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Security Team Shuffle Suggests Cautious Period Ahead

This three-photo combination shows CIA Director Leon Panetta (left), who will become the new U.S. secretary of defense this summer, replacing current Defense Secretary Robert Gates (center). Gen. David Petraeus (right) will replace Panetta as the head of the CIA.
AFP/Getty Images
This three-photo combination shows CIA Director Leon Panetta (left), who will become the new U.S. secretary of defense this summer, replacing current Defense Secretary Robert Gates (center). Gen. David Petraeus (right) will replace Panetta as the head of the CIA.

President Obama is getting serious about cutting defense spending. That's the main signal being sent with his new choices to lead his national security team, analysts say.

With America's wars losing intensity and the deficit emerging as Washington's top concern, Obama recently announced that he'd like to see $400 billion in cuts to defense spending over the next 12 years. That is on top of the $78 billion in potential cuts already outlined by outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Obama has chosen CIA Director Leon Panetta to replace Gates as defense secretary.

"The president would look to Director Panetta to continue the work that Secretary Gates has done on efficiencies and savings at the Pentagon," a senior administration official said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters.

Panetta oversaw the last significant round of defense cuts as a top official in the Clinton administration.

"He brings to the job the ability to deal with the budget, which is the biggest challenge as yet unmet at the Department of Defense," says David Berteau, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

To replace Panetta at CIA, Obama is picking Gen. David Petraeus, currently the top commander in Afghanistan. That move may give Obama more flexibility to draw down troops in Afghanistan, which he intends to start doing this summer.

"If Obama decides to start withdrawing on a rapid timetable, I have always believed that Petraeus would be among his biggest problems," says Rajan Menon, a political scientist at City College of New York. "Were the general even to hint that such a move would be risky for U.S. security and that he needed more time to stabilize things, I think the president would have been trapped. Such is the general's prestige."

Seduction Or Intimidation

Panetta has been widely credited with helping to build up morale at the CIA, which had been stripped of some authority by Congress following the agency's failures regarding the 2001 terrorist attacks and claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

"He's usually beloved by the institution he works for," says Gordon Adams, a foreign policy professor at American University who worked under Panetta at the Office of Management and Budget. "He's an extraordinarily user-friendly administrator."

After serving as President Bill Clinton's budget chief, Panetta became his White House chief of staff, helping to oversee cuts in defense. As Adams points out, defense spending has been on the rise so long — ever since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — that there aren't many people left at the Pentagon who know how to manage a "build-down."

"He's essentially got to either intimidate or seduce the command generals to go with him on this," says Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Selling The Math

In addition to bringing the brass onboard, analysts say, Panetta is going to have to persuade members of Congress that painful cuts are the new order of the day.

The budget package approved by the House on April 15 would increase defense spending. Calif. Republican Howard "Buck" McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has made it clear he will not support defense cuts of anything like the magnitude Obama has proposed.

"Panetta's between House Republicans who don't want to cut and a president who is looking to cut $400 billion out in the next 12 years," Berteau says. "That's a big gap."

The White House believes that Panetta's sales kit contains the right tools. Having earned his hard-power stripes as CIA director, he may be able to reassure Congress that particular cuts won't harm the nation's defense posture.

And having lived through the decision to close a major military base in his California district while serving in Congress, he'll be able to speak to the political concerns members have about local job losses.

Most of all, Panetta is unlikely to express publicly reservations about the potential impact of cuts, as Gates has sometimes done — which McKeon is fond of pointing out.

"He's a loyal soldier, a political soldier — that's what Obama wants over there," says James Carafano, director of foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "He wants somebody to follow through. He's already made the decisions."

The Petraeus Pick

The Panetta pick had been rumored for some time, but the security community is more abuzz about the decision to move Petraeus to the CIA.

Obama and Petraeus have occasionally had prickly relations, and the White House is widely thought to have concerns about rumors that Petraeus might run for president.

Instead, Petraeus will be resigning from the military after the summer fighting season in Afghanistan is over.

"He was put in this position because the president didn't want to make him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," says Danielle Pletka, a defense analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, expressing a view widely held in Washington. "They are consumed with fear about his political ambitions, which is crazy."

Intelligence Obsessed

If many observers say it was politically cagey of Obama to put Petraeus in a job where he won't speak much to the media, they are less certain about what Petraeus intends to do in that job.

He will bring enormous personal prestige to the agency and has long had an interest in the CIA's operational side.

"Petraeus is a very intelligence-obsessed guy, whether it's drones or disrupting various Taliban, al-Qaida or jihadi networks," says Clemons, the New America Foundation fellow. "That's what the CIA has been doing."

But much of what the CIA does is analysis. The intelligence agency's assessments of how the war in Afghanistan is proceeding have tended to be more pessimistic than those of the military.

"One of the primary responsibilities of the CIA director is passing judgment on how well or badly things are going in Afghanistan and Iraq," says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"With Petraeus at CIA, it requires him in a sense to grade his own work," Biddle says. "He has a vested interested in an optimistic look at how things turn out."

Signaling A Shift?

Petraeus will be succeed as top commander in the field by Marine Gen. John Allen. Obama is also appointing veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker as ambassador to Kabul.

Defense analysts say that removing Petraeus from Afghanistan does give Obama more flexibility in determining troop levels there.

But while Obama says he wants to begin a drawdown in July, it's not at all certain that U.S. and allied forces will begin leaving in large numbers.

Obama has convinced NATO allies that handing off primary responsibility for security to the Afghan government will require a transition period lasting until 2014.

Clemons, who says he would support a significant drawdown, says there's no sign that one is in the works. The Petraeus appointment to CIA "makes it easier to pivot in a different direction, but I don't see evidence that they will," Clemons says.

Recent security failures — including a mass Taliban jailbreak on Monday and the killing of nine Americans Wednesday by an Afghan air force pilot — may make it harder for Obama to declare that the country has been pacified and U.S. troops can come home, regardless of the role played by Petraeus.

"A prudent president, with really no strong anti-war movement in this country, would rather plod along in Afghanistan than risk the blowback of leaving and having everything go south on him," says Carafano, the Heritage analyst.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.