Clock ticking for Obama security team
President Obama and his new national security team in the East Room on Thursday
April 28th, 2011
07:28 PM ET

Clock ticking for Obama security team

WASHINGTON (CNN)–When President Obama unveiled his revamped national security team in the East Room, he quickly joked about how badly Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been itching to finally get serious about retirement.

"When I took office, Bob Gates had already served under seven presidents, and he carried a clock that counted down the days, hours, and minutes until he could return to Washington State with his wife Becky," said Obama, adding that he felt lucky to get Gates to keep pushing the exit date back to deal with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as some major budget decisions confronting the nation.

First it was Obama during the presidential transition in December 2008 getting Gates to stay on for just one more year for continuity's sake. Then that grew to staying on for first two and a half years of the administration.

Senior officials tell me Obama had even been hoping to somehow convince Gates to stay on through all four years of the first term for the good of his country, but the president finally gave in and then set his sights to twisting the reluctant arm of CIA Director Leon Panetta to delay his own retirement to take the top spot at the Pentagon.

As Obama noted to laughter about his lobbying of Gates, "At some point along the way, Bob threw out that clock."

It was an apt metaphor because top defense analysts say the clock is literally ticking on the Obama administration as its first - and possibly only - term in office winds down.

"The timing right now is really critical in terms of how the resources will get sorted out," said David Berteau, head of the defense industrial practice at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Berteau is referring to the fact that Panetta and the rest of the new team will have just 18 months to deal with the arduous task of somehow squeezing hundreds of billions of dollars out of the planned Pentagon budget for the next decade or so - it's pretty much impossible to find a way to get the numbers in Obama's deficit-cutting plan to add up without significant defense savings.

And oh yeah - they have to do this while winding down two very expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, try and help finish the mission in Libya, prepare for possible conflicts anywhere from Syria to North Korea, all the while trying to figure out how things will settle down in the Mideast.

No wonder Panetta had to have his arm twisted to take this job, and he even joked to the crowd that the departing Gates was easy to spot at the event because he was the "guy with the big smile next to me" on the platform.

Panetta immediately noted the mind-numbing change the world has witnessed in recent months. "As the son of immigrants, I was raised to believe that we cannot be free unless we are secure," he said. "Today we are a nation at war. And job one will be to ensure that we are the strongest military power in the world to protect that security that is so important to this country."

But in a sign of how Panetta's other big task will be trying to deal with the contradictory goals of protecting America's military superiority and drastically reducing the Pentagon's $550 billion annual budget, the former White House chief of staff and budget director in the Clinton administration quickly added he is committed to finding that balance.

"Yet this is also a time for hard choices," said Panetta. "It's about ensuring that we are able to prevail in the conflicts in which we are now engaged. But it's also about being able to be strong and disciplined in applying our nation's limited resources to defending America."

Panetta emphasized that "none of this will be easy," and administration officials say privately this is a major reason why the president was so heavily-focused on picking experience old hands to round out the new(ish) national security team, with Gen. David Petraeus nominated to replace Panetta at the Central Intelligence Agency.

While some critics have dismissed the changes as a game of musical chairs, it's worth noting the people filling those chairs are heavily respected on both sides of the aisle. When was the last time you heard a Republican touting the "honesty and integrity" of an Obama nominee as House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (Mich.) did?

"While I'm sorry to see Mr. Panetta go (from the CIA), his talent and leadership will be put to great use leading the Defense Department," said Rogers. "Mr. Gates is leaving huge shoes to fill at the Pentagon, and I can't imagine a better candidate to replace him."

There has also been praise for the selections from Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee that will vote on the nominations of Panetta and Lt. Gen. John Allen, who has been nominated to replace Petraeus as the allied commander of the war in Afghanistan.

Obama also nominated the highly-respected Ryan Crocker to serve as the new U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan ahead of the July deadline that is fast approaching, which the president has held up as a pivot point for starting to bring home U.S. troops.

Besides being experienced, many of these players know each other very well. When the war in Iraq was falling apart, it was then-President Bush's decision to install Petraeus as the commander on the ground and Crocker as the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad - with Allen serving under Petreaus on the military side - that was one of the pivotal moments that got the mission back on track.

