Obama's national security challenge deepens

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

WASHINGTON -- Barely a week after winning re-election, President Barack Obama must confront a deepening challenge in assembling a new national security team, his task complicated by a scandal that has cost him a CIA chief and raised doubts about his Afghanistan War commander.

Difficult questions from Congress, potentially bitter confirmation hearings and a scandal of infidelity and inappropriate emails are shaping the fight ahead. The White House portrayed a president focused on the economy and confident in his military and intelligence leadership, but not thrilled.

When asked if the personnel troubles were an unwelcome distraction, presidential spokesman Jay Carney said, "I certainly wouldn't call it welcome."

Obama already was expecting to have to replace his chief diplomat, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and perhaps Leon Panetta, defense secretary. Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner also is leaving.

Now Obama is without his CIA director, David Petraeus, the once-acclaimed military general in Iraq and Afghanistan who resigned in disgrace last week over an extramarital affair.

"It's a hard moment for the administration," said Joshua Rovner, an associate professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. "It certainly wasn't expected, but if anything good comes out of it, they do have a chance to take a long, hard look at strategy."

He noted that Petraeus had taken on such revered status for his military career that he won confirmation as CIA chief with little scrutiny.

When Clinton leaves, a favorite to replace her is Susan Rice, an Obama loyalist who serves as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She could face a bruising confirmation hearing given that she was the first face of the administration's maligned explanation of the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

"She's clearly going to have a little more difficult time than she would have if she hadn't gone out on all those talk shows," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the second-ranking Senate Republican. Kyl is retiring at year's end and likely would not get a vote on Rice, but he said, "As of right now, I wouldn't support her."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Rice could have a difficult time winning confirmation, although he didn't take a position.

"I'm concerned about the fact that she went on Sunday shows and said it was the product of a spontaneous uprising as opposed to a terrorist attack. Why did they wait so long to publicly ... change their position on it?" Rubio said.

The other top candidate for the State job is Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who is expected to be confirmed easily by his chamber colleagues. His departure from the Senate, though, could potentially cost Obama's party a seat by creating an opening for the man who just lost the other Senate seat, Scott Brown.

How long Panetta will lead the defense agency is yet another unknown for Obama. The Pentagon chief recently has indicated a willingness to stay on for at least some of Obama's second term.

When asked whether he would rule out staying for all of Obama's second term, Panetta said: "Who the hell knows?"

Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Julie Pace and Bradley Klapper contributed to this story.

Follow Ben Feller at www.twitter.com/BenFellerDC

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