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White House / ANALYSIS

Obama Stresses Continuity as National Security Team Evolves

The president wanted a Democrat as his next Defense secretary. Petraeus will not serve in uniform at CIA.

Leon Panetta, at left, will replace Robert Gates as Defense secretary. The president wanted a Democrat in the post.(TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images and Charles Dharapak-Pool/Getty Images)

photo of Marc Ambinder
April 27, 2011

President Obama's national security team is evolving, but it's not changing. It reflects continuity and is designed to demonstrate confidence in the direction his policies are taking.

The most important move is lateral -- literally. CIA Director Leon Panetta will move a few miles down the Potomac and take over at the Pentagon, replacing retiring Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, will shift to fill Panetta's old post as director of the Central Intelligence Agency -- a long way from the battlefield. A familiar face, Amb. Ryan Crocker, will take over for retiring Amb. Karl Eikenberry in Kabul. 

(PICTURES: The Replacements)


The timing is what's most notable: It responds to the vagaries of politics. All three men are popular with Congress, though tough questions will be asked of each and their confirmations will require the Senate to pause. But all four are expected to be easily confirmed. Uncertainty during a time of war would signal rudderlessness domestically and could be exploited by enemies abroad, the White House concluded. Just today, eight soldiers and a contractor were killed in a shooting near Kabul.

Gates is expected to step down on June 30, a senior administration official told reporters in a background briefing. Pending confirmation, Panetta would assume his duties on July 1. His CIA deputy, Michael Morrell, would be acting CIA director until Petraeus returns from Afghanistan in September.

(RELATED: What Comes After Gates?)

Gates, among the most effective Cabinet officials in modern history, had told the president he intended to step down as soon as the National Security Council completed a review of the nearly 10-year-old war in Afghanistan. The U.S. added 30,000 troops to the effort last year, attempting to oust Taliban forces from safe havens in the east and south of the country. The White House asked Petraeus, then the head of the U.S. Central Command, to take a demotion to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was relieved of his command after a magazine article contained anonymous quotations from his team criticizing the administration.

(RELATED: Deadly Day in Afghanistan)

The administration had lobbied Petraeus to stay through the end of the summer, but Gates decided he wanted to leave earlier and informed the president of his intentions earlier this month. After an Oval Office discussion, both men agreed that July would be a natural transition point. Obama talked to Petraeus about becoming CIA director in mid-March.

As late as three weeks ago, though, Panetta had not been approached about replacing Gates, a person close to the CIA director said. A White House official acknowledged on Wednesday that Panetta was "reluctant" to leave the job "he loved" but accepted the President's request on Monday. During his year-and-a-half tenure, Panetta has been tending to the U.S.'s fractured relationship with Pakistan, the locus of global counterterrorism efforts. Gates has told several administration officials, including Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, that Panetta would be an ideal replacement. After all, the CIA has taken an increasingly combat-like role in the Afghan fighting and at a time of budget cuts, Panetta, a former director of the Office of Management and Budget and chairman of the House Budget Committee, knows how to ferret out savings--a point that several administration officials noted on Wednesday. 

A White House official said that Sen. John McCain, a key backer of Petraeus, had been privately lobbied to support the nominations. The ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and, of course, a Vietnam War POW as well as a Republican presidential nominee, McCain had been traveling overseas, stopping most recently in Libya, the front of the administration's third military conflict. The White House decided to wait until he returned to announce the personnel changes, the official said. A McCain spokesperson did not return an e-mail seeking comment. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a reservist, praised the nominations unreservedly, releasing a statement of support that was promptly forwarded to reporters by the White House.

Very few members of Obama's senior staff were given word of the impending announcements. As late as yesterday afternoon, a senior official said that no major personnel moves were imminent.

The decision to send Crocker and Lt. Gen. John Allen, who will replace Petraeus, to Kabul is the Obama administration’s most significant move in months to shuffle the ranks of its Afghan war team. "Crocker did reconciliation and transition in Iraq, and now that the peak surge is nearly complete in Afghanistan, we’re going to be focused on reconciliation and transition in Afghanistan," an administration official said on Wednesday morning. The official, unauthorized to speak on the record, sought anonymity to explain the administration's reasoning for choosing Crocker.

