US President Obama has announced a sweeping reshuffle of top national security officials, altering the make-up of a team that will set strategy on the war in Afghanistan, unrest in the Mideast and the defense budget.
Obama: "These are the leaders I've chosen to help guide us through the difficult days ahead"
The shake-up in President Obama's war council doesn't come as a surprise. The changes were set in motion by the impending departure of Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Gates made it clear when he was appointed to the post by Obama's predecessor George W. Bush that he didn't intend to stay in office longer than necessary. The fact that he stayed on for four and a half years was thanks to Obama, Gates said during the announcement of the reshuffle. Obama kept requesting him to stay on just a little longer, Gates said, prompting much laughter.
The 68-year-old Gates will be replaced by 72-year-old Leon Panetta, who Obama appointed as head of the CIA a little over two years ago. Panetta, a Democrat from California, served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton between 1994 and 1997. Prior to that position, he served as budget director to Clinton.
"The patriotism and extraordinary management skills that have defined Leon's four decades of service is exactly what we need in our next Secretary of Defense," Obama said, announcing the nomination.
Panetta played a "decisive role" in the fight against extremism as CIA chief, Obama said, adding that he knew the US would need to be relentless in the fight against al-Qaeda.
No political change
That makes clear that the realignment among Obama's top security aides does not mean a change in policy. Under Panetta, who reportedly is leaving his CIA post reluctantly, the US is expected to end troop withdrawal from Iraq by the end of the year and begin pulling out troops from Afghanistan this summer as planned.
Similarly, Gates' cost-cutting drive is to be continued. Obama has announced $400 billion (269 billion euros) in defense budget cuts in the next 12 months. That's expected to remain untouched under the new defense chief. The shake-up in the Pentagon's top leadership is expected to take effect on July 1 - provided Panetta is approved by the Senate.
After nearly 40 years in uniform, Petraeus is to retire from the US army
Panetta will be replaced by another famous face - General David Petraeus, who commands NATO's operations in Afghanistan. After nearly 40 years in uniform, Petraeus will step into his new role at the CIA in September, pending Senate confirmation of the new positions.
Petraeus, who masterminded the successful US troop surge strategy in Iraq and is credited with turning around the war, will thus switch roles - moving from a consumer of intelligence to its producer. That's why Petraeus knows that the information must be prompt and precise and implemented swiftly, Obama said.
That applies in particular to the use of unmanned drones, for instance in Pakistan, which falls under the purview of the CIA. The US has carried out at least 192 such drone deployments in Pakistan under Obama's presidency so far. Though they have strained US-Pakistani ties because of the civilian casualties and their limited effectiveness, Petraeus remains a proponent of the tactic. That's one reason critics say that the CIA could become even more militarized under his leadership.
Petraeus will be replaced in Afghanistan by Lieutenant General John R Allen, currently deputy head of US Central Command - the command unit covering central Asia and the Middle East. Allen is no stranger to the job.
Obama described Allen as "the right commander for this vital mission" in Afghanistan. "As a battle-tested combat leader, in Iraq he helped turn the tide in Anbar Province," the president added.
Experienced hands on the war front
All three nominees know each other well and have demonstrated that they work well together, suggesting the transition will go smoothly.
In the face of two wars and an additional burden on the army due to the deployment in Libya - now more than ever Obama needs experienced leaders on the frontlines who can free him up to focus on his responsibilities at home. That holds especially true the closer the date for America's next presidential elections - in November 2012 -looms.
"I've worked closely with most of the individuals on this stage and all of them have my complete confidence," Obama said during the announcement. "Given the pivotal period that we're entering, I felt it was absolutely critical that we had this team in place so that we can stay focused on our mission, maintain our momentum and keep our nation secure."
Crocker is a seasoned diplomat and knows Afghanistan well
Obama used the opportunity to pick another further experienced fighter - this time on the diplomatic front. He named Ryan Crocker, a five-time ambassador, as the next US ambassador to Afghanistan.
Of Crocker, who in 2002 re-opened the US embassy in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, the president said that few Americans know the region and its challenges better than him.
Crocker will be charged with improving relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has been described by current US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry as an "inappropriate strategic partner."
Crocker's nomination is expected to be approved soon by the Senate. It's hoped it will allow the president to focus once again on the one thing that interests him the most with an eye to reelection - domestic politics.
"These are the leaders that I've chosen to help guide us through the difficult days ahead," Obama said. "I will look to them an my entire national security team for their counsel, continuity and unity of effort that this moment in history demands."
Author: Christina Bergmann, Washington (sp)
Editor: Rob Mudge