"I mean Petreaus and Crocker were the 'Dream Team' in Iraq," said Berteau. "These guys have all worked together."

That is significant because administration can sometimes waste months and months getting key players to gel. "It provides the opportunity to get things done because you don't have to waste your time in transition," said Berteau.

The time needs to be used wisely to tackle all of the challenges the team will face in the next year and a half, including nothing short of the most momentous transformation of the American military in a couple of decades.

"We are about to embark on the next big defense drawdown," said Berteau. "Panetta is uniquely qualified because he was at the White House during the last big drawdown in the early 1990's."

Indeed, Panetta served as White House chief of staff and the budget director during the Clinton administration and helped balance the federal budget. He was able then to benefit from his previous tenure as chairman of the House Budget Committee, and he will be able to draw upon that deep reservoir of respect again now.

"I am pleased that my friend Leon Panetta will bring his long record of service, first in Congress and then in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, to the job of Secretary of Defense," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "Director Panetta is taking the helm at a crucial time for the Pentagon, in the midst of two wars and as we close in on our July deadline to begin the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan. We need the kind of experience leadership he can provide."

The budget battles ahead will only be further complicated by the 2012 campaign, of course, as both parties trade charges and potentially move further and further from compromise. And if Obama ends up losing the race, the clock is ticking on Panetta to leave the administration's imprint on the Pentagon budget for the next decade to come.

Obama, of course, hopes to win a second term. And just as Gates jokingly thanked Obama for "inviting me to stay on - and on and on," the president seems to already be lobbying Panetta to stay beyond the next 18 months.

At the East Room event, Obama noted that after 40 years in public service, Panetta had wanted to go home to retirement with his wife.

"Leon, I know that you've been looking forward to returning now to Sylvia and your beautiful Monterey, so I thank you for taking on yet another assignment for our country," Obama said, adding with a sly smile: "And I hope you don't have a clock."

soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Jay in NC

    So everyone changes seats and you call it change. Good grief. No wonder we are still in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    April 29, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  2. Liz Carter in Georgia

    'Mission (Finally) Accomplished'! Ooooops! I suppose we spoke too soon! I guess it turned out that the fact that they changed seats evolved into something like 'CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN' didn't it, Jay?

    May 2, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Jay in NC

      We are still at war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, Liz. Nothing has change, men and women will die for no reason, Barry will continue to fund Afghanistan's military, supporting a country that grows the worlds poppy supply. Next time an inner city black child is killed because of heroine drug war, thank Barry. He has spent more on supporting the poppy growers than he has spent on improving Detroit.

      May 2, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Jay in NC

      By the way, are not these President Bush's men? There was no change, same men doing the same job. Berry kept them because he could not find anyone qualified from the Liberal base.

      May 2, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  3. Liz Carter in Georgia

    Well Jay, read your own post; the first one at the top of this thread. YOU made the crack about the seat chaging and questioned where was the change. 'No wonder we are still in Iraq and Afghanistan'. I thought the whole reason we went to either place was in the name of fighting terrorism. Did you know that even the BUSHadministration were earlier told Bin Laden was in Afghanistan? Since you claim that these are 'President' Bush's men, I guess you need to blame them for the heroine and us still being there!

    May 2, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • Jay in NC

      I do blame them. This is not a President Bush good Barry bad situation , I think both men have not done enough. In 2010 Barry shifted our drug policy in Afghanistan away from eradicating opium poppy fields. So, in my meager opinion President Bush did not eradicate enough and Barry is not eradicating at all.

      These were President Bush's men, they deserve the glory for killing OBL, but the rebuke of not ending the wars.

      During the past two years Barry has ordered over 100,000 additional men (that is more than President Bush) into Afghanistan. This mission proved that a small well placed group in Pakistan was more effective. So Barry was wrong on the war. He did not need to send that many people. He has waisted time, lives and money. The real test is what will he do next. Will he continue the war in Afghanistan like he has done in Iraq and now Libya? Or will he bring everyone home?

