President Obama formally introduced his new four national security appointments, saying that all have his complete confidence and are critical for the US to “stay focused on our missions, maintain our momentum and keep our nation secure.”
“Leon Panetta at the Defense Department, David Petraeus at the CIA, Ambassador Crocker and General John Allen in Afghanistan,” the president said as he announced his team. “These are the leaders that I’ve chosen to help guide us through the difficult days ahead.”
The announcements were interesting because three of the four men on stage – Petraeus and Allen in the military, Crocker as part of the diplomatic corps — served in senior national security positions for the administration of President George W. Bush, whose foreign policy President Obama has not been particularly effusive in praising.
Foremost among them is the man whose exit is partially setting off the national security team reshuffle: Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, who has now served longer at the Pentagon under President Obama than he did for the president who first brought him on for the job, George W. Bush.
President Obama originally convinced Gates to stay on for one more year, but prevailed upon him to extend that by at least another year.
“I want to thank President Bush for first asking me to take this position, “ Gates said today, “and you, Mr. President, for inviting me to stay on — and on, and on,” he said to laughter.
The defense secretary also choked up during his brief remarks when talked about the men and women of the armed forces.
“I’ve done my best to care for them as though they were my own sons and daughters, and I will miss them deeply,” Gates said.
Replacing Panetta at the CIA will be Gen. David Petraeus, the current commander of International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan, whom President Obama today called “one of our leading strategic thinkers and one of the finest military officers of our time.”
The president mentioned that Petraeus has been “a lifelong consumer of intelligence” who thus “knows that intelligence must be timely, accurate and acted upon quickly.”
To replace US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, the president named five-time ambassador Ryan Crocker, who served under President Bush as Ambassador to Iraq, Ambassador to Pakistan, and as the US’s first envoy to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. (Crocker also served under President Clinton as Ambassador to Syria and Ambassador to Kuwait, and under President George HW Bush as Ambassador to Lebanon.) Crocker is currently dean of the Bush School at Texas A&M, the job Secretary Gates held before President Bush called him back to Washington, DC, at the end of 2006.
“The Bush School is a school of public service, and Mr. President, I’m very proud to answer this call to serve,” Crocker said today.
President Obama praised the Crocker /Petraeus partnership in Iraq which he said “helped to reduce the level of violence, promote reconciliation and shift from the military surge to a political effort and a long-term partnership between our two countries. This is exactly what is needed now in Afghanistan,” he said.
Needless to say, as a critic of the war in Iraq, then-Sen. Obama disagreed sharply with the strategies carried out by Petraeus – architect of the “surge” of roughly 30,000 troops in Iraq, as proposed by President Bush in January 2007. In September 2007, then-Sen. Obama told Iowans that “the best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq’s leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops. Not in six months or one year — now.”
In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in September 2007, then-Sen. Obama said that while he appreciated the work Petraeus and Crocker were doing in Iraq, he questioned the strategy they had been given and observed that every time senators asked the two “about the broader strategy of our war in Iraq, you’ve punted a little bit.”
Then-Senator Obama said that the bar had been set so low as to progress in Iraq, “that modest improvement — in what was a completely chaotic situation to the point that now we just have the levels of intolerable violence that existed in June 2006 — is considered a success. And it’s not.” The senator made clear to underline that he held President Bush, not Crocker and Petraeus, responsible, but he continued to question the Petraeus surge strategy, which Obama had opposed.
“I think the surge has had some impact,” then-Sen. Obama acknowledged, “I would hope it would given the sacrifices and losses that have been made. I would argue the impact has been relatively modest given the investment.” He went on to say “it is not clear to me that the primary success in Anbar has anything to do with the surge. You said in this testimony that it is political.”
When he introduced Petraeus’s replacement in Kabul, deputy commander of Central Command Lt. General John Allen, the president specifically noted that Allen “helped turn the tide in Anbar province” in Iraq.
Allen is considered one of the architects of the “Anbar Awakening,” which helped turn the tide in the Iraq war in 2006. Military officials say Allen has great cultural awareness and played a pivotal role convincing local Sunni leaders that it was in their best interest to cooperate with U.S. troops.
Military experts say the surge worked not merely because of the addition of troops, but because of the political work done by others, such as Allen, as well as targeted assassinations of insurgent leaders.
Gates had lobbied hard for CIA director Leon Panetta to replace him, despite Panetta’s reluctance to leave Langley.
“Just as Leon earned the trust and respect of our intelligence professionals at the CIA by listening to them and fighting fiercely on their behalf,” President Obama said today, “I know he’ll do the same for our armed forces and their families. 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.”
Panetta – who served as an army intelligence officer in the 1960s – will be called upon to steer the Pentagon through a time of severe budget-cutting. The former California congressman today said this would be “a time for hard choices” where his job would be “about ensuring that we are able to prevail in the conflicts in which we are now engaged, but…also about being able to be strong and disciplined in applying our nation’s limited resources to defending America.”