Obama reshuffles top defense posts

It has been reported that U.S. President Barack Obama will soon announce the replacement of the both the Pentagon and CIA chiefs. Current CIA Director Leon Panetta will become the new Secretary of Defense, and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, will take over for Panetta at the CIA. Real intellectuals like Petraeus so rarely head up defense and intelligence departments that when this does happen, employees at the departments usually feel jittery. There will also be some reshuffling at the lower levels.

What it means

This is not a sign of trouble at Langley or the Pentagon. Such changes are fairly common in an election year. Nominees for these high-profile positions require Senate confirmation, and it is better to get this out of the way before the pre-election insanity begins. Also, the departure of outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been expected for quite some time. Gates himself has been talking about resigning since 2008. Both Panetta and Petraeus are highly respected professionals and skilled politicians, and the changes are unlikely to have any bearing on current policy, though both men will no doubt work to strengthen their respective departments.

Once the 2012 presidential election campaign begins (Obama was officially certified as a candidate in early April), everything will have to be viewed in the context of the election. Obama, for one, is taking his re-election very seriously.

Why Petraeus?

It seems at first glance that Obama made a distinction without a difference. He could have simply replaced Gates with Petraeus. In fact, it might have made more sense, since Petraeus is already something of a legend in the U.S. military. Petraeus, a 57 year-old West Point graduate, is not your average four-star general. He is also a famous military theorist and counterterrorism expert, and the author of numerous books, manuals, scholarly articles and other publications on military theory and practice. He has been called “the professor of war.” Some of his books are bestsellers in the United States, and are read even by people outside the military. As distinct from many other military theorists, he successfully implements his ideas in practice.

He has friends in all branches of the U.S. military and both political parties. This is the mark of a skilled diplomat. Appointing him to head a cloistered agency like the CIA seems like a waste of this particular talent. Moreover, there have been reports that Petraeus was willing to take over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for Admiral Michael Mullen, who will retire this summer. But Obama persuaded him to accept the CIA job.

It appears that the Obama administration wants to shift emphasis from the fight against the Taliban to covert diplomacy – the start of behind-the-scenes talks on a peace deal. Petraeus wanted to first break the back of the Taliban and then deal with political issues. But it is more important for Obama to start the troop withdrawal he promised American voters and to begin preparations for handing over responsibility for security to Afghan forces in 2014.

Incidentally, Petraeus has been a vocal supporter of getting Russia, China and India involved in any negotiated settlement in Afghanistan.

Obama may be doing the general a big favor. Some say that he would make an excellent candidate in the 2016 elections – most likely as a Republican, though there’s a chance he could run as a Democrat. Add to his illustrious military career a stint as CIA director and you have a serious contender for the presidency. Petraeus would be only the second president after Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to come from the ranks of the U.S. military.

Why Panetta?

They say that Leon Panetta feels so at home at the CIA and commands so much respect (he has boosted the agency’s prestige) that he didn’t want to leave and others at the agency didn’t want him to go. However, the decision to move Panetta to the Pentagon was motivated by election-year concerns.

Panetta has a reputation of a “budget surgeon.” Under President Bill Clinton he headed the Office of Management and Budget. He also served as Clinton’s chief of staff. He has a knack for finding the least painful compromises on budget cuts. Obama simply cannot do without his experience in the upcoming election, which will revolve around issues like the budget deficit ($1.4 trillion), the staggering national debt ($14 trillion), the economy, salaries, benefits and pensions. The Pentagon’s budget is first up on the chopping block. Gates managed to reduce the department’s spending by $400 billion over the next decade, but Obama wants to at least double this figure. Panetta is the right man for the job during a period of tough budget decisions.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said at a news conference on April 27 that the current budget deficit is unsustainable over the long term and that left unchecked, it will threaten the United States’ financial stability, economic growth, and living standards.

It is rumored that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped secure Panetta’s nomination as secretary of defense. She was a vocal supporter of military intervention in Libya, while Gates vigorously objects to it given the fact that the United States is already being stretched thin in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is hard to say whether Panetta will be more supportive of the Libya operation than Gates, but it’s likely that he will be.

In any event, Panetta and Petraeus will stay put for the time being. They are likely to begin their new jobs in June or July.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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