President Obama will reshuffle his national security team today but stick to the same game plan: fighting insurgents and terrorists on multiple fronts with a combination of brains and brawn.
By moving CIA Director Leon Panetta to the Pentagon and Army Gen. David Petraeus from Afghanistan to the CIA, Obama cements in place his long-term strategy to complement military might with intelligence and diplomacy.
He also advances his desire to reduce Pentagon spending in the coming decade as part of a long-term effort to slash $1 trillion- plus annual budget deficits by installing a former White House and congressional budget expert as secretary of Defense.
"Cut, cut, cut. Fight, fight, fight," says Thomas Donnelly, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "These are trend lines that, if not going in opposite directions, are darn close to it."
Obama will announce the nominations of Panetta, Petraeus, Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen as Petraeus' replacement in Afghanistan and veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker as U.S. ambassador there, according to a senior administration official who would not be named because the announcement is set for today. All four will need Senate confirmation.
The moves, which have been under consideration for months, were necessitated by Defense Secretary Robert Gates' decision to retire this summer. He will leave June 30; the other moves would be made over the next two months.
"These appointments speak volumes on President Obama's vision for the future of national security and military strategy — a CIA that is far more engaged in military-style operations, and a military more focused on fighting insurgencies and terrorism than on major- theater wars," says Randall Larsen, former chairman of military strategy and operations at the National War College.
Panetta, 72, would bring to the Pentagon almost everything but Pentagon experience: White House chief of staff and budget director, chairman of the House Budget Committee, member of President George W. Bush's Iraq Study Group.
He has directed intelligence-gathering and drone strikes on Taliban and al-Qaeda targets along the Pakistan border for the past two years. His son James, a member of the Naval Reserve, served as an intelligence analyst in Afghanistan in 2007-08.
"I can't think of a better choice," says Lawrence Korb, an assistant Defense secretary in the Reagan administration now at the liberal Center for American Progress. "It also shows that Obama's now in charge. He's now running the show."
Petraeus, 58, has run the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from Baghdad, Kabul and U.S. Central Command in Tampa. He was the brains behind the Iraq counterinsurgency effort and the brawn behind Bush's "surge" effort. When Obama needed someone to take over in Afghanistan, he turned to Petraeus. Now, the general will retire from uniformed service to run the CIA.
"All three of these guys — Gates, Petraeus, Panetta — have done absolutely exceptional work in their current jobs," says Rick Nelson, an ex- National Security Council official in the George W. Bush administration who teaches national security at Georgetown University.
Panetta will inherit two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and part of a third in Libya. At the same time, he will face increasing pressure to trim the Pentagon's $670 billion annual budget.
Obama's plan to draw down forces in Afghanistan is scheduled to begin in July. There are 100,000 U.S. troops there now, fighting a stubborn insurgency.
In Iraq, all of the 47,000 U.S. troops, by agreement with the Iraqi government, are supposed to leave by the end of the year. However, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that the U.S. would welcome an invitation to keep some forces in Iraq to help with security. Those discussions must occur within weeks, he said.
Meantime, the U.S. military continues to fly missions supporting NATO's air war in Libya. U.S. warplanes led the initial attack but have taken on a secondary role in recent weeks, flying missions to collect intelligence on Moammar Gadhafi's forces, jam his communications and refuel other aircraft. Last week, Gates announced that armed U.S. Predator drones are now flying attack missions in Libya. Already, more than $600 million has been spent there.
Beyond the current wars, Panetta will be tasked with manning, equipping and training U.S. forces for future fights while dealing with smaller budgets. Obama has called for $400 billion in defense cuts over the next 12 years.
"If there was a tough leadership assignment in the country right now, it would be this job — at the top of everybody's list," says former House majority leader Richard Gephardt, who first recommended Panetta to President Clinton as his budget director. Panetta later became White House chief of staff.
Defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute says the easier cuts have been made — multibillion-dollar programs for a new amphibious lander for the Marines, an armored vehicle for the Army that lacked protection from makeshift bombs and pricey F-22 fighters for the Air Force.
The tougher choices involve personnel, Thompson says. There are 1.4 million active-duty soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Cutting their ranks would save money but entails risk. Smaller forces were burdened by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and served tours without enough rest at home. Meantime, their health care costs continue to mount, totaling $52.5 million this year.
The question, says Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, is "What kind of military do we need in the next 10 years, and what weapons systems could we do without?"
Not all defense experts are happy with the appointments.
"President Obama's decision to fill these positions from within his administration signals an unwillingness to rethink U.S. foreign policy. Such a re-evaluation is desperately needed," says Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. "A new role for the military and the United States would shed unnecessary missions, and relieve some of the burdens on our troops."
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