BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban
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Change at the top comes at difficult time for US military

Mark Urban | 17:55 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011

President Barack Obama is re-shuffling his national security team at a time when the resources available to them are diminishing sharply.

The White House wants cuts of $400bn over the next 12 years - and that comes on top of more than $100bn already sheared from the Pentagon budget since this administration came to power.

The outgoing defence secretary, Robert Gates, has warned that the military should not be viewed as the place to solve America's federal deficit problems.

He also made explicit his view that the US should not be drawn into a big military commitment in Libya. Increasingly Mr Gates, a veteran of beltway politics, seems to have surveyed a landscape of growing global turmoil and diminished US resources with a weary resignation.

In a way, the foreign policy elite in Washington (and London for that matter) appears to have divided along the lines of pessimistic apparatchiks and politico optimists.

As a former director of the CIA and defence chief for both Presidents Bush and Obama, Mr Gates personifies the sort of experienced insider who surveys events in the Arab world and can imagine all of the ways revolution in Yemen, Egypt, or Syria could go horribly wrong.

His successor, Leon Panetta, as director of the CIA, it is true, has been exposed to the professional pessimists of that agency for the past few years.

But in his bones he is a democratic party stalwart, and a veteran of many political battles in Congress.

Mr Panetta is more likely to share his president's excitement that the Arab Spring offers an exciting hope of change and renewal than many of the hard bitten case officers he will leave behind at Langley.

If your budget is being cut that deeply, it certainly helps to be an optimist.

General David Petraeus is now widely expected to step into the director's shoes at CIA. He does not fit easily into the category of optimist or pessimist and he is certainly no politician. But having commanded US forces in Iraq, then across the Middle East, and most recently in Afghanistan, assuming along the way a good deal of personal responsibility for the strategy being pursued in those places, he is unlikely to feel that it is all going horribly wrong.

Both Mr Panetta and Gen Petraeus will be moving into their posts at a uniquely difficult time. America's on-off air strikes in Libya have shown how reluctant Washington is to become drawn into new military commitments.

As it becomes clear that the drive to balance the books will mean sitting out crises more often the dangers are clear enough: of waning influence; a drop in military morale; and increasing difficulty in foreseeing which of the many global crises of the next few years will prove impossible for the US to sit out.


  • Comment number 1.

    President Obama is replacing Defense Secretary Robert Gates with CIA director Leon Panetta and replacing Panetta with Gen. David Petraeus.
    Obama thinks Panetta is the right man to implement the major defense cuts he absolutely needs. Panetta's job will be to budget the place and sell the spending cuts to Congress. Panetta, a Democratic party insider with budgets as his background, would oversee steady declines in Pentagon spending and divert weapons dollars to the Treasury Department.
    Does Panetta have the skill?
    You tell me how you move the entire Pentagon?
    Petraeus Replacing Panetta: Petraeus' credentials for heading the CIA.
    1. reputation + ability to repair intelligence relationships in the Arab world
    2. fit right in with the CIA's activities
    3. relationship with the Pakistanis (and he' going to need this BIG TIME).
    There's no reason to suppose that Panetta or Petraeus will be bringing something drastically NEW or substantially different to their new jobs.
    When you think about these moves, it's more like ho-hum than wow!

  • Comment number 2.

    "The outgoing defence secretary, Robert Gates, has warned that the military should not be viewed as the place to solve America's federal deficit problems."
    Since this is the United States' biggest expenditure is defence, where else could Panetta hope to cut the spending?
    Yet, to demonstrate the over all weakness of the Pentagon, on April 29 the White House issued an executive order to enforce new and more stringent sanctions against Syria and appealed to European North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies to follow suit. Wow, Syria must have quaked in its protester-stomping boots!
    Here's the main point:
    Libya and Syria are the only two Mediterranean nations - the sole remaining Arab states - that are not subordinated to US and NATO designs for control of the Mediterranean Sea Basin and the Middle East. Libya and Syria are prospectively the last outposts of independence and non-alignment.
    On April 24, Easter Sunday, three leading Senators John McCain, Joseph Lieberman and Lindsey Graham - appeared on CNN's "State Of The Union" program. In what Americans have come to accept as US foreign policy, Lieberman stated that United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 "gives justification if NATO decides it wants to, for going directly after Gadhafi," (WHAT?). Graham added that "my recommendation to NATO and the administration is to cut the head of the snake off, go to Tripoli, start bombing Gadhafi's inner circle, their compounds, their military headquarters." (DOUBLE WHAT?)
    Graham, further asserted that "the goal is to get rid of Gadhafi" and added "Let's GET THIS DONE!" (TRIPLE WHAT???)
    Graham: "You can't let the Russians and the Chinese veto the freedom agenda. So any time you go to the United Nations Security Council, you run into the Russians and the Chinese. These are quasi-dictatorships, so I wouldn't be locked down by the UN mandate." (Quadruple what????)
    If this all this was not enough: On April 28 Lieberman, McCain and Graham released a joint statement targeting Syria in earnest: "Assad and those loyal to him have lost the legitimacy to remain in power in Syria. We urge President Obama to state unequivocally – as he did in the case of Qaddafi and Mubarak – that it is time for Assad to go."
    Who do these guys think they are?
    Well, whoever they think they are, this is the sort of rhetoric that Panetta and Petreaus will have to deal with, and it most surely does not sound reasonable, realistic and therefore sane to me?
    Good luck to Petraeus

  • Comment number 3.



    What about Lebanon?

  • Comment number 4.

    It is these global themes that present the challenge to the worlds only superpower (presently).

    One suspects that the US DoD would find a way to work a lot smarter and more efficiently if less dollars were cascaded upon that department.

    Personally, I too am very excited about the Arab Spring, their world was a very advanced cilivisation until religion gained the upper hand, so maybe this will eventually become a genuine renaissance and POTUS Obama is right to proceed very cautiously.

    Keep calm and carry on seems to be the Obama motif or Americanised as no drama, Obama.

    It appears to be working and Obamas second term will deliver the pain that America needs to reduce its deficit to more manageable levels.


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