Six take-aways from Obama’s national security shuffle

Laura Rozen

President Barack Obama unveiled his new national security team at a low-key White House East Room ceremony yesterday attended by a few dozen aides, family members of the appointees, and members of the press.

Though all of the appointments had been previously telegraphed, a few things stand out from the ceremonial announcement:

Panetta will continue Gates' budget agenda

Obama is putting Leon Panetta at the Defense Department to continue Bob Gates' balancing act--reallocating wasteful Defense spending while maintaining America's military strength especially for the fight against al Qaeda.

"I'm equally confident that Bob [Gate's] reform agenda will be carried out by another great public servant of our time, Leon Panetta," Obama said yesterday. "Leon appreciates the struggles and sacrifices of our troops and military families because he served in the Army himself, and because he and his wife Sylvia are proud parents of a son who served in Afghanistan."

"As a former OMB director, he'll ensure that even as we make tough budget decisions, we'll maintain our military superiority and keep our military the very best in the world," Obama said.

Petraeus: 'strategic thinker'

In an administration heavy on competent practitioners and non-ideological pragmatists, Obama's national security team has sometimes been faulted for lacking big-picture strategic architects. Obama identified Petraeus, his nominee to take the helm of the Central Intelligence Agency, as one of the nation's great strategic thinkers:

"I'm also very pleased that Leon's work at the CIA will be carried on by one of our leading strategic thinkers and one of the finest military officers of our time, General David Petraeus," Obama said yesterday.  This is the second time in a year that I've asked General Petraeus to take on a demanding assignment. ... As a lifelong consumer of intelligence, he knows that intelligence must be timely, accurate, and acted upon quickly."

"In short, just as General Petraeus changed the way that our military fights and wins wars in the 21st century, I have no doubt that Director Petraeus will guide our intelligence professionals as they continue to adapt and innovate in an ever changing world," Obama said.

Gates' unrivaled influence

All of the appointments--in particular Panetta as Robert Gates' successor at DoD, Petraeus as CIA director (one of Gates' many previous jobs), and Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John R. Allen to succeed Petraeus as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan--show that Gates remains an unparalleled influence on Obama's national security policy and personnel decisions.

Obama joked yesterday that when Gates agreed stay on as holdover Defense Secretary, he only promised one year.

Gates then carried around a clock, Obama said, counting down the months, weeks, days, and hours until he could be relieved of the high-stress job--until he was persuaded to stay on for another year and a half, and finally threw the clock out.

"Hopefully, Leon," Obama said, laughing, to Panetta, "you don't have a clock."

Pakistan is the unspoken factor

With the impending retirement in the fall of Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--who spent years cultivating a relationship with Pakistan's all-important Army chief of staff Gen. Ashraf Kayani--the Obama team is clearly thinking about how to preserve and manage the United States' relationship with the troubled South Asian nuclear power.

"Mullen has been working Gen. Kayani for years, and could be the best diplomat the U.S. has had there," a Pentagon correspondent notes.

Obama's new national security line-up reflects a premium on U.S. officials who have cultivated long relationships with Pakistani civilian and military leaders: Ryan Crocker, Obama's nominee to be U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, is a former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan; Petraeus has worked quietly with Kayani in his role as commander of U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan, and previously as commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).

Meantime, Obama's choice to succeed Petraeus in Afghanistan, Deputy CENTCOM Commander Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen, is going to spend the next four months as special assistant to Mullen--during which some meetings with Kayani are presumably in the cards--before heading to Afghanistan, a senior U.S. official told journalists this week.

CIA Director-incoming SecDef nominee Leon Panetta has also met frequently in the shadows with Pakistani military and intelligence chiefs as a regular part of his job, though U.S.-Pakistani intelligence relations have grown tense in recent months.

An earlier appointee--Amb. Marc Grossman, a former U.S envoy to Turkey and former undersecretary of state for political affairs who came out of a post-foreign service career with the Cohen Group to take the Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan job after the death last November of his friend, Amb. Richard Holbrooke--also has a good working relationship with Pakistan, having served there early in his diplomatic career.

Negotiating with the Taliban

In Afghanistan, the United States is looking to step up efforts to peel off insurgents and to move towards negotiations to end the conflict.

It's a variation of the strategy Petraeus and Crocker-- "the dream team" as they became known for implementing in Iraq, in close coordination with John Allen, who played a key role in Sunni reconciliation efforts there.

Petraeus will stay in Afghanistan over the summer--the key fighting months--before taking the helm of the CIA in September.

As a senior U.S. administration official told journalists this week, Crocker and Allen, the nominees to be the top U.S. civilian/military envoys to Kabul, will be "working very closely, by the way, with our Special Representative, Marc Grossman, on the efforts toward reconciliation and moving the peace process forward."

An increase in civil-military cooperation

With these appointments, Obama is signaling a deepening integration of U.S. civilian and military national security agencies. All of the chosen national security chiefs have special experience working across civil-military agency lines--Crocker in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan; Petraeus in Iraq, Afghanistan, and CENTCOM; Panetta, a former OMB chief, White House chief of staff, and nine-term lawmaker (where he set on the budget committee).

As Obama put it yesterday, describing Ryan Crocker's resume as a five-time former U.S. ambassador including in two countries where civil-military cooperation is key, Pakistan and Iraq: "As a former ambassador to Pakistan, [Crocker] recognizes that our strategy has to succeed on both sides of the border."

Petraeus, who reshaped the U.S. army to fight the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, can help do the same for the troubled civilian spy agency: "In short, just as General Petraeus changed the way that our military fights and wins wars in the 21st century, I have no doubt that Director Petraeus will guide our intelligence professionals as they continue to adapt and innovate in an ever changing world," Obama said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who attended yesterday's announcement, has worked particularly closely with Gates to try to strengthen State-Defense cooperation--but it's been an uphill effort, with the far less-funded State Department simply unable to implement the kind of "diplomatic surge" Afpak hands had sought to accompany the military surge in Afghanistan. Another factor: Congress is generally less inclined to approve civilian foreign assistance budgets even to a fraction of what it happily approves for entrenched, well-greased Defense spending requests.

(Jason Reed, Reuters)