So the rumors of recent weeks, about the impending shuffles in President Obama’s national-security team, turn out to be true. And under the circumstances, it’s hard to imagine a shrewder set of moves, both politically and substantively.
The shifts, which Obama is set to announce Thursday afternoon, are these: Leon Panetta replaces Robert Gates as secretary of defense; Gen. David Petraeus (soon to retire* from the military) fills Panetta’s slot as CIA director; Gen. John Allen (Petraeus’ former deputy at U.S. Central Command) takes over from Petraeus as commander in Afghanistan; and Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Iraq (and envoy to Afghanistan), takes over from Karl Eikenberry as ambassador to Kabul.
What’s glaringly obvious about this list is that, except for Gates, who is taking a long-deferred retirement, it’s a game of musical chairs. No fresh talent has been brought into the circle. And one reason for this is that the bench of fresh major-league talent is remarkably thin.
There are plenty of smart, capable analysts and bureaucrats in the Pentagon’s second tier or in the think-tank community—but very few, arguably none, who possess the worldliness, gravitas, intramural hard-headedness, and credibility on Capitol Hill that a president, especially a Democratic president, would like to have in a defense secretary during a time of two wars and ferocious budget fights. Gates, a holdover from George W. Bush’s second term (and a former CIA director and deputy national security adviser during the presidency of Bush’s father), had all that—and made a good fit with Obama’s pragmatic bent, to both men’s surprise.
In the past few weeks, I’ve asked a couple dozen veteran observers—officials, analysts, Hill staffers, other reporters—who they think would be a suitable replacement, from either party’s roster. Nobody could think of anybody. This in itself is a bit disturbing.
Panetta at least comes close. In his time as CIA director, he’s traveled to 30 countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan; in earlier incarnations, he was President Clinton’s budget director and White House chief of staff; he made tough decisions at all three jobs without making many enemies; and he’s respected on the Hill.
The next defense secretary will have to wind down the wars without losing them and will almost certainly have to cut the budget without wreaking havoc in the Pentagon. It’s a nightmare job for anyone, but Panetta has as much experience as anyone at carving out that sort of territory.
Picking Petraeus to run the CIA is a move worthy of chess masters. He’s been a wartime commander of one sort or another for eight years, almost non-stop. It’s time for him to leave the battlefield; that was clear even to him. Yet for much of that time, he’s also been a household name—and widely hailed as the U.S. military’s finest strategic mind in a generation. So the question—which would have been vexing for any president—is: What to do with this guy? Some who are close to the general refer to this question, with a slight smile and a cocked eyebrow, as “the Petraeus problem.”
It is well known that Petraeus has long aspired to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. military. Yet presidents, their advisers, and their Cabinet secretaries tend to be justifiably leery of promoting to that rank any general who is so prominent, ambitious, and intellectually agile. The JCS chairman, at least on paper, has control over the Joint Staff, a multiservice body of nine directorates, consisting of several hundred of the military’s smartest officers. The last chairman who molded the Joint Staff into a coherent, spirited staff—who figured out how to use its collective talents and inside knowledge to pursue policies and win arguments—was Gen. Colin Powell during the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and (briefly) Bill Clinton. Most chairmen since then have been fairly mild-mannered, and that is no accident. One senior military officer put it this way: “Dave Petraeus will never be chairman as long as anyone still in power remembers how Powell ran circles around the interagency process.”
On the other hand, no president can afford to let someone like Petraeus simply retire. Many reporters have speculated (and a few Democrats have feared) that an unloosed Petraeus could run on a Republican presidential ticket in 2012. This is nonsense. First, Petraeus has repeatedly denied that he has such ambitions, and he seems unsuited for them as well. (There is scant evidence of flair as a stump-speaker.) Second, it’s nearly inconceivable, in the post-MacArthur era, that a recently retired general would run against a sitting president. The concept of civilian control over the military really is sacrosanct. (Retired Gen. Wesley Clark made a run for the Democratic nomination, but he’d never served under the Republican incumbent, George W. Bush, and even so, many of his fellow generals regarded his quest as unseemly.)
However, Obama would have to worry that Petraeus could write policy papers for the American Enterprise Institute (where he has many friends); that a paper subtly criticizing, say, the administration’s policy on Afghanistan (or anything) would be widely reported as front-page news; that Obama would be asked about “the Petraeus study” at his next press conference; and that it would compete for the president’s policy as the center of public attention on the issue.
Keeping Petraeus on the inside—in a job that’s related to, but not quite of, the military—is a judicious stroke. And the CIA director is a Cabinet post, a plum one at that. Even if Petraeus were inclined to turn it down, he couldn’t without losing face or looking bitter. But (here’s the bonus) a few people who have talked with Petraeus say he’s excited about the job. And, more than many realize, he’s qualified for it. White House officials have recently been quoted as saying that, as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and as head of U.S. Central Command throughout the Middle East and South Asia, Petraeus has been a frequent “consumer” of high-level intelligence. But throughout his career, he’s been a generator of intelligence too. He ran a clandestine joint task force hunting down terrorists in Bosnia soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, and he had authority over many special-forces missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, too.
Some intelligence veterans are concerned that Petraeus may bring an agenda to the agency. He and the CIA have been at odds in the last year over whether his operations in Afghanistan have degraded the Taliban’s strength; he says they have, the CIA is more skeptical. There will certainly be tensions at the outset of his tenure. But some who have worked with Petraeus say that the worriers underestimate his knack for managing large organizations, or tribal leaders, by reforming and strengthening them from within on their own local terms. (This, after all, is what counterinsurgency, which Petraeus has been practicing for years, is about.)
As for Gen. Allen, there’s good news and bad news. The good: He worked under Petraeus in Iraq, with special focus on reconciling with the Sunni insurgents in the western provinces, and he’s currently deputy head of Central Command, which supervises the entire region. The bad: He’s never worked in Afghanistan per se. He will get several months of intensive pre-training, though, as Petraeus won’t be moving from Kabul to Langley until early September.
The new ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, is the one partial surprise on Obama’s merry-go-round. It’s odd that Eikenberry, who currently holds the job, wasn’t relieved long ago. His famous leaked memo, denouncing Hamid Karzai as an unsuitable strategic partner, was accurate; but once Obama decided to stick with Karzai and escalate the war (for better or for worse), Eikenberry was out of place, and his embassy has been notoriously dysfunctional, as has his relationship both with Karzai’s government and with the U.S. military staff.
Crocker is an unassailable replacement, and one wonders only what pledges Obama made to convince him to come out of retirement. A 37-year veteran of the Foreign Service, Crocker has been ambassador not only to Iraq (where he and Petraeus formed a seamless partnership) but also to Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon. He was also appointed interim envoy to Afghanistan in 2002—the first American to reopen the embassy after the Taliban were ousted from power.
None of this is to say that all will now be right with the world or the wars we’re fighting (or the shortfall of money that we have for that purpose). But the disruptions that unavoidably come with such a massive turnover of military, diplomatic, and Cabinet-level leaders may not be as intense as many anticipate.
*Correction, April 28: This article originally said that Gen. David Petraeus would soon resign from the military. Petraeus will soon retire from the military.