The president is moving former ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker to Afghanistan, sending CIA director Leon Panetta to the Pentagon and moving General David Petraeus to the CIA. What to make of this?
There is unanimity among conservative analysts that Crocker is the ideal person for Afghanistan and frankly should have gone there when Petraeus replaced Gen. Stanley McCrystal. He was a critical player in the successful outcome in Iraq.
Sending Panetta to the Defense Department might be the lesser of many evils. Yes, he’s a bean-counter from the Clinton administration (where he headed the Office of Management and Budget), but he has sounded serious on Iran and has, to the best of his ability, defended the CIA from investigations and onslaughts from the Justice Department. In short, Obama could have done worse.
But the real issue is Petraeus. Conservative analysts and former government officials are not terribly worried about what will happen on the ground in Afghanistan. One former NSC official told me that Lt. Gen. John Allen, who was named to replace Petraeus as commander in Afghanistan, “is highly capable and a suitable successor.” Nevertheless, as Peter Feaver writes at Foreign Policy, Petraeus’s ability to defend the war to the White House is not easily duplicated:
To be sure, making the case for an unpopular conflict to Congress and the news media is an important part of the commander’s job. This was one of General Petraeus’s strongest suits. His demonstrated capacity in this area is one of the reasons the Iraq surge turned out as well as it did.
But should it be the commander’s job to make the case for the war to his skeptical superiors in the White House? After all, he is executing their war, the war that their President (our President) said was a “necessary war.” Would a story like this even make sense in other policy domains: “HHS Looking to Pick a Health Czar Who Can Persuade the White House that Obamacare is Worth the Cost?”
For that matter, shouldn’t the White House bear the largest load for making the case for Afghanistan to skeptics in Congress, the news media and, by extension, the American people?
Well, yes. But we go to war with the commander in chief we have.
However, there is more rumbling about Petraeus being sent to the CIA. First of all, many defense experts contend he was unfairly deprived of the job he was entitled to and best suited for, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. One conservative with whom Petraeus consulted about the move told me, “It’s a disgrace he’s not getting chairman — petty jealousies within military and from White House.” He also observed that putting Petraeus at the CIA “takes him out of play from the Obama point of view” (either as a candidate or a vocal public critic). Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute e-mailed me regarding the move: “It’s not a waste but it clearly is a way of avoiding giving him the job he clearly deserves, which is chairman of the Joint Chiefs.”
Others speculate that Petraeus doesn’t fully appreciate what he is getting into at an agency infamous for insubordination, leaks and foot-dragging. One former national security official put it this way: “The history of CIA directors is typically either they try and fix the place and get stabbed in the back by the employees or they just leave things alone and come away as a ‘beloved former director.’ ” He added, “Can you imagine the situation in which Petraeus has to operate under [Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper? Presumably, Petraeus also knows that folks at the Agency are famous for not taking orders; good luck operating in that snake pit.”
But there is also concern about Petraeus’s views on the Middle East. He spent days walking back a remark on Israel, seemingly mouthing the criticisms of the U.S.-Israel relationship (namely, that it puts Americans at risk). Interestingly, in his recent piece defending the U.S.-Israel relationship, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren specifically points to Petraeus’s remark.
And it is not merely Israel. A former NSC official tells me that when Petraeus was head of CENTCOM he did not demonstrate a sense of urgency on Iran and was pro-engagement with Syria. The official also fears that Petraeus will “probably now adopt the consensus view at Langley that we have plenty of time, that Iran may not even be seeking nuclear weapons and that it all can be taken care of via covert means.”
In other words, Crocker to Afghanistan is a plus and replacing Robert Gates (who has become increasingly cranky and publicly dismissive of the use of American military force) with Panetta is about as good a swap as defense hawks might get. But Petraeus to CIA? Great general; wrong job.