President Obama' announcement that he was nominating Gen. Martin Dempsey to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff continued a broad remake of his defense team that will include a new Secretary of Defense and a new Central Intelligence Agency chairman.
Current defense secretary Robert Gates is set to retire in late June, and CIA director Leon Panetta is poised to take his place. Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of American military policy in Iraq and Afghanistan and a leading voice on counterinsurgency, will ascend to Panetta' post atop the CIA.
Assuming they are confirmed, the three men will assume their new positions at a critical juncture in America's military mission abroad. Osama Bin Laden's death has intensified debate over the future of America's mission in Afghanistan, with Congress narrowly voting down a measure last week that would have accelerated the timeline for withdrawing troops.
As the U.S. diminishes its military presence there, the CIA will likely see an increased role in guiding limited missions like drone strikes. That would ensure that Petraeus' continued role dictating the counterinsurgency strategy in which he is deeply immersed.
Meanwhile, Panetta will need to decide whether to continue the direction forged by his predecessor. Gates set an unconventional precedent as a defense secretary who was wary of unchecked or wasteful defense spending and who favored scaling back U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts, famously noting that any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or the Middle East or Africa should have his head checked.
Absent a catastrophic international conflict or new existential threat, we are not likely to return to Cold War levels of defense expenditures, at least as a share of national wealth anytime soon, Gates said during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that effectively served as the epitaph for his tenure. He added that Iraq and Afghanistan require fundamentally re-shaping the priorities of the Pentagon and the uniformed services and reforming the way they did business.
Dempsey, who is currently the Army's head officer and will become Obama's chief military adviser, has yet to take a public stance on the policy issues he will be inheriting.