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It Won't Be Pretty, as the Post-Gates Era Begins at the Defense Department

Nothing gets done in the boss’s last day at the Pentagon. It’s all ceremonies and handshakes. In fact, on Thursday, June 30 President Obama stopped by to drop off a Medal of Freedom for departing Secretary Robert Gates.

Tomorrow, the post-Gates era begins -- and it won’t be pretty. 

To hear the White House version of the world today, “Rosy Scenario” should be the next Secretary of Defense. In the past few days, we’ve heard that Al Qaeda is on the ropes; the war in Afghanistan has been won; Qaddafi’s days are number (stop bothering about Libya); the Arab Spring is over; and Iraq is done. On top of that, China, Iran, North Korea and Russia can’t be anything to worry about, because the White House hardly registers any concerns.

Capping off this “I have made the world a safer place so Bob Gates can back to Texas” campaign, the White House also released a new counter-terrorism strategy. It basically declares that the war on terror is mostly now just a mopping-up campaign.

This era of good feelings won’t last long. By contracting counter-terrorism efforts, the U.S. is going to allow Al Qaeda the breathing space to get back in the campaign. While we’re playing whack-a-mole with the terrorists, they’re going to be figuring out how to be better moles. While we draw down too fast in Afghanistan, the Taliban are just waiting to set up base camp for the next 9/11. Meanwhile, all of our other competitors are just content watching America stand down, so they can stand up.

These, however, may not be the first problems hounding the new secretary when he shows up at work. Everyone expects Leon Panetta to be busy figuring out how to jettison missions and gut budgets. More likely, his days will be overwhelmed trying to figure out how to keep the wheels from falling off the force. Winding down in Afghanistan and Iraq won’t help because that won’t free up resources. In fact, the president has argued he’d prefer to put more dollars in stimulus spending.

Readiness is going to be Panetta’s single biggest short-term headache. By the end of this term, he will have to be explaining to Congress why fewer vehicles can make it out of the motor pool, why ships sit in port, and why planes are grounded because of lack of parts.

The president doesn’t worry about Panetta’s new problem because he believes the world will be a quieter place. When Obama showed up with a surprise medal instead of gold watch, Gates quipped that the president was “getting pretty good at this covert ops stuff.” Obama does not see that as a joke. He believes he can manage America’s problems with a few well-placed drone strikes and a few Seal Team Six raids.

He will find that he’s wrong. And when he does, Panetta’s problem will be figuring out how to do a lot more with a lot less.

James Jay Carafano, Deputy Director, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.