In one stroke, a new Obama national security team

Thursday - 4/28/2011, 11:10pm EDT

By ANNE GEARAN and ROBERT BURNS
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The reshuffled national security team President Barack Obama introduced on Thursday will be charged with fighting not only the overseas war in Afghanistan but also budget battles on the home front over Pentagon spending that has ballooned into a fat target for deficit hawks.

His own re-election campaign approaching, Obama turned to a cast of familiar and respected officials for the most sweeping reworking of his national security team since the opening weeks of his presidency. He invoked the political upheaval and violence roiling the Middle East, the nearly 10-year-old Afghan war and the hard cost-cutting decisions ahead as the country tries to reduce its crushing debt.

"Given the pivotal period that we're entering, I felt that it was absolutely critical that we had this team in place so that we can stay focused on our missions, maintain our momentum and keep our nation secure," Obama said at the White House.

In the biggest change, CIA Director Leon Panetta will replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates when Gates makes his long-planned exit this summer. In remarks introducing the Cabinet and Afghan war leaders, Obama also bade farewell to Gates after a tenure begun more than four years ago under President George W. Bush.

Gen. David Petraeus, the high-profile commander of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will replace Panetta at the CIA in the fall, after helping to manage the first steps of a drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan over the summer.

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen will succeed Petraeus as the top commander in Afghanistan, and seasoned diplomat Ryan Crocker will take over as ambassador there. The new team in Kabul will manage the planned shift toward a back-seat role for the United States and its NATO partners, as Afghan security forces gradually assume responsibility. Both Allen and Crocker have experience with a similar transition in Iraq, and with the effort there to broker deals with former militants and political rivals that U.S. officials want to mirror in Afghanistan.

"These are the leaders that I've chosen to help guide us through the difficult days ahead," Obama said in the White House East Room with Gates, Panetta, Petraeus and other top officials by his side.

"I will look to them and my entire national security team for their counsel, continuity and unity of effort that this moment in history demands."

There are no new names among the group _ all are current or former government officials with long resumes in Washington or in battle zones _ and the long-pending reorganization is less a shake-up than a rearrangement of a team the White House credits with an orderly winding down of the Iraq war and the troop buildup in Afghanistan.

Members of the new slate also have handled the sometimes-contentious relations with Pakistan and other countries key to success in Afghanistan and in the wider fight against terrorism.

The changes, which require Senate approval, come as the Obama administration confronts numerous national security challenges at home and abroad, including finding a way out of the increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan and making politically risky cuts to the Pentagon budget.

Gates and Obama's four new nominees took turns speaking after the president, several of them delivering grave messages about the challenges confronting a nation burdened with overseas conflicts and budget deficits.

By persuading Panetta to move from the spy agency to the Pentagon, Obama has turned to a widely respected Washington insider and veteran of fierce budget fights as the administration prepares for intensifying political battles over shrinking an estimated $1.6 trillion annual federal deficit.

The choice of Panetta, who was budget chief under Democrat Bill Clinton, suggests the president sees Pentagon budget-cutting as a major issue. Gates, who oversaw a turnaround in the Iraq war in 2007 and pushed for a bigger troop commitment in Afghanistan last year, is known to believe that his cost-cutting initiatives are the most important features of the legacy he will leave after more than four years in office.

Gates has come up with $400 billion in cuts in the defense budget for the next 10 years, and Obama has asked him to come up with $400 billion more, a task that will now fall to Panetta.

Gates' arrival at the Pentagon in December 2006 began a period of major shifts in U.S. defense policy, including a more muscular approach in Iraq, an expansion of the heavily stressed Army and Marine Corps, a more conciliatory approach to Washington's European allies and better Pentagon relations with Congress. By the time he leaves June 30, Gates will be the fourth-longest serving Pentagon chief in history.