April 27 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama has signaled no change of course in Afghanistan and Pakistan with “safe” choices of Leon Panetta as his next defense secretary and Army General David Petraeus as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, according to analysts and former national security officials.
Panetta, the current CIA director, and Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, are already part of Obama’s national security team. If confirmed for their new posts, they will be in position to follow through on security objectives facing Obama as he heads into an election year.
“The big message here is no change in policy, and that means a careful and centrist approach on national security issues,” said John Ullyot, who worked on the Republican staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee and is now a senior vice president at Hill & Knowlton in Washington.
Troop reductions are planned to begin in Afghanistan in July, with the withdrawal of an unspecified number this year. The military is also winding down in Iraq. The U.S. is taking a measured role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s mission in Libya. At the same time, Obama has ordered new cuts in national security spending.
Panetta, 72, a California Democrat who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993 and then as budget director and White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, has been CIA director since February 2009. He would succeed Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the lone holdover in Obama’s cabinet from the George W. Bush administration, who has said he plans to leave this year.
Panetta’s experience as chairman of the House Budget Committee and as director of the Office of Management and Budget would position him as defense secretary to implement the president’s plan to cut $400 billion in national security spending over the next decade, a former colleague said.
“His job will be to make strategic cuts in the military budget using a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. The military budget is going to be a target,” said Jane Harman, the chief executive officer of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. Harman, a California Democrat who retired from Congress in February, dealt with Panetta in her role as a senior member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“Panetta’s value added will be the budget expertise and excellent rapport” with Congress, she said in a telephone interview. “He has proved his loyalty to the administration, and he is their best representative on Capitol Hill.”
Deficit a ‘Threat’
Asked about the national security implications of the U.S. budget deficits during a Feb. 10 House Intelligence Committee hearing, Panetta said that “there’s no question that represents a threat that we have to pay attention to.”
Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller and a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called Panetta a “safe choice.”
“Clearly the administration needs somebody who will be part of the team. They’ve a very difficult series of decisions on Libya, tough decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan and tough decisions on the budget,” he said in a telephone interview.
Panetta’s success shouldn’t be assumed, because running the Pentagon is “radically different than any other task in government,” said Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The job requires implementing “extremely complex decisions” over a long period of time, Cordesman said. Panetta will weigh choices on the future size and structure of the military, weapons costs, long-term financing of the Afghanistan mission, and the U.S. military exit from Iraq. Iran, China and North Korea are among the issues where Panetta must strike a hard balance between the military and civilian roles, he said.
Before taking his current position as top U.S. commander in Afghanistan last summer, Petraeus, 58, was the head of U.S. Central Command with responsibility for the Middle East and Central Asia.
“He has been the ultimate consumer of tactical intelligence, and he certainly knows what we do well and what we need to do better,” Harman said.
Petraeus has “a broad grasp” of U.S. strategic needs while, by comparison, Panetta didn’t bring those skills when he took the CIA job, she said.
Petraeus will enter “an incredibly difficult set of challenges, which are not military,” said Cordesman, including needed improvements in satellite communications, electronic intelligence and cyber security, all of which are in “financial and technical trouble.”
The CIA analysts are in for a “shock,” said Bing West, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs during the Reagan administration and the author of several books on war and counterinsurgency. “He’ll be the toughest judge they ever had.”
Petraeus may hear concerns from Congress about a four-star general taking a post traditionally held by civilians. Still, the Senate has in the past confirmed both Panetta and Petraeus without any hurdles.
“The sum total of these picks is that the president has chosen experienced people with unique capabilities to serve our nation at a dangerous time,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Clearly the president has decided to go with safe bets for the nomination, and that will ensure quick nomination and that will also send a message of a steady hand at the wheel,” Ullyot said. “It is really important for him politically to take national security as much as possible off the table” for the campaign, he said.
Tension With Pakistan
Petraeus and Panetta share a “pretty deep skepticism about Pakistan’s commitment” to press the offensive against Taliban bases in Afghanistan’s ungoverned northwest region, according to Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington.
“There’s a lot of tension in the relationship,” said Riedel, a former CIA and National Security Council official who helped develop the Obama White House’s first Afghanistan strategy in early 2009.
Panetta has supported drone strikes in Pakistan. Improved intelligence has enhanced the imagery gathered by unmanned Predators flying 24-hour patrols over the region near the Afghanistan border, making the missile-firing drones more precise, a U.S. official said in January.
‘Double Down’ on Pakistan
“This may be part of Obama’s double-down yet again on Afghanistan,” said Steve Clemons, an analyst with the New America Foundation, a centrist policy research organization in Washington.
Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, applauded the potential appointments of Panetta and Petraeus, even amid tensions between his country and the U.S. over CIA drone strikes and a shooting involving a CIA contractor.
“We have worked very well with Mr. Panetta as director of the CIA and with General Petraeus as both commander of Centcom and the commander in Afghanistan,” Haqqani said. “We have tremendous respect for both of them and their ability to see and understand our perspective.”
--With assistance from Gopal Ratnam, Brendan McGarry and Viola Gienger in Washington. Editors: Steven Komarow, Leslie Hoffecker
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