WASHINGTON — Seeking to tame wars overseas and budget deficits at home, President Barack Obama announced a major remake of his national security team Thursday aimed at ensuring leadership continuity during a perilous time.
His own re-election approaching, Obama turned to a cast of familiar and respected officials for the most sweeping reworking of his national security team since the opening weeks of his presidency.
He nominated CIA Director Leon Panetta to replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates when Gates makes his long-planned retirement this summer, and he proposed sending Iraq and Afghanistan war commander Gen. David Petraeus to head the CIA.
Spokane’s resident diplomat, Ryan Crocker, is being pressed back into foreign service as Obama’s choice for new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
The changes, which require Senate approval, come as the Obama administration confronts numerous national security challenges at home and abroad, including finding a way out of the increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan and making politically risky cuts to the Pentagon budget.
“These are the leaders that I’ve chosen to help guide us through the difficult days ahead,” Obama said in the White House East Room with Gates, Panetta, Petraeus and other top officials by his side.
“I will look to them and my entire national security team for their counsel, continuity and unity of effort that this moment in history demands.”
Also present were Crocker, and Petraeus’ proposed replacement in the war theater, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen. Allen is deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations across the Middle East.
Demonstrating a unified administration, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stood with Obama and his new team.
Gates and Obama’s four new nominees took turns speaking after the president, several of them delivering grave messages about the challenges confronting a nation trying to extricate itself from overseas conflicts even while burdened with crushing budget deficits.
“Today we are a nation at war, and job one will be to ensure that we remain the strongest military power in the world, to protect that security that is so important to this country. Yet this is also a time for hard choices,” said Panetta, who’s being installed at the Pentagon in part because of his background as White House budget director in the 1990s.
“It’s about ensuring that we are able to prevail in the conflicts in which we are now engaged, but it’s also about being able to be strong and disciplined in applying our nation’s limited resources to defending America. None of this will be easy.”
Obama’s choice of Panetta, who was budget chief under Democrat Bill Clinton, suggests the president sees Pentagon budget-cutting as a major issue. Gates, who oversaw a turnaround in the Iraq war in 2007 and pushed for a bigger troop commitment in Afghanistan last year, is known to believe that his cost-cutting initiatives are the most important features of the legacy he will leave after more than four years in office.
Gates has come up with $400 billion in cuts in the defense budget for the next 10 years, and Obama has asked him to come up with $400 billion more, a task that will now fall to Panetta.
In Petraeus and Crocker, Obama will briefly reunite in Afghanistan a team viewed as highly successful working together in Iraq when Crocker served as ambassador there.
Petraeus, who will replace Panetta at the CIA in the fall after helping to manage the first steps of a drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, said he will leave with “a sense of guarded optimism about the trajectory of the mission.”
Crocker spoke to the difficulties that remain.
“The challenges are formidable and the stakes are high. 9/11 came to us out of Afghanistan. Our enemy must never again have that opportunity,” said Crocker.
The long-pending reorganization is less a shake-up than a rearrangement of a team that the White House believes already has worked well managing the winding down of the Iraq war and the troop buildup in Afghanistan, and which now is preparing to begin withdrawing troops from there. Team members also have handled the sometimes-contentious relations with Pakistan and other countries.
The proposed changes, which require Senate approval, drew mostly rave reviews from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
“President Obama’s choice of Director Panetta to follow Secretary Gates and General Petraeus to take the reins at the CIA will provide important continuity of leadership, policy and philosophy and keeps a strong national security team in place,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass. “I expect broad approval and swift confirmations.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, “The president is to be commended for choosing competence and continuity in asking General Petraeus to serve as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Leon Panetta as secretary of defense. I have valued working with both of these leaders.”
The reorganization was set in motion largely by Gates’ plans to leave his job midyear. A Republican appointed by President George W. Bush, he had wanted to leave when Obama took office, but the president persuaded him to stay on. He’s now set to depart June 30.
Panetta, too, had to be talked into taking over at the Pentagon. The former Democratic congressman from California was reluctant to leave a job he relishes but answered Obama’s call.
Gates told senior staff that he had recommended Panetta to the president six months ago.
It is unclear whether the turnover at the top of Obama’s national security team will have any practical effect on the president’s plan to turn over security responsibility in Afghanistan to the Afghan government by the end of 2014 — a process that began earlier this year. That transition to Afghan control is supposed to happen in tandem with the reduction in the approximately 100,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan starting in July.
Gates will be gone by the time the first set of troop reductions is carried out, but his advice will be central to decisions in coming weeks on how many troops to withdraw and over what period of time.