PRESIDENT OBAMA’S new choices for his national security team have proven records of success and strong bipartisan support. Leon Panetta and Gen. David H. Petraeus should win easy confirmation to posts as defense secretary and CIA director. Lt. Gen. John R. Allen is a strong candidate to replace Gen. Petraeus as the commander in Afghanistan. Ryan C. Crocker has been the most capable American envoy of the post-Sept. 11 era; Mr. Obama persuaded him to leave academia, whence he had retired, and return to diplomatic service as ambassador to Afghanistan. The president deserves credit for seeking out highly qualified — as opposed to politically reliable — candidates to take on the grave challenges the country faces abroad.
This doesn’t mean the nominees won’t engender some controversy or merit careful questioning from Congress. Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Panetta appear likely to reinforce policy choices by Mr. Obama that are open to debate. Gen. Petraeus has been a strong supporter of paramilitary activities by the CIA, including drone strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan that have greatly escalated since Mr. Obama took office. While we believe those operations are necessary, they have contributed to a deterioration of U.S. relations with Pakistan.
As CIA director, Gen. Petraeus will oversee not just those ground activities but also the intelligence analysis that is crucial to effective policymaking about Iran, North Korea and other hard-to-penetrate states. Some note that his assessments as a military commander of Iraq and Afghanistan have sometimes been at odds with those of his new agency — though in Iraq, at least, Gen. Petraeus proved correct.
Mr. Panetta is a veteran budget manager with scant military experience. So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a chief mission for him at the Pentagon will be finding the $400 billion in budget cuts that Mr. Obama called for recently. While some trims are inevitable, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has rightly warned that slashing the defense budget to solve the country’s fiscal problems would be dangerous. Mr. Panetta will need to demonstrate that reductions make sense from a national security perspective.
Perhaps the greatest risk of the reshuffle comes in Afghanistan, where the departure of Gen. Petraeus will remove America’s most skilled military commander from a campaign that appears to be teetering between success and failure. Lt. Gen. Allen, however, was a key contributor to the successful turnaround of the war in Iraq; and Mr. Crocker offers a major improvement over his predecessor, Karl Eikenberry, who contributed substantially to the souring of U.S. relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
With the Taliban on the defensive militarily, strengthening the Afghan government and negotiating a U.S.-Afghan strategic alliance may be the most critical task of the coming year. Mr. Crocker, who helped fashion the U.S. strategic pact with Iraq, has rightly emphasized the need for sustained U.S. engagement in both countries. We hope that in asking him to return to Kabul, Mr. Obama will fully support that imperative.