      I really wish you Liberals would quit fighting on this issue, I know that for years you all said the wars were not valid. Let's join, and demand that Barry end then. Bring our solder home!

      May 2, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
      • Paw

        Come on RT, you're really lnoisg credibility. Report the truth not military propaganda. You state that the US is trying to stabilize Afghanistan. Come on, do really expect the US military which is itself creating instability in the region to somehow achieve stability?Go to Afghanistan and interview some Afghans, show us what's really happening there. Expose the death and destruction that the mainstream media is afraid to show us.

        April 5, 2012 at 12:00 am |
  4. Liz Carter in Georgia

    Oh, just inner city black children huh? Well children of all persuasions do die in drug wars, but I don't think many inner city black children deal much in heroine; meth either. Those are mostly handled by our white sisters and brothers! Marijuana? Yes, and they deal mostly in 'crack', a derivitive of the big 'booty' of cocaine that we racked up on from VIETNAM WAR. BTW, how many previous presidents as well as American 'investors', dealers, can YOU blame for supporting the coca plant growers in VIETNAM?

    May 2, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • Jay in NC

      And what has Barry done about this. Name one law, spending, anything, even a speech about black kids and drug wars in Detroit. He has stood by and let the black youth die.

      May 2, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  5. Liz Carter in Georgia

    LOL! Bush's men huh? Yes they were! Which let's me further know that this PRESIDENT has wise consciousness on discerning who's good enough to keep and who to throw out! Yes 'A FEW GOOD MEN'. So evidently those 'good men' weren't recieving responsible directives! Location, Location, Location! LOL! GWB, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the many of the GOP, a few DEMS and many war investors were too busy over there in IRAQ, babysitting their money-making 'vital national interests' and draining oil! 'IRAQ FOR SALE'. LOL!!

    May 2, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  6. Liz Carter in Georgia

    You are and always have tried to make it a good Bush, and bad President Obama thing! But when you get stomped you start filibustering and lying! Since you brought up the notion of drugs in Afghanistan, trying to insenuate that President Obama is supporting poppy plant growers, rather than improving Detroit, I think you're off the mark a bit. Why just Detroit? Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Miami and many other innercities are having drug-related problems! What did BUSH do?

    May 2, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
    • Jay in NC


      1) what lie did I tell.
      2) what has Barry done for the children.

      We all know you will not answer, just more of the same, blame President Bush.

      May 2, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
  7. Liz Carter in Georgia

    How can you even equate the 'war on terror'; the one that BUSH 'set off' 10 years ago, claiming to be retaliating or avenging 911; the one where BIN LADEN was just caught and killed yesterday by the OBAMA administration; FINALLY, after all of those years, all of the lives lost, all of the money spent and borrowed to fund these wars, and you instead decided to start blaming OBAMA for not focusing on Detroits' economical and drug problems? With you, it's anything to deflate anything done good by OBAMA. Sad!

    May 2, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
  8. Liz Carter in Georgia

    Since you claim to be befuddled about it, not only Detroit, but many of AMERICAS innercities are and have been plagued with drugs for years! Children have been dying for years. What did the last administration do about it? NOTHING! OBAMA is still PRESIDENT. Do you know what his plans may or may not be to do about it? Oh, he has 5 more years to decide on an initiative! I remember BILL CLINTON putting a focus on it, and setting out initiatives to at least open more rehab centers in a few of the innercities.

    May 3, 2011 at 12:21 am |
  9. Liz Carter in Georgia

    One more thing. Do you remember explaining away the fact that Bush was wrong on the wars in the first place, excusing him because he was working according to the information he had? Well, it must have been the same for Pres Obama! We all thought Bin Laden was in Afghanistan. Why wouldn't he start transferring the soldiers out of Bush's IRAQ and put them in Afghanistan? As he and his war room people continued to watch and discuss the situation, they strategized a more efficient responsible way! WISDOM!

    May 3, 2011 at 12:35 am |
  10. Capatin

    Your story was rlelay informative, thanks!

    June 23, 2011 at 11:54 pm |