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Inside the Ring: Panetta’s future

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Tuesday's re-election of President Obama triggered immediate speculation about the future of Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who will turn 75 in June. Mr. Panetta, defense secretary since June 2011, has had a long career in government and is said by associates to be ready to return to private life in Northern California, where he frequently visits and owns land.

Asked about the secretary's future, Pentagon spokesman George Little told Inside the Ring:

"Panetta is honored to serve as secretary, thoroughly enjoys the job, and that's where his focus is. His eyes are now on the [Defense] Department and its missions, not on his personal future."

Pentagon insiders say Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter is known to be eager to fill the top position at the Pentagon should Mr. Panetta decide to step down. Mr. Carter was the Pentagon's acquisitions undersecretary from 2009 until October 2011, when he became the No. 2 official.

Another candidate for defense secretary is said to be Michele Flournoy, who held the post of undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to February.

Both Mr. Carter and Ms. Flournoy were officials during the administration of BillClinton and favor liberal defense policies similar to those of Mr. Panetta's.

Mr. Panetta said in a statement to Pentagon employees on Wednesday that throughout the presidential campaign, "we at the Department of Defense have been squarely focused on our mission of defending the nation."

"Now that the campaign is over, we will stay just as focused on that critical mission," he said, as the Pentagon prepares to grapple with a looming $660 billion cut in defense spending mandated by Congress in the coming months.

Ms. Flournoy is a supporter and friend of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also is expected to step down after logging more than 900,000 miles of travel.

Should Mrs. Clinton move on from Foggy Bottom, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice is expected to be named as her replacement.

However, Ms. Rice is likely to face a bruising confirmation battle before the Senate over her public comments calling the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, the result of spontaneous anti-U.S. demonstrations.

Defense Flexibility

Now that President Obama has won re-election, national security members and aides in Congress are bracing for the president's pre-election promise to Russian leader Dmitri Medvedev to show "more flexibility" in talks with Moscow on missile defenses and other strategic issues.

Mr. Obama was overheard during a summit meeting in Seoul in March telling Mr. Medvedev that he needed Russia to back off from applying pressure on him and his administration to make concessions in missile-defense talks on U.S. and European defenses in Europe.

The president said he needed space "particularly on missile defense" because "this is my last election ... after my election, I have more flexibility."

Mr. Medvedev responded by telling Mr. Obama he would "transmit this information to Vladimir" -- current Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The comments sparked widespread concern among House Republicans, including Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of California, who sought answers from the White House on the issue but to date have received none.

The issue of a president making a secret assurance to a foreign leader is unprecedented. Yet no news outlet or reporter who has interviewed the president since the March comments has asked him what he meant by the secret promise of flexibility.

As guaranteed by the president, missile-defense talks with Russia have been on hold and are expected to resume in the coming weeks.

Future flexibility with Russia was outlined recently by Frank A. Rose, deputy assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance. He said in a September speech in Berlin that despite differences with Russia, missile-defense cooperation remains a presidential priority.

Mr. Rose said the administration "cannot agree" with Russian proposals to create "sectoral" or "joint" missile defenses because they that would undermine NATO defenses.

"Furthermore, we cannot accept Russia's demand for legally binding guarantees that our missile defenses will not threaten Russia's strategic deterrent," he said.

"Russia's demand that such guarantees include a set of 'military-technical criteria' would create limitations on our ability to develop and deploy future missile-defense systems against the evolving ballistic-missile threats presented by Iran and North Korea."

He insisted the United States would not place "artificial limits on our ability to defend ourselves, our allies, and our partners."

However, the administration is set to agree to a "political framework for cooperation" that would include a statement that U.S. and NATO missile defenses are not "oriented toward Russia," he stated.

Mr. Rose said one area of growing cooperation was allowing Russia to join a regional missile-defense exercise with NATO held earlier this year.

Other "ideas and approaches for transparency" were made to Moscow as part of confidence-building measures he did not specify.

Congress recently passed legislation blocking the administration from sharing classified missile-defense data with the Russians.

China brass

U.S. intelligence agencies are closely studying the new military lineup at the top ranks of the People's Liberation Army.

Two new Chinese military leaders were announced Sunday for the most powerful military posts in the communist system: vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission, the organ that holds ultimate political power referred to by founder Mao Zedong as "the barrel of a gun."

Commission vice chairmen in the past almost exclusively were chosen from the army's infantry forces.

But the new commission vice chairmen, Gen. Fan Changlong, until recently commander of the Jinan military region, and Gen. Xu Qiliang, a former air force commander, represent a major shift for the party-run People's Liberation Army.

Gen. Fan is an artillery advocate, and Gen. Xu is an air-power specialist. It also was the first time a regional commander, Gen. Fan, was moved directly to the vice chairmanship without first spending time as one of the 12 members of the military commission.

According to state media, the appointments reflect Chinese military reform efforts aimed at shifting from traditional ground-force-dominated troops to what Beijing calls "informationized" forces that employ high-technology weapons, intelligence and other military capabilities similar to those used by the U.S. military.

Gens. Fan and Xu will be in charge of all Chinese military operations once the two men they are replacing, Gen. Guo Boxiong and Gen. Xu Caihou, leave the commission following this week's major 18th Communist Party Congress.

The new officers are a sign China's military forces will continue to emphasize missiles and air power. Chinese missile forces are called the 2nd Artillery Corps.

The last remaining leadership question is who will become the commission chairman. In the past, outgoing Party leader Jiang Zemin held on to the chairmanship for two years, until it eventually was taken by current chairman and party leader Hu Jintao.

Speculation from China has hinted that Mr. Hu may step down from the military commission right away, enabling party successor, current Vice President Xi Jinping, to take it without delay.

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