I agree with Shadow Government’s Dov Zakheim that Obama played it safe in tapping Leon Panetta to replace Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense. Quite apart from the need to fight and win two (sorry, three) wars, Panetta will face three major challenges:
First, he is not Bob Gates: Gates benefited more than he should have from not being Donald Rumsfeld. The contrast between the two men is often overblown, and in many ways more a matter of style than substance. Indeed, in recent months, Gates’ calls for the Pentagon to reform and the Services to transform have sounded positively Rumsfeldian.
Conversely, Panetta will suffer — again, perhaps more than he should — for not being Robert Gates. Gates leaves behind enormous shoes that any successor would have difficulty filling.
Second, the budget: The timing of Gates’ departure has more than a little to do with the fact that the White House dropped the demand to cut an additional $400 billion from the defense budget on the Pentagon 24 hours before the President went public with it. In the process, the president undercut Gates’ own statements that the Defense Department could not afford further cuts with two (strike that, three) wars going on simultaneously. Panetta was presumably an attractive choice as Defense Secretary at least in part because of his experience in cutting budgets, and he is being dispatched to the Pentagon at least in part to trim the budget. He will presumably oversee the process of reducing the force structure that the administration’s own 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review only fifteen months ago said was necessary to win today’s wars and prepare for the future.
Third, managing civil-military friction: Budget cuts are likely to exacerbate tensions between civilian and military leaders, but so may other issues. Panetta will be charged with implementing a policy to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military, a move that several of the Service chiefs opposed. That policy change may go smoothly — or it may not. Battlefield reverses in Afghanistan and indecisiveness in Libya could fuel further tensions. And Panetta will have as partners a number of new military leaders, to include a new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
All in all, Panetta has his work cut out for him. We should all wish him luck.