Shadow Government

Panetta’s challenges at the Pentagon

I agree with Shadow Government's Dov Zakheim that Obama played it safe in tapping Leon Panetta to replace Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense. Quite apart from the need to fight and win two (sorry, three) wars, Panetta will face three major challenges:

First, he is not Bob Gates: Gates benefited more than he should have from not being Donald Rumsfeld. The contrast between the two men is often overblown, and in many ways more a matter of style than substance. Indeed, in recent months, Gates' calls for the Pentagon to reform and the Services to transform have sounded positively Rumsfeldian.

Conversely, Panetta will suffer -- again, perhaps more than he should -- for not being Robert Gates. Gates leaves behind enormous shoes that any successor would have difficulty filling.

Second, the budget: The timing of Gates' departure has more than a little to do with the fact that the White House dropped the demand to cut an additional $400 billion from the defense budget on the Pentagon 24 hours before the President went public with it. In the process, the president undercut Gates' own statements that the Defense Department could not afford further cuts with two (strike that, three) wars going on simultaneously. Panetta was presumably an attractive choice as Defense Secretary at least in part because of his experience in cutting budgets, and he is being dispatched to the Pentagon at least in part to trim the budget. He will presumably oversee the process of reducing the force structure that the administration's own 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review only fifteen months ago said was necessary to win today's wars and prepare for the future.

Third, managing civil-military friction: Budget cuts are likely to exacerbate tensions between civilian and military leaders, but so may other issues.  Panetta will be charged with implementing a policy to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military, a move that several of the Service chiefs opposed. That policy change may go smoothly -- or it may not. Battlefield reverses in Afghanistan and indecisiveness in Libya could fuel further tensions. And Panetta will have as partners a number of new military leaders, to include a new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

All in all, Panetta has his work cut out for him. We should all wish him luck.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Obama is playing it safe with Panetta

Name recognition. A team player. Well liked in D.C. Leon Panetta was by far the administration's safest choice for  Secretary of Defense.

The White House needed someone to fill Bob Gates's oversized shoes without having to give too much in the way of introductory explanations to the public. Many, indeed virtually all, of the other potential candidates for this job that have been bandied about in the past few months are virtually unknown outside the Beltway. That might not have mattered as much had the presidential elections not been just around the corner.

With potential candidates not only testing the waters -- but, as in the case of Haley Barbour, already deciding that the water was not entirely to their liking -- the Obama team has already swung into campaign mode. The White House therefore needed to install someone at the Pentagon's helm who, while not a Bob Gates, was widely known and respected throughout the country. And most importantly the White House wanted someone who could be counted on (or at least that is the hope) not to make waves that could upset the course of a reelection campaign. 

There will be ample opportunity for missteps--  and for making waves -- over the next 18 months, because the Obama administration faces some very tough choices in the run-up to the next presidential election. It has enmeshed itself in a Libyan civil war that is of minimal strategic importance to the United States, yet could create huge demands on American resources. Washington has already been dragged back into the war by European NATO allies who simply do not have the wherewithal to finish the job -- whatever that is -- by themselves. American drones may or may not rid Libya of Muammar al-Qaddafi -- he knows they are after him and will ensure that he remains outside their reach. If ever he goes, or if there is a stalemate, the Obama administration will find itself facing the need to rebuild Libya, or whatever part of it remains outside Qaddafi's grip. Yet with the U.S. economy on shaky ground, and an election looming,  it will be tough for the White House to spend money to "reconstruct" without the strongest support from the Pentagon in particular. It will need a solid team player on the E ring of that building. Panetta gives them that team player.

In addition, there may yet be complications in Iraq as the administration pulls out its remaining troops and begins to transition U.S. forces out of Afghanistan. Finally, it is not at all clear that the latest White House plan to further reduce the defense budget by as much as several hundred billion over the next decade or less (the actual number for DoD awaits the arrival of a new secretary) will sit well with the military, or even the Pentagon civilians. The White House needs someone reliable to manage the DoD through what will  be turbulent times.

Having worked well with DOD, Panetta has demonstrated that he is a reliable part of the administration's team. That understanding no doubt derives in no small part from his previous jobs as Director of the Office of Management and Budget and as White House Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton. In addition, as a former multi-term Congressman he understands what it takes to get reelected, and what pitfalls and controversies must be avoided in the process of doing so. He will not rock the boat over Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, or the budget. And he will do all he can to ensure that defense is not an issue in the forthcoming election; that the Republicans are certain to make it an issue will be no fault of his. The White House could not have made a safer choice; whether General Petreus, his putative successor at the CIA, will be as safe a choice remains to be seen.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images