“For a country at war to lose its entire chain of command at the same time, more or less, is an extraordinary and fraught development,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The good news is that we have some very able people willing to continue in one way or the other.”
The numerous vacancies will give Obama the opportunity to remake the top tier of his national security team for the first time since taking office. How he chooses to do so, whether with big thinkers or more technocratic managers, may signal his priorities as he heads into his campaign for reelection.
Early on, Obama was praised for appearing to value competence above all else in his appointments, notably in his choices of Gates, a veteran of Republican administrations, as defense secretary, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, a political rival, as secretary of state. But with some recent vacancies, he has chosen to elevate advisers with whom he feels most comfortable — a pattern that disappoints some analysts hoping for an injection of new ideas.
The new team will be coordinated by national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon, who has been in his job for only six months. White House officials would not comment on the impending changes, but several other officials provided information about internal deliberations on the condition that they not be identified.
The impending departures of Gates and Mullen, both holdovers from the George W. Bush administration, will open the top two defense positions and probably trigger other vacancies.
Gates has declined to pinpoint a departure date. But Pentagon officials expect that he will leave around July, when Obama is scheduled to begin withdrawing the 30,000 additional U.S. troops he deployed to Afghanistan at the end of 2009.
“The secretary made it clear some months ago that he intends to leave the job in Washington in 2011,” said Geoffrey S. Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman. “Sometime this year, he will bow out.”
The leading candidate, according to Pentagon and other sources, is CIA Director Leon Panetta, a veteran of Washington who would probably continue the procurement and budget reforms that Gates began.
U.S. officials close to Panetta said he has not been approached, even informally, about the Pentagon job, and stressed that he expected the CIA position to be his last high-level government post. Even so, the officials would not rule out Panetta’s accepting the position. Panetta “isn’t seeking any other job and hasn’t been asked by the president to take on a different role,” CIA spokesman George Little said.