Is a Postelection Position Change Coming at the Pentagon?

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WASHINGTON — Following U.S. President Barack Obama’s re-election Nov. 6, Washington was abuzz with speculation of potential candidates for various Cabinet positions, including defense secretary.

Current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has made no indication that he would step down any time soon, but many defense insiders say Panetta wants to return to his home in California, where his wife, Sylvia, runs the Panetta Institute for Public Policy.

Names — such as Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, former Pentagon policy chief Michèle Flournoy, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel — have all been floated as potential candidates for the Pentagon’s top post. But defense experts believe the best way ahead for the Pentagon, which is facing $500 billion in budget cuts in the next decade, is consistent leadership at the top.

That would mean Panetta — who has been the Defense Department’s most vocal champion against these cuts — sticking around until the sequestration situation is figured out and as new commanders rotate in at some of the combatant commands.

“You can’t just bring somebody in and expect them to be up to speed in a couple of weeks,” said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine major general, former Senate Armed Services Committee staffer and current member of the Pentagon’s Defense Business Board.

Panetta has credibility within the military and in Congress and oversaw the development of a new defense strategy, which was released this year.

Sequestration would affect the Pentagon’s five-year spending plan, which is in development. Other looming national security issues include the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, a civil war in Syria, the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and Iran’s continued stockpiling of nuclear material.

These factors, Punaro said, are why a change in top leadership could be difficult in the coming months.

“When you’re in a sea state of five and 30-foot waves are breaking over the ship and you’re heading into the perfect storm, that’s not when you basically tell the helmsman and the captain of the ship, ‘Why don’t you retire … and try to parachute a new helmsman and captain [onto the] ship?’” Punaro said.

“Secretary Panetta certainly has earned a well-deserved opportunity to get back to his California home full time, but hopefully, as the great public servant that he is, he’d be willing to stay at the helm of the ship and get it through the perfect storm … until we get from a typhoon sea state back to calm waters,” Punaro said.

Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said Panetta is focused on the mission at hand.

“There’s always a temptation shortly after an election to engage in what I call ‘Washington parlor games’ and to speculate about personnel changes that may or may not occur in the future,” he said during a Nov. 8 press briefing. “Secretary Panetta is focused squarely on his job today. He’s focused on the missions of the Department of Defense, and he’s not focused on his personal future.”