June 30 is U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' final day in office. He is handing the reins over to Leon Panetta, the incumbent director of the Central Intelligence Agency. In this post, Mr. Panetta will be succeeded by Gen. David Petraeus, who currently leads the NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
This reshuffling is part of a government shake-up masterminded by President Barack Obama. His hope is that the incoming defense secretary, dubbed "the Surgeon," will be able to mend the Pentagon's ailing finances.
The CIA: U.S. defense secretaries' alma mater
Few nominees for cabinet positions receive universal approval in the U.S. Senate. Mr. Panetta is one of the rare exceptions. The senators voted unanimously in his favor at the June 21 confirmation hearings. The fact that he once left the Republican Party in order to join the Democrats in 1971 may have played a positive role.
Gates, by contrast, who moved to the Pentagon from the CIA in 2006, has always been loyal to Republican presidents. He resigned after Democrat Bill Clinton arrived in the White House and returned only when George W. Bush took over.
A career intelligence officer, Gates could lead effectively under any president, given his diligence and commitment to staying the course. It will be remembered that he went along with Bush's plan to deploy a U.S. missile defense shield in Europe, but readily reconfigured his vision with the advent of Obama.
The Senate's unanimous approval of Panetta suggests that both Democrats and Republicans support the Obama administration's current policies on Afghanistan.
Both parties realize only too well that U.S. service personnel will not be able to leave Afghanistan and Iraq as scheduled under the administration's initial exit plan. So the question now is just what kind of role the remaining American troops should assume once their military mission is over. Should they become advisors, instructors, aides?
As a CIA man, Panetta has always been rather skeptical about the Pentagon's capacity to lead Afghanistan all the way to peace and democracy. According to the U.S. media, the Obama administration has now entered into unofficial negotiations with Taliban leaders over the possibility of brokering a peace with a view to American withdrawal. If these reports are true, the choice of Panetta as the new Pentagon chief looks absolutely appropriate.
The doctor is in: Fixing the Pentagon's budget
Panetta will have to begin his Pentagon service by addressing the department's overstretched budget. The 73-year-old boasts vast experience in the financial sector. At one time, he was head of the House's Appropriations Committee. He also ran the White House Office of Management and Budget under Clinton. Hence, he should be more than familiar with the inner budgetary workings of the U.S. government.
Obama is now desperately looking for ways to cut Pentagon spending. By the end of July, Congress is expected to have its say on a plan to raise the national debt ceiling. If the limit is not raised, the U.S. government may end up broke.
As of today, the U.S. debt ceiling is fixed at $14.3 trillion. But actual debt has already topped $14.32 trillion, forcing the administration to propose raising the limit to $14.7 trillion.
Panetta is renowned as an efficient budget cutter. Throughout his career, he has unfailingly managed to streamline costs. That kind of experience is vital to Obama's forthcoming election, the focus of which is expected to turn to financial issues, including the budget deficit ($1.4 trillion), the staggering national debt ($14 trillion), minimum wage, and welfare benefits.
The Pentagon's budget is first on the chopping block. Gates managed to reduce the department's spending by $400 billion for the next decade, but Obama wants to at least double that figure. Panetta is clearly the right man for the job at a time that calls for tough fiscal decisions. Such decisions are essential to the nation as well as to its present leader, who hopes to be reelected in 2012.
More expensive than the last world war
Brown University, which is part of the Ivy League along with Yale, Princeton, and Harvard, recently released a report on the costs of the U.S. "war on terror" starting from September 11, 2001. Research fellows at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies say that the amount of money the United States has spent on its campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan over the last decade - $1.3 trillion overall - is just the tip of the iceberg.
According to their estimates, if the war on terror were to end somewhere between 2012 and 2014, the aggregate expenses would likely reach $3.7 - 4.4 trillion - an amount comparable to the U.S.' overall expenditures on WWII, which the Congressional Budget Office reports at $4.1 trillion. The sum in question includes Pentagon and CIA costs, homeland security costs, victim compensation payments, allocations for medical treatment of injured service personnel, and other related expenditures.
As for human loss, Brown University has gathered all official statistics on casualties among U.S. service personnel and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan and then compared those figures to the ones cited by Afghan authorities and international organizations.
According to the University's findings, 225,000 - 258,000 people have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since the launch of U.S. military campaigns (in 2003 and 2001, respectively); 6,100 of those killed were serving under the American military. At least 14,000 civilians in Afghanistan and 125,000 in Iraq have lost their lives as a result of U.S.-led operations.
Many NGOs question the credibility of these figures, claiming that the actual losses are twice as heavy. They add that about 8 million Afghans and Iraqis have been forced to flee their homes and become refugees as a result of the U.S. campaigns.
That may be a fair point to make, but at least the refugee issue exceeds the scope of the new Defense Secretary's responsibilities.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.