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How Leon Panetta could change Washington as next Defense secretary

Leon Panetta, currently CIA director, is a close ally of Vice President Biden. But political realities could prevent him from adopting Mr. Biden's stance on US troops in Afghanistan.

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This could, in turn, portend policy changes. “The power narrative of this administration on security issues has been an alliance between Clinton and Gates against the vice president and the national security adviser,” Dr. Biddle says. “From what I can tell, neither of the camps has ever persuaded the other of its views, and neither one has made much effort at breaking into the other’s fortress. What you get is a series of compromised stalemates.”

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More shifts are in store for Obama’s national security team. The current term of Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ends later this year. He is widely expected to be replaced by Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

On Thursday, Obama will also announce a new ambassador to Afghanistan: veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker.

For now, the role of the next Defense secretary looms largest. Someone more closely aligned with Mr. Biden, analysts point out, could conceivably spur a renewed push for a speedier withdrawal from Afghanistan. Panetta is a longtime friend of Biden, with whom he served in Congress, and they have a history of supporting each other in White House power struggles.

During his time at the CIA, Panetta has intensified drone strikes against insurgents in Pakistan – an approach that Biden, too, has supported.

Still, in Afghanistan, it’s another matter whether a stepped-up US troop withdrawal makes political sense. Currently, the US public is relatively quiet on the issue, Biddle points out. Polls that find the pubic generally supports bringing troops home also find that those people “aren’t paying that much attention to the war,” he says.

Quicken the pace of US troop withdrawals, and the GOP has new ammunition. “It runs the risk of changing the politics of the war,” says Biddle. “The controversy level could increase radically – and Republicans could decide it’s a chance to attack the president as soft on terrorism.” Staying the course in Afghanistan, then, seems a prudent move going into the 2012 election season, he adds.

News of the expected nominations was greeted with skepticism in some circles. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, for example, questioned the choice of Petraeus (who will retire from the military before assuming the CIA post). The general is more a “consumer” of intelligence than a producer, she argued. A White House official disputed this characterization, saying he was deeply steeped in intelligence matters.

In any event, his move is widely seen as a bid to bring further national security credibility to the administration. “Petraeus as CIA director brings complete fluency to the war in Afghanistan,” Dr. Nagl says.

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