In a major shuffle of the national security team, President Obama is replacing Defense Secretary Robert Gates with CIA director Leon Panetta whose former post will be filled by Gen. David Petraeus. The shakeup, expected to be announced tomorrow, has all sorts of implications about Obama's plans for cutting the defense budget and waging war in Afghanistan (multiple sources say Gates will step down on June 30). Here's what the country's top national security writers are saying about the meaning behind the transitions.
Panetta Replacing Gates The consenus view here is that Obama thinks Panetta is the right man to implement the major defense cuts he's been seeking. "Panetta's expected job will be to hold the place together and sell the spending cuts to the few remaining hawks in Congress," writes Foreign Policy's Thomas Ricks. Jim Wolf at Reuters agrees. "Panetta, a Democratic party insider with budgets as his background, would oversee steady declines in Pentagon spending and divert weapons dollars to the Treasury Department to help reduce the deficit," he writes. He interviews a senior administration official and a "prominent" defense consultant who say Panetta will "undoubtedly" hasten the pace of further defense cuts. However, some doubt whether Panetta is skilled enough to change the stubborn ways of the defense department. "He is now inheriting the largest single business operation in the world. If he could not accomplish everything he wanted in the intelligence community, how can he do it here?" said former Pentagon official Anthony Cordes in an interview with Politico.
As for the wars in the Middle East, National Journal's Yochi Dreazen says Panetta's ascendance is "virtually certain to accelerate" the drone war in Paikistan in the coming months. "As CIA chief, Panetta has used unmanned aerial drones to carry out record numbers of strikes on targets there, turning the agency into the leading player in the fight against Pakistan’s insurgent networks," writes Dreazen.
Petraeus Replacing Panetta Wired's Spencer Ackerman says Petraeus has three major credentials for heading the CIA. "First, his reputation." Petraeus's high regard in the military means the agancy will appreciate having him to cover for them. His diplomatic skills also will mean he'll be able to repair intelligence relationships in the Arab world. "Second, although he's seen as the king of counterinsurgency." Because he's spent so much time involved in raids, drone strikes, and air strikes he'll fit right in with the CIA's activities. And thirdly, "He's got an excellent relationship with the Pakistanis, positioning him well to salvage an acrimonious relationship that’s crucial for the drone war."
As for what the shakeup will mean for policy, Foreign Policy's Stephen Walt thinks this transition means much less than what pundits are making it out to be. "There's no reason to suppose that Panetta or Petraeus will be bringing either new ideas, new political clout, or substantially different managerial expertise to their jobs," he writes. "The only way to get a dramatic change in U.S. national security policy would be if either man were going to recommend fundamentally different policies, or if either man was going to be substantially more effective at implementing policies that were already in place. But there's no reason to assume that either of these conditions will hold." National Journal's Marc Ambinder largely agrees. "Don't call it a shake-up. It's more like a lay-up." He says Obama's decision was a no-brainer because both men are eminently qualified, liked by Congress and will get approval easily."