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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The new team of generals West refers to will eventually consist of Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen, who will take Gen. David Petraeus' job as U.S. commander in Afghanistan when he becomes CIA director in September; Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, the head of U.S. Central Command; Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who was recently appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. Ray Odierno, who will replace Dempsey as Army chief of staff. All have aided with stability operations in Iraq, which West says could contribute to their strategy in Afghanistan. "They're going to have their own view, and if you look at the background of all of them, I'd be willing to bet a lot of money you're going to see more of a movement to the same kind of advisor system that we saw in Anbar [in Iraq] in 2007," West says, referring to the system where Western forces took an advisory role over mostly local troops. [Take our poll: Is Gen. Martin Dempsey the right choice for Joint Chiefs chair?]

As hard as winding down the war and establishing stability in Afghanistan will be, Gates also leaves to Panetta the daunting task of shrinking the Pentagon budget after years of steadily rising outlays. Even for Panetta, who was yanked from Congress in 1993 to help Clinton pass that year's deficit-cutting budget agreement, this task won't be easy. According to O'Hanlon, his challenge as defense secretary will be less about figuring out where and what to cut and more about convincing the public that they will still be safe with less resources committed to security.

"The hard part of the job is not to do the arithmetic, it's to create domestic political support from as many constituencies as possible for painful cutbacks that many people aren't going to like, and that many people are going to worry might weaken our security. You've got to show a real understanding about the nature of those risks," O'Hanlon says. "Panetta's a very capable guy, but one shouldn't assume that just because he did the OMB thing that therefore he's well-positioned for secretary of defense at a time of fiscal austerity. The challenges are different at DOD."

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