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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Petraeus is likely to support Biden’s push for an advisory and counterterrorism-focused mission in Afghanistan – eventually. “Petraeus would argue that conditions on the ground need to be set first – from the insurgency being diminished and the Afghan security forces being strengthened” before the US military can do more advising and less fighting, Nagl says.Skip to next paragraph
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Ultimately, however, the new Defense secretary’s agenda is likely to be driven less by wars half a world away and more by budget matters – a key concern for voters.
Panetta’s experience as former director of the Office of Management and Budget is likely to be “his single most important skill set,” Nagl says. “It’s hard to imagine someone better for the job on paper.”
Momentum has been gathering to make considerable reductions in the defense budget. “If Gates has cut away the fat” from much of military spending, “then increasingly we’re cutting away at muscle,” says Andrew Krepinevich, president for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment in Washington.
Yet the pressure for cuts comes at a time when security challenges are increasing, analysts like Dr. Krepinevich argue. The challenge for the White House will be thinking strategically about which priorities can be trimmed – and which cannot.
China, for example, “is engaged in a military buildup trying to shift the military balance” in the Pacific, says Krepinevich. “Are we going to be a counterbalance?”
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who had been considered a possibility for the Defense secretary job, cited China on Wednesday as one of the most underestimated threats that the US military faces.
Also, the protests throughout the Middle East could mean changes in US relations. “Turkey, some former strong Arab allies like Egypt, and even Saudi Arabia are beginning to question their relationship with the United States,” Krepinevich says.
Iraq, too, remains an area of concern for the Pentagon – particularly if the Iraqi government requests that 20,000 US troops stay in the country after December, when all US troops there are slated to return home.
Moreover, Iran continues to pursue its nuclear ambitions.
These myriad pressures will keep building – and stress the Obama administration, Krepinevich says.
“Traditionally, when we’ve drawn down our military budget, it’s been at the end of wars,” he says. The current national security challenges are likely to mean that the “world will be a more dangerous place at the end of this decade than it is now.”
Obama’s team will also have challenges prioritizing national security issues amid economic strains. So the president may decide when he appoints the new Defense secretary, “ ‘Enough of this cabinet of rivals,’ ” says Biddle. That would probably lead to “less debate and more decision.”