It was never going to be easy for Obama to watch Robert Gates walk out of the Pentagon and back into private life. Over two and a half years, Gates has provided impenetrable political air cover for a series of extremely difficult national security decisions, from the surge in Afghanistan to repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Gates’ expertise on military matters and his willingness to be a team player probably represent the greatest influence of any cabinet member on Obama’s first two years in office. From a political point of view, he’s irreplaceable.
But he needed to be replaced. Obama has come up with a typically calculated response to the problem. Aware that he can’t get another Republican realist he trusts into the slot, he has focused on the next most important issue for a Democratic administration seeking to manage the military: budget expertise. In Leon Panetta, Obama’s pick to replace Gates, the President gets a former OMB chief who can navigate the fiscal rat holes of the five-sided labyrinth at a time of politically dangerous belt-tightening.
In Panetta he also gets a Democrat who surprised hardliners in the intelligence community by becoming a dedicated protector of the CIA’s interests and prerogatives over the last two years as director. Fighting from the start against the release of CIA torture memos and opposing a special counsel to investigate the abuse of terrorism prisoners, Panetta won loyalty in Langley, even as he continued to make public statements about rolling back Bush-era excesses in counterterrorism.
Obama is trying to make up for the loss of right-of-center air cover at the Pentagon by bringing in General David Petraeus to replace Panetta at the CIA. Petraeus is pretty much unassailable on Capitol Hill, thanks to his record at the top of Bush’s Iraq surge, and he’ll have considerable sway. A key question will be whether he plays as clean with interagency politics as Gates did. Tom Donilon’s role as national security adviser will be important.
Rounding out the new appointments, which may be announced as soon as Thursday, are the replacement of Gen. Petraeus in Afghanistan with Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, and the surprising return from academia of the intense and talented diplomat Ryan Crocker, who, as ambassador to Iraq during the surge, coordinated both the political rapprochement between Iraq’s warring parties and the extrication of U.S. troops.