Obama's new national security team faces major challenges

President Obama's new national security team, headed by Leon Panetta and General David Petraeus, has a wealth of experience. But it faces major challenges, especially in Afghanistan.

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Barack Obama announces a shake up with his national security team by nominating CIA Director Leon Panetta (2nd L) as Secretary of Defense and U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus (C) to replace Panetta, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday April 28. Obama also announced Ryan Crocker (R) as his nomination to be the new Ambassador to Afghanistan and U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen (2nd R) to be the commander of allied forces in Afghanistan.

In announcing his new national security team Thursday, President Obama sought to demonstrate confidence and continuity at a time when the US is trying to conclude its active military engagement in several places around the world.

Events on the ground – mainly in Afghanistan, where evidence of solid progress remains elusive – will determine whether he succeeds.

But the men named to critical military, intelligence, and diplomatic posts are generally agreed (at least within the Washington establishment) to be the best there are under the circumstances. They all have decades of experience in their fields, and they all have worked well together in the past.

Here are the shifts in personnel announced Thursday:

• CIA Director Leon Panetta will replace Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense.

General David Petraeus will retire from the US Army to take over the CIA from Mr. Panetta.

US Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen will become commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, replacing Gen. Petraeus.

• Veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Iraq and Pakistan, has been nominated to be the new Ambassador to Afghanistan, replacing retired Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry.

“I’ve worked closely with most of the individuals on this stage, and all of them have my complete confidence,” Mr. Obama said in making his announcement. “Given the pivotal period that we’re entering into, I felt it was absolutely critical that we have this team in place so we can stay focused on our mission…. I cannot think of a group of individuals better suited to lead our national security team during this difficult time.”

Decades of experience

The total experience of this team is impressive by any standard, running to many decades for each of them in a variety of positions highly useful to today’s national security challenges, including international terrorism. Each brings gravitas as well as experience to his new post.

Mr. Gates, who began his time at the Pentagon under former President Bush and who was asked to stay on by Obama, has said from the beginning that he would stay no longer than two years as part of the current administration.

Mr. Panetta (who began his political life as a Republican before switching to the Democratic Party) spent 16 years as a member of Congress from California, a background that should help in his Senate confirmation process as well as in selling the administration’s Pentagon budget to lawmakers. Gates reportedly recommended Panetta as his replacement.

As commander of the US-led multinational force in Iraq and then in Afghanistan – between which assignments he headed the US Central Command overseeing all US military activity in the Middle East and Central Asia – Gen. Petraeus was the US military’s most senior battlefield consumer of intelligence information.

“Over the last ten years, the military and the CIA have drawn closer and closer together, largely as a result of these two wars,” former deputy CIA director John McLaughlin told Politico. “The military and the CIA have been cheek-and-jowl ever since Iraq…. There’s a comfort level between these two cultures that is more developed than it was some years ago.”

Bipartisan support for Obama's picks

So far, Obama’s picks to head his national security team are getting bipartisan plaudits.

“I could not be more pleased with these selections,” said Senator Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, a member of the Armed Services Committee. “I hope these nominees receive swift approval by the United States Senate.”

Sen. Graham called Panetta “an outstanding choice” and Petraeus “a national treasurer,” and he said, “I have never met a diplomat more capable than Ryan Crocker.”

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein (D) of California praised the choices as well.

Still, regarding Petraeus at CIA she made a point of noting that being “a consumer of intelligence” is “a different role than leading the top civilian intelligence agency.” It wasn’t the first time that Feinstein had expressed concern about the militarization of the gathering, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence – including its use as a guide to congressional decisions.

Others have noted that Petraeus and the CIA have differed over the degree of progress in Afghanistan.

The US-led effort there has seen recent setbacks, including the recent escape of hundreds of Taliban fighters and the killing of eight US troops and a civilian contractor by a veteran Afghan military pilot.

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