where he was widely credited with restoring morale and improving relations with Congress. If approved by the Senate, Panetta will arrive at the Pentagon just in time to start cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from its budget.
“Panetta was a good advocate for the CIA, and he’s probably as good as the Pentagon could hope for,” said Tom Donnelly, a defense analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. “But it will be interesting to see how he gets on with the generals and uniformed military when he has only ugly news to tell them.”
According to sources who know him, Petraeus had hoped to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a job for which he seemed the logical pick having served multiple combat tours with distinction in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Oval Office meetings on March 14 and 18, however, Obama apparently convinced Petraeus that his duty lay elsewhere.
“In my view Petraeus is a great general, and your best soldier should get the top uniformed job in a time of war,” said Elliot Abrams, a former National Security Council official in the George W. Bush administration. “You have to wonder why the best man wasn’t given the job that reason tells you he wanted.”
Some experts who have had close dealings with Petraeus, however, believe his skills will be a good match for the CIA. The job of chairman of the Joint Chiefs is undeniably important, but the chairman inevitably spends a lot of time managing a vast bureaucracy and keeping fractious constituencies such as the other service chiefs and Congress happy.
“Especially after 9/11, with the creation of the position of Director of National Intelligence to brief the president and coordinate the other intelligence agencies, the director of the CIA is really more of a warfighter,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. “And war-fighting is what David Petraeus likes and is good at.”
Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen has not commanded in Afghanistan, but he has combat command experience in Iraq, a good relationship with the White House, and was the top choice of Gates. In each regard, he mirrors the man he will be replacing—Petraeus.
“Basically, you can break down the military into those officers who adapted well to irregular warfare and those that didn’t, and Allen is in the former category of very smart, adaptable leaders,” said Donnelly of AEI, who noted that Allen has most recently served as deputy at Central Command to Gen. James Mattis, considered one of the best counter-insurgency commanders in uniform. Allen is also scheduled to become a special assistant to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen, where he will spend months traveling to Afghanistan frequently and preparing to take command from Petraeus beginning in early September.
One of the most intriguing story lines of the national security team shakeup is the reunion of Petraeus and his old “diplomatic wingman,” Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Afghanistan this summer, just as reconciliation talks are reportedly intensifying between the Afghan government and elements of the Taliban.
“Ryan Crocker is one of our most experienced diplomats in terms of civil-military-political operations, and in Iraq he worked very closely with General Petraeus on reconciliation efforts,” said a senior administration official. “We certainly expect him to continue that work in moving the reconciliation and peace process forward in Afghanistan.”
It’s not clear what inducements Obama offered to draw Crocker out of a comfortable retirement in College Station, Texas, where he is currently dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. With some public officials it’s enough that the president of the United States appeals to their sense of duty. Here too, however, there is precedent. In 2007, Bush also made a call to College Station during a low point in the war, and asked to speak to the dean. The call was put through to Robert Gates.
Before entering his present post, Gates was the president of Texas A&M University, the nation's seventh largest university. Before that, on August 1, 2002, he served as interim dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M from 1999 to 2001.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the name of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.