The reshuffled national security team President Barack Obama introduced on Thursday will be charged with fighting not only the overseas war in Afghanistan but also budget battles at home over Pentagon spending that has ballooned into a fat target for politicans exercised by the national deficit.
As his re-election campaign approached, 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 invoked the political upheaval and violence roiling the Middle East, the nearly 10-year-old Afghan war and the hard cost-cutting decisions ahead as the country tries to reduce its crushing debt.
"Given the pivotal period that we're entering, I felt that it was absolutely critical that we had this team in place so that we can stay focused on our missions, maintain our momentum and keep our nation secure," Obama said at the White House.
In the biggest change, CIA Director Leon Panetta will replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates when Gates makes his long-planned exit this summer. In remarks introducing the Cabinet and Afghan war leaders, Obama also bade farewell to Gates after a tenure begun more than four years ago under President George W. Bush.
Gen. David Petraeus, the high-profile commander of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will replace Panetta at the CIA late in the year, after helping to manage the first steps of a drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen will succeed Petraeus as the top commander in Afghanistan, and seasoned diplomat Ryan Crocker will take over as ambassador there.
The new team in Kabul will manage the planned shift toward a back-seat role for the United States and its NATO partners, as Afghan security forces gradually assume responsibility. Both Allen and Crocker have experience with a similar transition in Iraq, and with the effort there to broker deals with former militants and political rivals that U.S. officials want to mirror in Afghanistan.
"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."
There are no new names among the group; all are current or former government officials with long resumes in Washington or in battle zones, and the long-pending reorganization is less a shake-up than a rearrangement of a team the White House credits with an orderly winding down of the Iraq war and the troop buildup in Afghanistan.
Members of the new slate also have handled the sometimes-contentious relations with Pakistan and other countries key to success in Afghanistan and in the wider fight against terror.
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.
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 burdened with overseas conflicts and budget deficits.
By persuading Panetta to move from the spy agency to the Pentagon, Obama has turned to a widely respected Washington insider and veteran of fierce budget fights as the administration prepares for intensifying political battles over shrinking an estimated $1.6 trillion annual federal deficit.
The 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.
Gates' arrival at the Pentagon in December 2006 began a period of major shifts in U.S. defense policy, including a more muscular approach in Iraq, an expansion of the heavily stressed Army and Marine Corps, a more conciliatory approach to Washington's European allies and better Pentagon relations with Congress. By the time he leaves June 30, Gates will be the fourth-longest serving Pentagon chief in history.
Benefiting in part from comparisons to his more combative and controversial predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Gates developed and nurtured a reputation for candor, common sense and collegiality that gave him sway in Congress and a strong voice on Obama's national security team.
A native of California, Panetta spent 16 years as a member of the House of Representatives, including his final four years as chairman of the Budget Committee. He joined the Clinton administration in January 1993 as budget chief and in 1994 became the White House chief of staff. In those roles he had extensive contact with Hillary Rodham Clinton, who as Obama's secretary of state has put a strong emphasis on cooperation between the State Department and the Pentagon.
"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," Panetta said at the White House.
"Yet, this is also a time for hard choices. 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."
Cartwright replacing Mullen
Obama's emphasis on continuity in his national security team is reflected also in his expected choice of Marine Gen. James Cartwright to succeed Navy Adm. Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Mullen retires at the end of September.
Cartwright, like Mullen and Gates, is a holdover from the Bush administration; his second two-year term as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs ends in August. If he does succeed Mullen he will be only the second Marine ever to be the top U.S. military officer. The other was Gen. Peter Pace, who preceded Mullen.
Until recently, Petraeus had seemed the most obvious choice to succeed Mullen, given his extensive experience as a top commander.
Stephen Biddle, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who has periodically served as a civilian adviser to Petraeus, said in an interview that he suspects Obama chose not to pick Petraeus as the next chairman because the two men do not have a close relationship. That left the CIA as one of the few good options for keeping Petraeus in a job suitable to his skills.
"You probably don't want to create an impression that you fired him," Biddle said. "And how many other jobs are there that are appropriate for somebody of Petraeus' stature?"