Gates Departure Could Bring a Makeover for Obama on National Security

Panetta has yet to show his hand on defense policy.

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After bidding farewell to American soldiers on his 12th and final trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary, Robert Gates is now in Brussels to meet with fellow NATO defense ministers for the last time. Gates, whose last day at the Pentagon is scheduled for June 30, steps down at a pivotal time for the nation's security, leaving behind his own legacy and many unknowns about where U.S. policy will go in his wake.

Gates, the only cabinet member of George W. Bush's administration to stay on under Obama and the only defense secretary in U.S. history to be asked by a newly-elected president to keep his job, has served eight different presidents during his career. He's been praised by some as one of the best defense secretaries ever. And now, as the country contemplates its continuing role in Afghanistan and faces dire economic challenges, the man nominated to succeed him, Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta, has more to fill than Gates' well-traveled shoes. [Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.]

Since supporting the surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan authorized by Obama in December of 2009, Gates has spoken out repeatedly about the planned July troop withdrawal. Recently, Gates has suggested that the drawdown should be "modest," so not to ruin the progress made since the troop increase. "I have every confidence that the decision that's made will be a responsible one," Gates said from Afghanistan on Saturday. "Nobody wants to give up the gains that have been won at such hard cost. And nobody wants to give our allies the excuse to run for the exits."

Minding the risks overseas, Gates also recently acknowledged the growing "weariness" both in Afghanistan and in the United States over the time and money that's already been devoted to the conflict, which, now in its 10th year, has become the longest war in American history. Mix that sense of fatigue with growing domestic worries about paltry job gains and weak economic growth, and selling the war effort in Afghanistan becomes an even greater challenge politically for his successor. "Panetta's inheriting the harder job," says Michael O'Hanlon, research director at the Brookings Institution's 21st Century Defense Initiative. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]

Panetta's stance on the conflict in Afghanistan has been less clear than Gates' up to now. The current intelligence chief--who can boast that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed under his watch--served President Bill Clinton as chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget. From California, Panetta was also elected to nine terms in the House of Representatives. On Thursday, as he appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing, Panetta will surely be asked to provide more insight into his plans for Afghanistan as well as Iraq and the war on terrorism. [Check out our roundup of Afghanistan political cartoons.]

O' Hanlon, who is as much in the dark as the rest of Washington about Panetta's thinking, says the change at the helm itself will have an impact, as new relationships will have to be forged with both White House and Congressional insiders and the public. "We go from a known quantity, with a very known and established reputation on these issues, to a totally unknown quantity. That by itself matters a lot, even if you can't predict where the unknown quantity is going to go," O'Hanlon says. "Even though [Panetta's] been part of the team in some sense for two years, we don't really know where he stands."

Panetta's advisory style, in particular, will be closely observed. What kind of advice he gives, and whether he'll try to be assertive or deferential, public or private, are among the questions that people on Capitol Hill and overseas are likely to ask. His relationship with the military will also be closely watched.

According to Ron Kessler, author of The CIA at War, the changes, which include U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus taking Panetta's gig at the CIA, will affect little in terms of Obama's overall policy on defense and national security issues. The president likely will begin to withdraw troops in July as promised, and he'll keep his goal to have Afghan security forces take over by 2014. "We'll see more of the same," says Kessler.But in terms of how those broad policies will be implemented, the potential for change could be significant. As the new national security team takes shape, the speed and degree by which NATO and U.S. forces hand off security efforts to the Afghans themselves could evolve. According to Afghanistan war critic Bing West, who served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs during the Reagan presidency, Panetta's recent experience working at the CIA, combined with the on-the-ground experience in Iraq of the four top generals leading the effort in Afghanistan, suggests that the number of U.S. combat troops could fall more quickly, as the leaders opt for an approach that's more centered on empowering native forces. "At the Pentagon it's inevitable that Panetta is going to accelerate the withdrawal in Afghanistan and most likely increase the advisors and decrease the combat units, put the Afghans more into the fight more quickly," West says.