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Do CIA directors make good defense secretaries?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Do CIA directors make better defense secretaries?

In a sweeping but long-anticipated reorganization of his national security team, President Barack Obama has nominated Leon Panetta, his CIA director, to be the next secretary of Defense. When confirmed, Panetta will replace Robert Gates. According to the New York Times, Gates — himself a former director of Central Intelligence — has been voicing his support in calls to leaders on Capitol Hill in recent days, saying he recommended Panetta as his replacement six months ago. The Times also noted that of all of the candidates to replace Gates "it was Leon the whole time." Is there something about CIA directors that makes them especially qualified to be defense secretaries?

Many analysts have focused on Panetta’s past as chairman of the House Budget Committee and his time as director of the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. With Obama having tasked the Pentagon and other security agencies to come up with an additional $400 billion in savings over the next 12 years, Panetta’s experience with the federal budget could be a critical skill in the period ahead.

A defense secretary serves not only the president, but his other "customer," the Congress. Panetta’s longevity inside Washington’s circles nearly matches Gates’s. His past experience as a congressman and his recent experience at CIA will ensure smooth relations on Capitol Hill and there should be virtually no opposition to his nomination to the Pentagon.

But it’s likely that these were not the most critical reasons why he became the easy first choice for the Pentagon. In pushing for Panetta, Gates is undoubtedly counting on his old institution, the CIA, to have thoroughly prepared its current director in two crucial ways.

First, the Pentagon is a massive organization, requiring great management experience from its leader to be effective. The CIA is also a large organization, which Panetta has led for over two years without incident. Having been through the same progression, Gates must feel comfortable with Panetta’s management ability.

But for Obama and Gates, the most critical preparation Panetta has received is his acquired knowledge about the external security challenges the United States will face in the years ahead. The CIA’s paramilitary activities in Afghanistan, its relations with Pakistan’s intelligence service, and the CIA drone program over North Waziristan have undoubtedly consumed much of Panetta’s time. But his briefing books have also included the growth of China’s missile and naval forces, the development of Iran’s nuclear and missile forces, the growing role of militarized drug cartels in Latin America, and many other threats.

The defense secretary’s most important job is to make sure that the country’s military forces are prepared for future challenges. The first step in achieving that mission is to understand what those will be. The CIA has its version of what those challenges are, which are now inside Panetta’s head. Gates seems comfortable with that.

Does Panetta have a grand strategy?

At an April 21 press conference at the Pentagon, Gates attempted to establish the ground rules for the latest review of defense spending. Responding to Obama’s call to find an additional $400 billion of savings from security spending over the next 12 years, Gates insisted that this latest budget exercise result in a presentation of risks and consequences to Obama. Gates explained:

So what I hope to do is frame this in a way that says, if you want to cut this number of dollars, here are the consequences for force structure. Here are your choices in terms of capabilities that will be reduced or investments that are not made. And here are the consequences of this.

This is about — this needs to be a process that is driven by the analysis, and where it is about risk management with respect to future national security threats and challenges, as well as missions that our elected officials decide we should not have to perform or shouldn’t — can’t perform anymore because we don’t have the resources.

I want to frame those choices, because the easy thing for everybody is to just do a broad percentage cut, because then there are no evident consequences. And what I want to do is frame this in a way the consequences and the risks are identified so people can make well- thought-out decisions."

Gates is hoping that Obama’s call for cuts turns into a serious debate about U.S. grand strategy. Formulating such a strategy implies defining objectives, assessing available resources, setting priorities, and accepting the risks and consequences for those objectives. Although a seemingly logical process, recent presidents have shied away from performing such an exercise and for good reasons. Gates, the most experienced hand in Washington, knows this. But with his departure from the Pentagon now set for June 30, Gates won’t be around to guide the strategy project he believes is so important. That task will fall to his presumed successor, Leon Panetta, whose views on grand strategy still remain a mystery.

Hasn’t the Obama administration, like its predecessors, already produced some elegant grand strategy documents? Last year, the administration published its National Security Strategy. The Pentagon produced its own Quadrennial Defense Review. These documents richly describe ambitions and aspirations. But they are nearly silent about the limitations under which U.S. policymakers must increasingly function. And this means that these documents avoid the hard-headed analysis decision-makers under constraints must face, namely setting priorities, taking risks, accepting consequences, and ultimately cutting adrift goals — and partners that cannot be supported.

If Obama and his Office of Management and Budget are serious about additional defense cuts, Gates wants the risks and consequences out in the open. Setting priorities and accepting limits means announcing that some allies and friends still merit protection while others don’t. Previous presidents have never been explicit about such line-drawing, a crucial result of grand strategy formulation; to do so would undermine the clout of U.S. diplomacy. More broadly, openly declaring explicit limits on security missions the United States will and will not perform would imply forfeiting influence over events in some areas, something U.S. policymakers since World War II have consistently declined to do. They have concluded that the best way to maximize diplomatic influence and maneuvering room is to be vague and leave the impression that all goals and all friends matter equally.

But as the Pentagon’s dollars grow short, such a strategy will increasingly rely on bluff. When the interagency process, for logical reasons, resists making strategic choices, Gates’s nightmare — equal budget cuts across the existing force, leaving all capabilities hollowed out — will be the default option.

Gates believes that a substantive national debate on strategy, risk, and consequences will educate the public and, he hopes, minimize the chop the Pentagon will receive. He is now counting on his hand-picked successor Panetta, a CIA director fully briefed on the world’s security challenges, to wisely manage this latest security review. But where Panetta stands on grand strategy remains to be seen.

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