Petraeus has commanded both of the nation’s wars and helped to oversee a revolution in how the military works with the intelligence world, particularly in using intelligence gathered in Iraq or Afghanistan to quickly launch new raids by elite Special Operations forces. He is also a keen bureaucratic operator with a gift for bending large organizations to his will. Those skills will be tested in his new post at the CIA, an insular organization which has historically been resistant of outsiders. Many CIA officials have particularly skeptical views of Petraeus, whose tenure in Kabul was marked by relentless private battles with agency operatives over the quality of the intelligence they were providing to the military high command and a basic disagreement between the two organizations about what, if any, gains were being made there. Petraeus has argued that the U.S.-led coalition has ousted the Taliban from many of its former strongholds and killed hundreds of important militant leaders, but the CIA has consistently argued that those gains were overstated and that the Taliban retained the upper hand in the grinding war of attrition there. Petraeus will now oversee those same analysts, setting the stage for potential conflicts ahead.

A senior administration official said Wednesday that Petraeus will not wear the uniform while CIA director and will retire from the military before then, ending a career in the Armed Forces that began with his enlistment at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1970.

As CIA director, he will be less able to shape the administration's future policy in Afghanistan, and, critically, the pace of its expected troop withdrawals. Some senior national security officials worried that both Gates and Petraeus would lobby the administration to sanction a tiny and symbolic drawdown. The theory, at least, is that Panetta will support a larger drawdown, consonant with the approach favored by the National Security Council. Petraeus is well respected by Obama's staff, but several long-term advisers believe that his disagreements with Obama's assessment of the current policy would preclude him from being a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff they could fully trust. Obama plans to appoint a replacement for Adm. Mike Mullen, the current chief, within months.

Panetta has helped rebuild morale at the CIA after the troubling run-up to the Iraq war in which the agency's then director, George Tenet, and the Bush administration famously and wrongly made the case that Saddam Hussein had an arsenal brimming with weapons of mass destruction. The avuncular northern Californian also is well liked at Langley for bolstering the size and scope of its National Clandestine Service, expanding its language training, and improving its frayed relationships with Congress.

While Panetta's original appointment to the CIA was met with widespread skepticism, as it was, in essence, an audible called by Obama's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, when several other potential directors turned the president down, the energetic former congressman threw himself into the position and now has the confidence of his subordinates. He enjoyed his job, and had no ambition to take any position after he left it. At 72, he would not be expected to stay as secretary of Defense much beyond the start of Obama's second term if the president is reelected. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, an ally of Gates's, has said she will step down after Obama's first term.

But Panetta's political identity is important to Obama, who has long told advisers that he wanted a Democrat of substance to take over for Gates at the Pentagon, one who could help remove the stigma of national security fecklessness from the Democratic Party. He felt it important not to put a second Republican in the job following Gates. Indeed, President Bill Clinton had appointed William Cohen, then a Republican senator from Maine, to the SecDef job in part to bolster his military bona fides during the Balkans conflict. Obama wanted to put an end to the Democratic reliance on Republicans at the Pentagon.

Panetta's political dexterity may be critical to his new job, the success of which is predicated on independent relationships with military commanders, the Pentagon's civilian bureaucracy, foreign leaders, Congress, the State Department, and the president.

He also commands bipartisan accolades, something that, as the Pentagon begins a budget review that will lead to an additional $100 billion or more being cut from its budget of the next few years, will be vitally important. The president may not have wanted to put a Republican in the Defense secretary's job but he also needs GOP support on Capitol Hill. 

"I strongly support the President's planned nominations," House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., who has been critical of Obama's national security policies, said in a statement. "Director Panetta has done an outstanding job at the CIA, and General Petraeus has distinguished himself as one of the great American military leaders. Both men currently play integral roles in our Nation's war against al Qaeda and its affiliates and will be instrumental as we continue to combat the terrorist threat."

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