President Barack Obama will name Leon Panetta, a veteran Washington politician and the current CIA director, as U.S. defence secretary as he resets his national security team before a battle over the Pentagon budget and the start of a withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Obama will nominate General David Petraeus, who is running the Afghan war after leading the campaign to quash the insurgency in Iraq, to replace Panetta at the CIA, U.S. officials also said on Wednesday. He will retire from the U.S. military to take the post.
Trouble-shooting diplomat Ryan Crocker, who has served as ambassador to Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon, will be named as ambassador to Afghanistan.
“The president has selected a deeply experienced group of people … strong figures who work together, who respect each other,” a senior Obama administration official said.
The White House hopes Panetta will be able to assume his post on July 1. Petraeus would take his job at CIA headquarters by the beginning of September, pending an expected smooth Senate confirmation.
The changes, which will be formally announced by Obama on Thursday, are part of a broad overhaul of Obama’s national security team before the 2012 presidential election campaign heats up. Waiting too long could have complicated Senate confirmation, officials feared.
Still to be announced is the successor for the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, who is expected to step down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when his term expires at the end of September.
The long-anticipated overhaul could have broad implications for the Obama administration, which is pursuing deeper defence spending cuts in the face of a yawning budget deficit and is eying the prospect of a complete withdrawal from Iraq this year and the start of one in Afghanistan.
Panetta is a Democratic Party insider seen as close to Obama who could be more receptive to deeper defence spending cuts than outgoing Defence Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the Republican Bush administration.
Panetta, who turns 73 in June and was described as reluctant to leave the CIA, is a former U.S. representative from California who was chairman of the House Budget Committee. He was former President Bill Clinton’s budget director and then Clinton’s chief of staff.
“Panetta has deeper experience with budget issues than any American national security official serving today,” said Travis Sharp, a defence analyst at the Centre for a New American Security.
The senior Obama administration official stressed that finding more places to cut the budget would be one of the top items on Panetta’s agenda when he arrived at the Pentagon.
As well as starting the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States is set to pull its forces from Iraq entirely by the end of 2011. The course of the campaign in Libya is unclear as fresh challenges flare in North Africa and the Middle East.
The White House declined comment on the expected changes, as did the Pentagon. White House spokesman Jay Carney said only that “we’ll have a personnel announcement for you tomorrow.”
Gates’ clout among Republicans helped shield Obama from early criticism of his handling of war policy, a political asset that the president will be hard pressed to duplicate as he heads into the 2012 presidential campaign.
PETRAEUS TO RETIRE
By choosing Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Obama advances perhaps the U.S. military’s most famous general and a hero among Republicans to one of the most important and difficult posts to fill in his administration.
Petraeus, 58, is credited with pulling Iraq from the brink of civil war and has trumpeted battlefield successes in Afghanistan after a surge of 30,000 additional troops ordered in by Obama in late 2009.
But he will retire from his military career to take the job, the senior Obama administration official said.
“The president and he have been in a conversation about this transition and about this position for a while now,” the official said, adding that the two discussed the matter in the Oval Office on March 14 and 18.
Petraeus will find a somewhat less optimistic view of the Afghan campaign from inside CIA headquarters, where analysts have put forward a much more cautious outlook about the unpopular, nearly decade-old war.
Petraeus had left Afghanistan and was expected to arrive in Washington before the White House’s Thursday announcement, officials said.
Before word of the reshuffle broke, some Washington insiders suggested the White House wanted a high-profile position for Petraeus to ensure he would not be tapped by Republicans to challenge Obama next year, perhaps as a vice-presidential choice.
One U.S. official said Lieutenant General John Allen, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, would succeed Petraeus as head of the Afghanistan campaign.
Allen was a commander in Iraq’s western Anbar province at a pivotal moment when Sunni tribal leaders switched sides and started helping American troops fight al Qaeda, a strategy that U.S. officials say helped turn around the war.
Allen will work as a special assistant to Mullen until Petraeus vacates his post.