Over the years, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has served in a variety of capacities in national security for administrations of both parties. He has been a steady hand and he will be sorely missed.
But his intention to leave this year was well-known. What was surprising about Wednesday’s news was the sweeping nature of the national-security shuffle expected to be announced by President Barack Obama:
CIA Director Leon Panetta will take Gates’ place at the Pentagon. David Petraeus, the top general in Afghanistan, will take Panetta’s place at the CIA. Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq during the tumultuous years of the troop surge, will become ambassador to Afghanistan.
The return of Crocker to government service is perhaps the most encouraging aspect of all this. He and Petraeus worked as a highly effective team in leading the effort that turned around the Iraq war. In Kabul, Crocker would replace Karl Eikenberry, whose relations with top Afghan officials and many in Washington have been cool.
The White House hopes 2011 will be a decisive year in Afghanistan. Crocker’s presence will help make that more possible.
Petraeus’ departure is more worrisome, given his record in Iraq and the recent glimmers of progress in Afghanistan. His replacement, Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, will have a tough act to follow.
At 72, Panetta will be the oldest-ever incoming Pentagon chief, but as a former head of the Office of Management and Budget he brings a detailed knowledge of the defense budget. He is expected to follow through on Gates’ procurement and budget reforms.
The appointments are expected to become effective this summer, a schedule that gives the Senate adequate time for the needed confirmations.
Since he came into office, Obama has followed a centrist path on national security. It’s a welcome sign that his latest shuffle ― in which seasoned, levelheaded individuals are replaced by seasoned, levelheaded individuals ― shows his determination to remain on that path.