April 27, 2011 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Musical Chairs on the Titanic

Apparently, big changes are afoot on defense -- a new top gun for the armed forces and a fresh head spook at the agency. But it's hardly change we can believe in.

Shifting Leon Panetta from the head of the CIA to the Pentagon and Gen. David Petraeus from Afghanistan to agency headquarters at Langley is about as significant as President Obama changing his socks.

Despite having less experience in foreign policy and military matters than most Washington insiders, Obama has made clear from the start that he would make all the big calls. When he picked his Cabinet members, they were widely heralded as a "team of rivals." For the most part, though, they've been a team of cheerleaders, delivering the president exactly the policies he wants.

Panetta has been a loyal political soldier from the start, so moving him to be the head of all the soldiers as secretary of Defense was pretty much a "no-brainer" for Obama. Current Secretary Bob Gates has already delivered the White House all it has asked for -- a glide path out of Iraq and Afghanistan and justification to gut the defense budget.

As far as the president is concerned, all Panetta has to do is follow the numbers. His first task will be to conduct a major review of defense needs.

Spoiler alert: Panetta's answer will be to rubber-stamp more defense cuts.

Petraeus, on the other hand, is a loyal soldier, too (in the more literal sense of the word). In taking the job at the CIA, he'll do exactly what he did in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the best job possible with the resources his president gives him.

In many ways, the CIA job is similar to the task he has now. He'll be implementing policies, not making them. In this, job he'll pose little threat to the president's ability to remain his own policy czar.

So the only real news here is that there is no news. Not much will change with Obama shifting the positions of players on the team.

That's also the bad news -- because Obama's doctrine has been a dud. From giving away the store to the Russians in negotiating a nuclear-weapons deal, to kowtowing to the Chinese, to becoming pretty much an official joke in Tehran and a bystander to the Arab Spring, the president has no real foreign-policy success to show.

The next two years may be even worse. If Obama opts to follow through on his promised major withdrawal in Afghanistan, that battlefield will turn into a disaster. If he follows through on his promises to gut defense and sign even more arms-control treaties with Moscow, then both China and Russia will get even tougher with him.

Meanwhile, everyone will be just sitting around the Oval Office waiting for Iran to get the bomb.

All the president has achieved in this latest round of musical chairs is to ensure that there will be fewer independent voices nearby calling him to reason.

James Jay Carafano is director of the Allison Center for Foreign-Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in The New York Post