It was never going to be easy for President Obama to watch Robert Gates walk out of the Pentagon and back into private life. For over two years, Gates provided Obama nearly impenetrable cover at the Defense Department. But after having postponed his departure several times, Gates plans to exit on June 30, forcing Obama to replace an irreplaceable asset.
Obama came up with a two-pronged solution. Unable to clone Gates, he focused on one of the most important issues for a Democratic Administration seeking to manage the military: budget expertise. Leon Panetta, Obama's pick to replace Gates, is a former White House budget chief who can navigate the fiscal rat holes of the five-sided labyrinth at a time of almost certain cutbacks.
During his two years as director of the CIA, Panetta, a Democrat, surprised hard-liners in the intelligence community by becoming a dedicated protector of the agency's interests. He fought the release of CIA torture memos and opposed the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the abuse of terrorism prisoners. At the same time, he argued for rolling back George W. Bush--era excesses in counterterrorism like waterboarding, which Panetta said was torture.
Obama also continued his steady promotion of General David Petraeus by bringing him in to replace Panetta at the CIA. Petraeus is nearly unassailable on Capitol Hill thanks to his success in managing Bush's Iraq surge. It's a signal that the CIA presence in Afghanistan isn't likely to shrink.
Replacing Petraeus in Afghanistan will be Marine Lieut. General John Allen, Petraeus' protĂ©gĂ©. And in a surprise win, Obama coaxed Ryan Crocker, an intense and talented diplomat, to return from academia to be ambassador to Afghanistan. As ambassador to Iraq during the surge, Crocker coordinated both the political rapprochement between the country's warring parties and the extrication of U.S. troops. His return suggests the White House needed a stronger agent in Kabul as it tries to wind down the Afghan war.