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Obama Says New National Security Team Will Maintain Focus

President Barack Obama said his nominations of CIA Director Leon Panetta to take over the Pentagon and General David Petraeus to lead the spy agency will maintain a focused national security mission.

Obama also named veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker as the next U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Lieutenant General John Allen to replace Petraeus as commander of U.S. and allied forces there.

“I cannot think of a group of individuals better suited to lead our national security team during this difficult time,” Obama said today at the White House. “They are leaders of enormous integrity and talent who have devoted their lives to keeping our nation strong and secure.”

The realigned national security team, if confirmed by the Senate, would assume leadership of the changing U.S. role in Iraq and Afghanistan and addressing the violence and unrest in Northern Africa and the Middle East. They also will be in position to follow through on security priorities they helped form as Obama heads into an election year.

“The big message here is no change in policy, and that means a careful and centrist approach on national security issues,” said John Ullyot, who worked on the Republican staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee and is now a senior vice president at Hill & Knowlton in Washington.

Troop Reductions

Troop reductions are planned to begin in Afghanistan in July, with the withdrawal of an unspecified number this year. The military is also winding down in Iraq. The U.S. is taking a measured role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s mission in Libya. At the same time, and with possible threats remaining from Iran and North Korea, Obama has ordered new cuts in national security spending.

“We confront urgent challenges,” the president said.

Panetta, replaces Robert Gates, who previously announced he intended to leave this year. Obama said Gates, the lone holdover in Obama’s Cabinet from the George W. Bush administration, is “one of the finest” defense secretaries in U.S. history.

Gates’s resignation will be effective June 30 and Panetta is expected to take over July 1, pending Senate confirmation.

Panetta, 72, a California Democrat who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993 and then as budget director and White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, has been CIA director since February 2009.

Central Command

Before taking his position as top U.S. commander in Afghanistan last summer, Petraeus, 58, was the head of U.S. Central Command with responsibility for the Middle East and Central Asia. He will retire from the military before taking the CIA post in September.

Panetta and Petraeus “will provide important continuity of leadership, policy and philosophy,” said Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who leads the Foreign Relations Committee.

The timing for Crocker’s nomination hasn’t been set. Crocker, 61, served as ambassador in Iraq from 2007 to 2009 and was the top U.S. diplomat in Pakistan before that. He is dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

Allen’s Role

Allen is the deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, based in Florida. He filled in as acting commander last year when Obama put Petraeus in charge of the war in Afghanistan.

Allen will serve as special assistant to Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the interim to prepare for assuming the post in Afghanistan on Sept. 1.

The president’s choices are likely to get bipartisan support in the Senate during the confirmation process. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that all four appointees are “experienced people with unique capabilities,” and that he “could not be more pleased with these selections.”

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