'US appointments don’t show change to Obama strategy'

As the US engages in 3 wars, experts say Obama's national security team will keep individuals with Mideast experience, suggesting continuity.

April 28, 2011 02:55
3 minute read.
US President Obama and Hillary Clinton

US President Obama and Hillary Clinton 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters/Jeff Haynes)


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WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama is set to reshuffle his national security team but will retain many familiar faces with Middle East experience, suggesting continuity as the US engages in three wars in the region and grapples with Iran.

CIA Director Leon Panetta and Gen. David Petraeus, head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, are expected to take on key new roles, with Panetta replacing current Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Petraeus filling Panetta’s vacated job.

The president’s catastrophic Mideast policy

Both men have spent extensive time in the Middle East in their current roles. The appointments are not seen as indications of a significant ideological shift in Obama’s regional strategy.

Though Panetta is a Democratic insider, unlike the Republican Gates, his mark is expected to be most strongly felt on the financial and management side of Defense Department business, rather than strategically.

Panetta spent years as chairman of the House Budget Committee and then as president Bill Clinton’s budget director before Obama’s request that he lead the CIA, where he initially faced criticism for lacking relevant experience.

That position has helped pave the way to this newest assignment, with cuts to the Pentagon expected to be a major component of the job, given the economic climate and push to reduce deficits.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak who has known Panetta for 15 years called him on Wednesday night to congratulate him on his promotion.

"I'm certain that the good relationship between the US and Israel will continue and will be strengthened and deepen.

The relationship between the two countries are very important for Israel's security." Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense, said that drive, combined with Panetta’s recent CIA experience with its emphasis on covert work, could mean that the US military is less likely to engage in ground wars and attempt regime changes but rather pursue “behind-the-scenes” operations.

Panetta as defense secretary “will make it less likely that the US will send large numbers of military forces” to the Middle East, assessed Korb, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

But he suggested that the most dramatic change indicated by the personnel changes concerns the commander-inchief.

“The biggest difference is that I think Obama now feels more confident in dealing with the military himself,” he said.

Obama himself has given no indication that these personnel changes represent a change in his own thinking, which he has asserted since the beginning, according to Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

“What will change is that Obama’s going into election mode,” said Neumann, who described both Panetta and Petraeus as non-controversial choices who should win easy approval from the US Senate.

Neumann said that in addition to not making waves in Congress heading into the 2012 campaign, Obama will also not want to make waves among the Jewish community, leading him to be “more responsive” to Israel and its concerns.

Neumann described Panetta as having a strong record on Israel as a member of Congress and not having made any missteps on the issue. In addition, he pointed to close cooperation between the US and Israel on intelligence matters, which would have been part of his job at the CIA.

While Neumann noted controversial statements Petraeus has made linking Israel with dangerous anti-American attitudes in the Middle East – from which he later backed down – he characterized them as misinformed rather than malicious.

“I don’t think it came out of hostility but out of misperception,” Neumann said.

The official announcement of these moves, along with Petraeus’s replacement by Lt.- Gen. John Allen and the appointment of Ryan Crocker as the next ambassador to Afghanistan, is expected as early as Thursday.

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