The most significant announcement emanating from the Obama White House Wednesday morning was not the public release of the president's Hawaii birth certificate. It was the news that Defense Secretary Bob Gates was stepping down immediately, that CIA Director Leon Panetta was being nominated to replace him, and that General David Petraeus, author of "surge" strategies in both Iraq and Afghanistan, would be nominated to replace Panetta at the Central Intelligence Agency.
Gates' loss will be great. He was the leading grownup in the Obama Cabinet, with long prior experience in intelligence and national-security issues. He announced last year that he would depart sometime in 2011. Then, earlier this year, he warned in Congressional testimony that "anyone should have his head examined" who would get the United States involved in Libya on top of interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We do not know if President Obama had his head examined. But the U.S., promptly after Gates' statement, did intervene militarily in Libya. Now, quite suddenly, Gates is gone — no doubt of his own volition.
Panetta, a former moderate Democratic congressman from California and chief of staff to President Clinton, had only recently begun to get a handle on the notoriously resistant CIA bureacracy. He is not a defense expert. Petraeus is respected as a fresh-thinking military commander, if nonetheless regarded as unrealistically optimistic about U.S. prospects in Afghanistan. He will have a tough break-in period at the CIA, which is a far more nuanced culture than those which he has known.
Both Panetta and Petraeus are relatively popular on Capitol Hill and may have been nominated in part because their confirmations were presumed. I personally am surprised, however, that Obama did not simply replace Gates at Defense with some other civilian with previous experience in national-security issues, rather than undertaking a two-way switch which will bring new bosses to both important agencies.
The proof will, of course, come in the performance of the two nominees. Nonetheless, a surprising shakeup in the fluid and dangerous present international environment.