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Politics

Obama Will Have Big Boots to Fill at Pentagon

The next defense chief must deal with war, budget cuts and the 2012 elections.

President Obama is about to confront a major defense test, one that is vital to the country and will affect his 2012 reelection campaign.

It’s not about getting into Libya or getting out of Afghanistan, though those are also high on his list these days.

It’s a decision that’s much closer to home, but it will have an impact on every defense question thousands of miles away.

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The big test: Obama’s pick to replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from President George W. Bush’s cabinet who says he will resign this year, most likely in the fall.

It’s a large and difficult role to fill. Gates will leave as military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan continue and as parts of the Arab world boil over. Libya is the current flashpoint, but it’s not likely the last. A big fight over budget cuts will also be on his successor’s plate.

Gates has poured cold water on a no-fly zone in Libya and dismissed ramped-up rhetoric for it from senators and armchair generals who won’t have to be held accountable for the results, strategic decisions, collateral casualties and aftermath.

Gates already has called his successor to have his or her “brain examined” before agreeing to another large military commitment in western Asia and the Arab world unless U.S. national security interests are directly at stake.

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He also has set the course for significant defense spending reductions, including terminating or trimming large weapons programs. He’s ordered service branches to find budget savings to draw down spending. And he’s started a defense contracting reform effort aimed at reducing expensive projects, ruffling many feathers in the defense industry and leaving the smoothing-over to his successor.

So who is on the president’s list to replace Gates?

Start with former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who served on the Senate Armed Services Committee and saw combat in Vietnam. Another plus, in an era when spending is under a microscope, is his penchant for Pentagon accountability.

Hagel would sail through the confirmation process in the Senate. Obama, for his part, could cite choosing Hagel as an example of putting policy ahead of politics.

Another prospect: Retiring Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, who was Navy secretary under President Reagan. Webb is outspoken and a bit of a maverick, more intellectually inspired than politically motivated. He is not always in step with Obama, calling, for example, for a more clearly defined strategy for pulling out of Afghanistan.

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There is one downside to a Webb appointment, and it’s a big one. Webb’s replacement through the 2012 election would be appointed by Virginia’s governor, a Republican. With control of the Senate well within reach of Republicans next year, Obama may hesitate to give the GOP an upper hand in the race in a state he hopes to carry again in his bid for a second term.

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Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, falls into the same category -- steeped in policy and possessing stellar credentials but in line to have a GOP governor fill his seat. There’s some question whether the West Point graduate would be willing to give up his life in the Senate to step to the front lines of a major budget battle, but you can expect the White House to gauge his interest.

the onetime Democratic vice presidential candidate who spurned Obama and backed GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the 2008 White House race. Lieberman is deeply schooled in defense and homeland security issues, and would take the Pentagon job in a snap. But his confirmation would require some hand holding by the White House to convince angry Democrats to back him. The move would further alienate the party’s antiwar liberals and progressives, who were vital to Obama in the 2008 race and will be needed again next year.

Forget former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who also served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is retired from public service and intends to stay that way. Another nonstarter is the current Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton. She’s content being the nation’s top diplomat.

On paper, Gen. David Petraeus seems a solid choice, but Obama is likely to lean toward a civilian manager for the military.

Finally, here’s a long shot: former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The onetime GOP presidential contender is a homeland security rock star, and he would take the job in a New York minute. He has been a loud and frequent critic of Obama and the Democrats, though, which would make him a tough sell when the president goes calling for Democratic votes for his confirmation.

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